For Ed Broadbent, socialism meant providing for average people — and fighting for the cause

Posted on January 28, 2024 in Governance History

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
January 28, 2024.   By Jonathan Sas, Special to the Star

For Ed Broadbent the politics of personality were secondary to ideology and the importance of political ideas.

A state funeral for Ed Broadbent, federal NDP leader for 14 years, is to be held Sunday in Ottawa. A friend pays tribute here.

Ed Broadbent’s integrity, his decency and kindness have animated the outpouring of admiration from across the political spectrum since news of his passing. It is recognition he duly deserves.

I met Ed in 2013, an earnest new policy director at the nascent think tank the Broadbent Institute he then chaired. We became friends (or comrades, as we joked), and formed a bond that would eventually lead to working together on his remarkable new book, “Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality.”

That Ed was adored by many was clear anytime I was in public with him. On street corners, in cafes or in newsrooms, a man who had left the political limelight decades ago still engendered such warmth and excitement. Ed didn’t quite understand people’s desire for selfies; he much preferred to talk to them and hear their concerns and viewpoints.

I have no doubt Ed would appreciate the earnest affection and respect being expressed for his leadership style. But for Ed, the politics of personality were secondary to ideology and the importance of political ideas.

On Nov. 1, Ed gave what would turn out to be his last interview to a national audience. On CBC’s “The Current,” host Matt Galloway asked Ed whether he still considered himself a socialist.

“Yes,” he replied bluntly.

His enduring socialist convictions should come as no surprise. Ed was remarkably consistent through nearly seven decades of interventions in public life.

He was a social democrat (or democratic socialist, he used the two terms interchangeably) because he believed that human freedom and liberty could only flourish on a foundation of substantive equality. His task as leader was to persuade citizens to vote for a social democratic party so that state power could be put in service of building a good society.

I have been reflecting since his death on what drew me so strongly to Ed’s ideas when I first encountered them in the aughts.

I came of age in the ’90s in what is sometimes referred to as the neoliberal age. An era when the free market and the dynamism of the private sector were assumed to be the answer to all that ails us. A time when government was cast as a wasteful and costly intruder that constrained our individual freedom, unions an anachronistic drag on economic growth.

In Ontario where I grew up, Jean Chrétien’s austerity and Mike Harris’s “common sense revolution” meant the gutting of health and environmental regulations, tax cuts for the wealthy, deep cuts to social assistance, health care and education, and the selling off of public assets and services to the private sector.

Questions about whether these decisions being made were broadly good, or fair, or just took a back seat to whether they were efficient, drove “growth,” and whether they advanced the purchasing power of individual consumers and taxpayers.

To those in power, the disastrous effects of this program on people — poverty, inequality, homelessness, the erosion of public trust — was the inevitable if unfortunate result of a lack of personal ambition and resourcefulness.

I found this world view blinkered, selfish, disingenuous.

Ed Broadbent was like a tonic to me and many in my disillusioned generation. Here was someone who, throughout the neoliberal era, refused to accept that inequality was ineluctable.

His belief in universal social programs, his championing of unions and critique of corporate power, his emphasis on the importance of class; all were ideas that felt urgent and refreshing.

New to me, they were grounded in a long and proud tradition to which Ed devoted his life.

For Ed, democratic socialism meant waging a constant battle against the inequality-producing tendencies of the market. It meant institutions that were democratically accountable shaping markets to serve the needs of people not private interests.

Ed was clear-eyed about what was required to pursue greater equality and give people the dignity and resources necessary to enjoy their lives. On the one hand, redistribution of income and wealth through taxes and transfers. On the other, the deliberate removal of certain goods and services from the market entirely.

This process — what he called decommodification — was linked to his conception of social and economic rights. The right to affordable housing and dental care, for example, or to a pension, or even for a worker to unionize, were rights Ed believed ought to be guaranteed rights of citizenship. Being rights, not privileges, they should be available to everyone, just like voting and freedom of assembly are.

“If you have, for example, decommodified childcare or pharmacare,” Ed wrote in his recent book, “then a working family doesn’t have to worry about getting the income to pay for those things. This advances equality.” If you provide goods and services based on a notion of rights rather than capacity to pay, then you liberate people “to make decisions in their lives — to engage in recreation, volunteer work, hobbies, or anything else they choose — because they don’t have to struggle to work for an income just to meet their basic human needs.”

Ed’s vision, however, was far more expansive than merely liberal democracy with a generous welfare state and a dash of public intervention in the economy. True democracy required an activist state engaged in industrial policy, and radical changes to workplace power dynamics, too. Ed advocated for robust worker rights, including influence over management decision making; automatic unionization and access to collective bargaining; and a strong labour movement that could countervail the power of capital and governments.

These ideas were not mere abstractions for Ed. They were informed by constituents he represented for decades in Oshawa, autoworkers at the mercy of management decisions to relocate, trade agreements that eviscerated jobs and undercut workers’ bargaining power. They were connected to his concern for individual freedom, his preoccupation with people having control over decisions that affect them where they spend the majority of their waking lives: their workplace.

Ed’s roots in the working-class trade unionism of his hometown imbued a genuine quality to his class politics. He always knew who he was fighting for. And his determined pursuit of power was never untethered from those constituencies and their struggles. Perhaps that’s why Ed’s appeal to “ordinary Canadians” contrasts so sharply with the ersatz appeals to the working class of a figure like Pierre Poilievre.

He believed that ordinary people, poor and working-class people, knew things he did not. And thus that they were instrumental in how an NDP government under his leadership would wield power.

Ed had respect for other political traditions than his own. His engagement with the viewpoints of opponents and critics was authentic, and held true whether coming from his right or left.

He engaged friends, colleagues, activists, foes and passersby with both a curiosity and seriousness rooted in this respect.

RELATED STORIES:  Here’s what made Ed Broadbent truly stand out

This approach to democratic leadership is what allowed his politics to evolve. He credited social movements and caucus colleagues for stretching the horizons of his conception of rights to incorporate cultural and group rights, including linguistic rights and Indigenous rights. Over the course of his leadership, political demands from the peace movement, the queer rights struggle, women’s liberation movements, Quebec nationalists and various movements for racial equality became part of the NDP’s political program of fighting inequality.

Ed’s evolution on rights laid the foundation for what was perhaps his most profound impact on the country — his crucial role in securing Aboriginal rights in Section 35 of the Charter of Rights.

He came to champion addressing the context-specific barriers and oppression certain groups face. He viewed it as a necessity in any serious pursuit of equality. But dismantling systems of oppression did not mean abandoning the class struggle. In this, Ed was a trenchant critic of the shallower form of identity politics en vogue today.

“Neoliberalism can incorporate a lot of rights, so long as the primacy of the market mechanism is not threatened,” he wrote in his book. “I find this to be a wholly inadequate response to today’s conditions … The battles today over trans rights, or barriers to abortion access, for example, matter immensely for freedom and equality. But it remains my firm belief that substantive equality still requires a fundamental change in the distribution of power and wealth in society along class lines.”

For Ed, altering the inequitable distribution of power could not be limited to politics within national borders. One of the lesser-known dimensions of Ed was that he was a deeply committed internationalist who practised solidarity. He spent nearly two decades as an active member of the Socialist International (SI), 10 of those as a vice-president working closely with its then president, former West German chancellor Willy Brandt.

At the SI, Ed was engaged in important diplomatic efforts in Central America, advancing human rights and advocating for social movements against an imposing current of repressive U.S. foreign policy often arming and propping up violent military regimes.

He also made a major impact as the founding president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. There, his commitment to social and economic rights and the international covenants meant to enforce them would butt up against the tidal forces of global free trade and corporate-driven international development priorities.

Under his leadership, the now-shuttered centre fought against the grain and took on thorny issues in the process, advocating for trade unionists in China, garment worker rights in South Asia, labour and environmental protections in global trade agreements, and against Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories in Palestine.

Ed’s contributions to public life, both intellectually and as a democratic leader, have no real comparator in Canada. His is a rich legacy of socialism, pluralism and internationalism grounded in the belief that ordinary people, through their collective action, are a motive force in social change.

So while Ed most certainly deserves to be remembered for his character, his trustworthiness and his warmth, let’s also remember him for his powerful values and ideals.

Jonathan Sas is a co-author with Ed Broadbent, Frances Abele and Luke Savage of “Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality” available now from ECW Press.

Tags: , , , ,

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 28th, 2024 at 12:44 pm and is filed under Governance History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply