Taking the socialist out of the NDP

Posted on October 8, 2010 in Governance Policy Context

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NationalPost.com – Full Comment/Canada
October 7, 2010.   John Ivison

Jack Layton used to boast about being a socialist. “I’m proud to call myself a socialist. I prefer it by far to democratic socialist,” he said in an interview seven years ago.

Yet when I posed the same question yesterday, he was less strident. “I’m not into labels, but I prefer the description ‘social democrat’. I am the leader of Canada’s social democratic party and proud of it,” he said.

He sounded like former British Labour leader, Tony Blair, who also preferred the “social democrat” tag.

This is appropriate since Mr. Layton is preparing for his own “Clause Four Moment” — a shift that he hopes will symbolize the metamorphosis of an old 20th century socialist party into a vibrant 21st century social democratic party.

As the NDP prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary at a convention next June, senior staff are busy re-writing the preamble to the party’s constitution — a move that was quietly approved by the rank and file at the last convention in Halifax in 2009.

The preamble currently states the NDP believes in the need “to modify and control the operation of the monopolistic productive and distributive organizations through economic and social planning, … where necessary [through] the principle of social ownership.”

One senior New Democrat strategist said that the move is part of a broader “overhaul” of NDP policy and beliefs. “There’s no more mention of a radical overthrowing of capitalism … Socialism is a word we don’t use,” he said.

The editing of the preamble echoes moves made by Mr. Blair, when he became leader of the Labour Party in the mid-1990s. For 80 years, the Labour Party had committed itself to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange,” under its notorious Clause Four. The abandonment of Clause Four by Mr. Blair was seen as a break with the party’s past — the moment Old Labour became New Labour.

The NDP’s move is likely to inflame left-wing rank-and-file members, who already think the party has moved too far toward the centre of the political spectrum.

James Laxer, a political science professor at York University and a former NDP leadership candidate, said the preamble changes reflect a longer term evolution in the party under Mr. Layton.

“The party has moved a long way from any real critical stance about the present economic system and a formal commitment to changing it.

“People say right now ‘what does the NDP stand for?’ It is hard to distinguish between them and the Liberals and some people are asking why we need two parties.”

However, he downplayed the prospect of a merger between the Liberals and the New Democrats. “Organizations have their own culture and part of the NDP culture is that they hate the Liberals,” he said.

A comparative look at the NDP’s 1997 election platform and the raft of policies on the current website reveals just how far the party has moved toward the centre.

Under former leader Alexa McDonough, the party proposed an excess profit tax on financial institutions, which would then finance a National Investment Bank managed by “business, labour, government and the community.” There was much talk of ending privatization and increasing public ownership; of raising corporate tax rates and imposing a “Millionaires’s Tax” on inheritances over $1-million. On foreign policy, the party proposed dissenting from NATO over the use of nuclear weapons.

The image presented today is very different. The “squeeze the rich” rhetoric has been abandoned, in favour of moderate language that tries to reconcile equality and economic well-being. “These goals….are not in conflict, rather they depend on each other. This is likely to be the tenor of the new preamble being written by Mr. Layton’s office.

“This is not the wild, wooly 1970s, when we had to own everything,” said the senior NDP strategist. “We know we need to create wealth and growth in order to allow the Treasury to intervene when it’s prudent and responsible.”

The message is clear — today’s NDP is not your Daddy’s Caddy.

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