The NDP--1: Can It Break the Liberal/Conservative Monopoly of Power?

By Stevenson, Garth | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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The NDP--1: Can It Break the Liberal/Conservative Monopoly of Power?


Stevenson, Garth, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


The Canadian general election of May 2, 2011, was perhaps the most dramatic and surprising general election in 90 years. The closest parallel is 1921, when an entirely new party, the Progressives, won 64 out of 235 seats in the House of Commons and the Conservatives, who had governed Canada for 34 of the 54 years since Confederation, emerged with only 50. But the Progressives' impressive showing in 1921 proved to be a flash in the pan, partly because they unwisely refused to designate one of their members as Leader of the Opposition. Deeply divided and disorganized, the party lost most of its seats at the next election, and most of its remnants were eventually absorbed by Mackenzie King's Liberals.

The New Democratic Party, despite its name, is not a new party, having celebrated its 50th anniversary three months after the election, and it is obviously a better organized and more coherent entity than the Progressives ever were. It also won a larger percentage of the seats in the House in 2011 than the Progressives did in 1921 (33 per cent as opposed to 27 per cent), and a larger percentage of the popular vote (31 per cent as opposed to 23 per cent). Most significantly, it has widespread support on both sides of the great divide between anglophone Canada and Quebec. This is something that no "third party" has ever achieved with the possible and short-lived exception of Social Credit in the 1960s, which like the NDP in 2011 won more than half its seats in Quebec in 1962 after failing to make a significant impact there in any previous election.

The question that many Canadians began to ask themselves as soon as the dust of the election campaign had settled was whether the NDP (unlike the Progressives and Social Credit) would actually succeed in consolidating its position as one of two major alternatives in a new party system. The tragic death in August of NDP leader Jack Layton, who was rightly given practically all of the credit for the party's breakthrough in Quebec, has naturally reinforced this uncertainty, since the NDP has shallow roots in Quebec and its organization there is practically nonexistent. A second question almost automatically arises from the first: What will be the consequences for Canadian government and politics if the NDP does in fact succeed in breaking the Liberal/Conservative monopoly of power that has lasted since the achievement of responsible government in the mid-19th century?

Roots of the NDP breakthrough

If the NDP succeeds, it will be the realization of a dream with deep roots in Canadian history. Even in the 19th century, there were Canadians who argued that the differences between the two traditional parties were essentially meaningless and that a fresh alternative was needed to revitalize the political system and replace the sordid politics of brokerage and patronage with a politics of idealism and reform. The Canada First movement, which existed for almost a decade after Confederation, and the Patrons of Industry, who elected two members of Parliament from Ontario in 1896, were early expressions of this sentiment. So were the occasional Labour candidates who mounted the hustings in the years before the First World War.

Laurier's acceptance, in practice, of Macdonald's National Policy for most of his time in office reinforced this discontent, particularly in western Canada. But the First World War was the most important catalyst for change, for at least two reasons. First, it involved the federal state in people's lives to a greater extent than ever before, with the War Measures Act, military conscription, income tax, wage and price controls, the internment of "enemy aliens," the sordid manipulation of the franchise in the election of 1917 and the restriction of movement in and out of the country. Second, the coalition between the Conservatives and, outside of Quebec, most of the Liberals persuaded many Canadians that the differences between those parties had been artificial and meaningless all along.

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