I recently ordered a very old book called Make This Your Canada. It was written in 1943 by David Lewis, a future leader of the NDP, and Frank Scott, a leading socialist thinker. There's a citation on the first page from French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès: "Take from the altars of the past the fire, not the ashes."
I wanted the book because it was considered a manual of the left in those times. It would provide an idea of the party's thinking then as compared to now.
There is no comparison. By the standards of what the party was then, today's New Democrats are a temperate, middling lot, perhaps better described as New Liberals. As a consequence, they are bringing all kinds of existential anxiety to the Grits, which was evident Sunday when candidates in the federal leadership debate tried to distance themselves from the Dippers. They have no choice. In the past, the contrasts were evident. Vote-splitting wasn't nearly as big a concern.
How far has the NDP come? As the words by Mr. Lewis and Mr. Scott – national secretary and national chairman, respectively, of the party then known as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation – make clear, what the party envisioned back then was a radically new society.
"The CCF," they wrote, "would replace capitalist ownership by social ownership." The party, if elected, would establish a national planning commission to arrange for the production, distribution and exchange of all goods and services necessary to the efficient functioning of the economy. It would take over private banks. Public utilities would be socialized. And the Athabasca oil sands would be put under public ownership.
In the election of 1945, the CCF won 28 seats. With time, the party's ideals were slowly but surely discarded. In some cases – medicare being one example, gains of organized labour being another – goals were realized. But any broader challenge to capitalism came to be regarded as a futile electoral pursuit.
Some hard-liners – those who took the fire, to cite Jaurès – remained. The Waffle movement of the late 1960s held to many tenets of Make This Your Canada. Well into the Jack Layton era, diehards such as James Laxer lamented the party's tepid trajectory from an advocate of public ownership to a defender of social programs. Ed Broadbent, who moderated the party to some degree under his own leadership, has warned of further moderation under Thomas Mulcair, himself a long-time Liberal. But having replaced the Liberals as the Official Opposition in the last election, New Democrats aren't arguing with success.
Canadian conservatives followed a much different path. At the time of the CCF and beyond, they were a more centrist and progressive version of what they are today. Their idealists, the right-wing purists, were viewed for the longest time as a fringe group. But they never went away and, following the rise of the Reform movement, they were able, via the 2003-2004 merger, to take over the party.
The upshot of it all? While it used to be that the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives were described as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, nowadays that same descriptive better applies to the Liberals and the NDP. While there are certainly policy differences, they are not nearly what they used to be.
The new reality creates a pressing need for the Liberals to demarcate themselves. In the leadership debate, the candidates, with rare exception, failed to do that. They trotted out one platitude after another. They pronounced themselves as believing in equality of opportunity. As a follow to that dangerously radical notion, they came forward with a call – get ready for the lawsuits! – for "more consultation" with Canadians.
"We have disconnected ourselves from our grassroots," offered Justin Trudeau. Well, he may have forgotten that Michael Ignatieff grassrooted himself for the entire summer of 2010 on his much-ballyhooed Canada-wide bus tour. It produced nothing but fudge.
At one time, when the NDP was a true party of the left, the Liberals were able to get away with fudge. Now the game has changed. Fudge will no longer do.