Gerald Caplan is former New Democratic Party national director.
The basis for the welfare state was introduced by the governments of Canada, the U.K. and Western Europe soon after the Second World War. It constituted one of the world’s giant steps toward the goals of social democracy – a more just and civilized society established and maintained (mostly) by the state. Hospital care, doctors, employment, minimum wages, pensions, trade-union rights – all were, to some extent or other, supported by governments.
On the other hand, state support in most jurisdictions was rudimentary at most. These were the first steps being taken on a long, grinding road. Still, given unusual postwar harmony between labour and business, it was anticipated that the many holes remaining in the social-safety net might soon be repaired. In fact, the opposite happened.
This fleeting moment of class co-operation was perhaps too good to last, and it did not. Untrammelled capitalism went on the offensive with a vengeance. Soon, neoliberalism swamped all, demanding austerity for the many in need, unparalleled wealth for the few, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the stamping out of union power. The social-safety net was cruelly shredded, although its achievement remained a tantalizing but unachievable goal for many.
Until now, in the run-up to the Ontario election on June 7. A remarkable phenomenon faces the province. If either the Liberals or the NDP wins – or, as an appealing alternative, if they were jointly to form the next government – the welfare state would almost certainly be enhanced at last. Unprecedented security and peace of mind for the majority would follow. Both parties are making what can only be called thrilling promises of more public dental care, pharmacare, home care, child care, minimum wages and the like. Until just recently, this seemingly irresistible program for human well-being might well have been enough to assure victory for these two parties. But now it might be too late.
Cynicism is one reason. As journalist I.F. Stone memorably insisted, all governments lie. We now call it false facts. Or they act only when they must. Look at Ontario again. The Liberals have been in power since Cain murdered Abel without introducing their new policies. Andrea Horwath has been Ontario NDP leader for nine years and two previous elections without highlighting them. Any sensible voter will wonder if they can trust politicians who make their best promises on the very eve of an election.
As well, for reasons we are just beginning to grasp, the appeal of such programs has lost its lustre compared with the pull of tribal politics, which has cursed us with the Ford brothers in Ontario and Donald Trump south of the border. Bizarrely, many of those who most need the benefits of the welfare state are backing politicians who repudiate those very benefits. They are led by old-fashioned, right-wing zealots dedicated to what economist Paul Krugman calls “zombie economics”: balanced budgets, low taxes for the rich, minimal social programs and weak unions.
The appeal of these regressive ideas makes political strategy deeply problematic for political progressives, who exist – or should exist – to make the lives of ordinary people more secure and tolerable. But if such policies no longer attract those people – you know, the “hard-working middle class” – what have progressives left to offer?
Liberals no doubt will wave the flag of managerial efficiency, though I doubt many will salute the Ontario Liberal government of Premier Kathleen Wynne on this claim.
As for the NDP, at both the federal and provincial levels, the case is even more frustrating. The NDP have been the gold-medal champions of the social democratic welfare state for the past 75 years. But when their Liberal opponents opportunistically offer the same policies, many NDP admirers flee to the Liberals.
Still, what the NDP steadily won over the decades was a reputation for being women and men of integrity whose word can be trusted and whose priority is the well-being of ordinary Canadians. You can even say that’s been the NDP brand: they’re on your side. That’s why the last elections in Ontario and nationally, when the NDP embraced conventional conservative policies, were so devastating to its standing.
The party will have to think very hard and cleverly – and very soon – to win back those citizens, distinguishing themselves from born-again progressive Liberals while neutralizing the appeal of Doug Ford’s populism. As of now, the NDP has a long way yet to go.