"The problem with socialism," said Margaret Thatcher, "is that you eventually run out of other people's money." Winston Churchill was no fan, either. "Its inherent value is the equal sharing of misery," said he. As for that eternal oracle, Alexis de Tocqueville, he was able to contain his enthusiasm as well. Democracy seeks "equality in liberty," he opined, "socialism in servitude."
Good thing that at a convention a couple of years ago, Thomas Mulcair's New Democratic Party voted to remove all references to socialism from the party's constitution. Imagine what heaps of fun the Conservatives could have had with their advertising weaponry. I'm picturing billboards of the NDP boss in olive fatigues, high-fiving Hugo Chavez.
Who knows, they might try that style of bombardment anyway. But it's a much harder sell now. For no less than 80 years, since the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the NDP's forerunner, the party has been deradicalizing, working to rid itself of Marxist bogeymen. It's beginning to look like the NDP has finally done the deed.
It was back in 1933, with the CCF's founding document, the Regina Manifesto, that the alarm bells first went off. "No CCF government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism," the manifesto declared. As former NDP leader David Lewis once put it, the proletariat document "haunted" the party in "a devastating way" for decades to come.
The party's Winnipeg Declaration of 1956 proposed a more moderate form of social democracy, recognizing the importance of the free market. The changeover of the party to the New Democrats in 1961 moved things forward as well. But it was still far from the mainstream. A state planning formation in the clutches of big labour and leftist foreign interests had limited appeal.
What might have dealt a death blow to the party was its near-takeover in the early 1970s by the so-called Waffle group. The young radicals of that day advocated public ownership of the means of production, and self-determination for Quebec. Anti-Americanism was rampant among them, Che Guevara an inspiration.
It took then-party leader Ed Broadbent many years to shuck off a lot of the pinko tint. Harder-line malcontents frequently tried to undermine him. But Mr. Broadbent's way (he was no mushy-middle guy, but hardly Ed the Red, either) saw the NDP make considerable electoral gains.
His support was vital in making Jack Layton the NDP leader in 2003. The late Mr. Layton was Broadbentian in much of his social-democratic thinking, and he modernized the party at the fundraising and organizational levels. The NDP had long-time ties to nationalist elements in Quebec. They paid off strikingly for Mr. Layton in the 2011 federal election when the Bloc Québécois collapsed and the NDP won 59 seats in the province.
What proved critically important was Mr. Layton's reaching out to a Liberal: He recruited Mr. Mulcair, who had resigned from Jean Charest's provincial government. The Mulcair Liberal ties rankled some in the NDP, including Mr. Broadbent who opposed Mr. Mulcair's later bid to lead the party because he felt Mr. Mulcair lacked credentials as a social democrat. "I want the party to remain a left-of-centre party."
But Mr. Mulcair has held the base intact while broadening appeal to the middle of the spectrum. While he's too centrist for some – despite Ottawa's shrinking revenue base, he opposes personal tax hikes – he has won over Mr. Broadbent with his policy orientation. "He has a clear, progressive, left-of-centre agenda," Mr. Broadbent said. It's okay for Mr. Broadbent that the socialist terminology is no longer on the party books. Mr. Mulcair's policies, such as an increased minimum wage, child care, corporate tax increases, cap-and-trade, are sufficient.
The policies give the New Democrats left-side girth, but they're a far cry from the "smash capitalism" days, from knee-jerk, anti-U.S. sentiment, from being in the lock of labour, of high taxes and state planners.
It took eight long decades, but the mellowing out is finally paying off. The New Democrats are now close enough to the mainstream that polling numbers show them within reach of the top rung.