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Then-New Democratic Party MP Ed Broadbent (C) is applauded by his caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa, May 4, 2005 after announcing he would not seek reelection after 23 years as a parliamentarian and 14 years as leader.JIM YOUNG/Reuters

The voice of Ed Broadbent, the last lion of the old social democrats, the inheritor of a lineage that stretched back to J.S. Woodsworth and that ended with him, is stilled.

In the 1980s, during the tempestuous debates over the Constitution and free trade, it seemed that Mr. Broadbent might become prime minister. He was the federal leader everyone liked, the one people might have voted for, if only he weren’t a socialist.

He wasn’t a socialist, really, not in the classical sense. And though his father worked at General Motors and his mother was a homemaker, he attended the University of Toronto’s exclusive Trinity College and the London School of Economics, earned a PhD, and taught political science at York University. Intellectuals considered him one of them.

But he never lost that hint of a working man’s accent. He represented Oshawa-Whitby, where General Motors was king. He always called himself by his nickname. Never John Edward Broadbent. Good Lord, no. Just Ed.

Obituary: Ed Broadbent took the NDP to new heights, and wished he could have gone higher

He fought for the little guy against the fat cats. He fought for a Canada rooted in farm fields and mining and forestry and heavy industry and manufacturing. He fought for the blue-collar worker at a time when collars were mostly just blue or white.

The New Democrats were new and fragile when Mr. Broadbent was elected to the House of Commons in 1968.

J.S. Woodsworth had forged the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in the depths of the Depression, a party rooted in the Prairie Social Gospel and dedicated to the oppressed working class.

But though he and his successors made some gains, by the early 1960s, the party was on the ropes, which is why Tommy Douglas, Premier of Saskatchewan, agreed to lead the new New Democratic Party, a merger of the old CCF and big labour. But Mr. Douglas made little progress.

In his early years in Ottawa, Mr. Broadbent skillfully navigated the internal fights between pragmatists and idealists, becoming party leader himself in 1975. For the next 14 years, he embraced his predecessor David Lewis’s characterization of the Liberals and the Conservatives as interchangeable – “the Bobbsey twins of Bay Street,” Mr. Broadbent called them – though he worked constructively with Pierre Trudeau to patriate the Constitution.

His glory days came with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative triumph of 1984. The NDP had 30 seats, while the Liberals under John Turner had only 40. Scandals plagued the Conservatives; infighting plagued the Liberals. One poll had Mr. Broadbent’s NDP at 41 per cent.

Had the 1988 election not been centred on the issue of free trade with the United States, who knows what might have happened. Mr. Turner dominated opposition to the deal. On election day, the NDP had its best-ever result – 43 seats – but the Liberals were at 83 and the Tories had another majority government. Disappointed, Mr. Broadbent left the next year.

Yet he remained a presence in federal politics. As the federal party’s fortunes swooned in the 1990s, he was the visible reminder of what New Democrats once had been. When Jack Layton set out to revive the party’s fortunes in the next decade, Mr. Broadbent came back for one term, this time in Ottawa Centre. Then it was a life of writing and speaking and contributing to the think tank named after him.

  • Newly elected Federal MP of Ottawa Centre, NDP Ed Broadbent makes his victory speech at Sala San Marco in Ottawa on June 28, 2004.Tobin Grimshaw/The Canadian Press

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Mr. Broadbent championed the rights of minorities: He was a friend of the immigrant, helped entrench Indigenous rights in the Constitution, made women’s rights a centrepiece of this 1984 election campaign.

And he spoke comfortably with social democratic counterparts in Europe and with his peers on university campuses.

But the NDP, under his leadership and in his time, was a party for the working class in a society based on class. The NDP could still win seats in rural Saskatchewan as well as in Northern Ontario and in Hamilton or Windsor.

Times have changed. We define ourselves or are defined by our identity: our gender, our sexuality, the colour of our skin, our privilege, our oppression. The NDP under Jagmeet Singh reflects that change.

The working stiff doesn’t get as much attention as before, or respect, and if any party works overtime to win their vote, it’s the Conservatives.

They would never have won that vote on Ed Broadbent’s watch.

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