From an ideological perspective, the New Democratic Party made itself largely irrelevant by successfully pressing the socialist task defined 80 years ago by James Shaver Woodsworth, the saintly and pacific Methodist minister (and Methodist minister's son) who founded the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932. The CCF defined its task the following year in the famous Regina Manifesto: "No CCF government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism."
The CCF never got to form a federal government, of course, and it never got to eradicate capitalism. But it got most of what it wanted without forming a government or nationalizing the economy. Indeed, eight decades later, the NDP can find little left to champion other than the relentless pursuit of incremental increases in government spending.
As it happened, it was much easier to control industries than to buy them and run them. As it happened, it was much easier to create a central bank than to take over a bunch of commercial banks and manage them. In each case, legal ownership was not necessary for "social control," the ubiquitous euphemism for socialist control. Commercial enterprises do as governments tell them to do – because governments award the licences and the permits and the contracts that they need to operate, and because governments levy the taxes that confiscate "profit," which (as every progressive knows) is the ultimate social evil. The fundamental purpose of the CCF, as the Regina Manifesto expressly put it, was "the supplying of human needs and not the making of profit."
Human needs, alas, are endless; profits, sadly, aren't. Rather than seize all the profits for purposes of social control, governments learned that you could achieve the same result by seizing only a part of them, a principle that worked for working-class wages, too – although the manifesto did anticipate an end to income taxes when sufficient corporate profits were finally confiscated. (But first, the manifesto conceded, a "drastic" increase in workers' incomes taxes would be temporarily required.) Under the relentless pressure of the CCF and NDP, Liberal and Conservative governments expropriated more and more of Canada's GDP. In 1932, governments spent roughly 20 per cent of it; in 1980, roughly 50 per cent – halfway, or more, to heaven on Earth. The temporary taxes turned predictably interminable.
These percentages of government's share of GDP are deceptive, counting only the money directly spent by governments and ignoring pass-along costs imposed through regulation. You probably wouldn't be far off the mark to say that at least 60 per cent of the Canadian economy had been effectively placed, either directly or indirectly, under "social control."
Governments have backed down a bit, partially because the NDP – the heavy lifting done – has moderated its mission. The public mood had become antagonistic. As the NDP leadership race has demonstrated, socialism in the 21st century mostly means relentless tweaking. Socialist education? Increase investment, please. Socialist medicine? More funding for more ailments, please. Government pensions? Pay up, please. Unemployment insurance? Extend payouts, please. A financial transaction tax? Absolutely. Higher energy taxes? Obviously. More stimulus spending? Bring it on. And how will we pay for these incremental expenses? From corporate profits, naturally.
Oddly enough, the New Democrats have abandoned one of the Regina Manifesto's most important radical policy objectives: free trade. The socialists took a much more global view of things than does than the more reactionary NDP. Tariff barriers must be removed, the manifesto said – especially from agricultural production. It asserted that Canada's export trade had been strangled by "insane protectionism." It called for the negotiation of free-trade agreements around the world. Brian Topp, the leadership contender who most explicitly champions the party's historic identity, could singlehandedly restore a sense of radical mission by campaigning to end supply management, the protectionist scam that coddles dairy farmers and severely limits Canada's ability to feed the world.
We will hear echoes of the Regina Manifesto this weekend, although talk of the evils of capitalism is a bit much for a coalition of well-paid and well-pensioned (public and private) union members. The nostalgic socialist notions will be mostly left for the Occupiers, a kindred political force. Old-school socialists these days know rhetoric from reality – and recognize clearly that society's vulnerable 99 per cent rely for social control of the country on the productive 1 per cent who toil away diligently at the top.