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The Missing Progressive Agenda (and Other Thoughts on the Eve of the NDP Leadership Vote)

The NDP leadership convention begins today. It appears that Thomas Mulcair is the undisputed front-runner, judging from his tremendous lead in support from MPs and other officials, as well as the recent arguments from Brian Topp’s surrogates. This also may mean that Topp is struggling to separate himself from a second tier of candidates that would include some, or all, of Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, and Nathan Cullen (who himself is showing strong fundraising numbers, at least).

The prospect of a Mulcair victory is causing angst amongst some NDP stalwarts, fearing that he plans to move the party to the dreaded “centre”. Meanwhile, pundits are pointing out that the much revered, late Jack Layton, already did that. Cullen joins him on the “change” front, explicitly calling for cooperation with the Liberals in ridings won by the Conservatives last election. The candidates are disagreeing more on process than policy. Topp argues for a more traditional social democratic approach, and to “bring the centre” to the party. Nash and Dewar focus instead on tactics to increase the party’s base of support.

Thomas Mulcair
NDP frontrunner Thomas Mulcair.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Granted, I haven’t paid close attention to the contest, but what seems to be missing is a discussion on what the NDP agenda will look like, or who the voters are that will rally around that and form the core of a majority government, regardless of how aggressively the party moves to the centre (or not). This criticism applies to the Liberals (and Greens) as well, so from here on out, I’ll simply use the term ‘progressive’ as a proxy for any one of these parties. Whoever leads those parties (or whatever progressive parties may emerge through merger/attrition/split from existing ones) will face this challenge.

Brokerage Politics and the Minimum Winning Coalition
Any party that wishes to form and hold a majority government must be a ‘brokerage’ party of some sorts, encompassing identifiable constituencies of voters that are somewhat disparate, but have enough in common. Conservative organizers have understood this in recent years, advancing a strategy to build a minimum winning coalition of voters throughout the country. Progressive parties are lagging here. They understand on the surface that they must, for example, win more seats in the western provinces. Yet, the agenda and tactics to do so in sufficient numbers is missing.

The Missing Progressive Agenda
I understand that parties must occupy the “centre’ to win and hold office, and that it’s better to implement some of your agenda, rather than getting to implement none of it. Nevertheless, while a party must broaden its appeal to win (regularly), successful parties start from a foundation of principles and beliefs that can be easily distilled into an agenda for supporters. Yes, every party has principles it theoretically start from, but how many can explain in a few key themes what they stand for?

In the practical arena of politics, the conservative agenda has been ascendant for some time. It can be roughly distilled into the following ideas:

– lower taxes and regulation (for individuals and business)
– tougher sentences for criminals
– more individual choice in programs, instead of centralized, state-run initiatives
– an overall reduction of the state and its activities (reorienting towards its traditional functions)

Conversely, the contemporary progressive agenda has been in decline, in part because it has been difficult to pin down. Certainly, this camp is not short on ideas, but has struggled for decades to put them into a clear, coherent agenda. Progressive parties have tended to put forward an agenda seen as reactionary (defaulting to limits on trade/globalization, and a knee-jerk instinct to solve every problem with a centralized government program) or neo-liberal (embracing smaller government, and essentially conceding the argument to conservatives that the state is not the vehicle for social good).

I believe it’s a lack of a clear progressive agenda that in large part holds back a potential movement. Anecdotally, I see many of the progressive-minded people I know channeling their efforts into international issues, or politics on a local level. It’s not that they view the federal government as irrelevant, rather I believe there’s nothing engaging them in a meaningful way. They may show up to vote for the NDP (or Liberals or Greens), and in some cases may volunteer time and money, but are not engaged in the same way they are on the aforementioned issues. You can’t build a movement on irregular participation.

Until such time that a progressive agenda can be articulated, and attract a minimum winning coalition, progressives will find themselves in the position conservatives did for much of the 20th century, forming government only when one or both of the following happened – they found a charismatic, popular leader, and/or the dominant party lost support due to poor performance/scandal/voter fatigue, effectively forming government by default. History points to neither strategy being sustainable.

Key Questions
One of the key challenges is that some progressives are still framing issues around paradigms of their post-World War II heyday. Contemporary responses to the following issues, taking into account globalization, deindustrialization, demographic changes, and other phenomena, are long overdue:

– The role of a workforce, in particular unions, vis a vis both the private and public sector.
– The role of the state in funding social programs
– The importance of economic growth versus social and/or environmental costs that may be incurred.

Looking Up at the Calgary Tower
How can progressives win seats in places like downtown Calgary?

Towards a Progressive Agenda
What might a contemporary progressive agenda look like? Here are a few themes, and ideas off the top of my head:

1. Supporting a Triple-Bottom Line Economy
Advancing an economy and strategy for growth that accounts for environmental concerns and stewardship, as well as quality of life.

2. Equity and Opportunity for All
Ensuring equity – fairness and justice – especially in terms of opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background. In particular, it would focus on protection of workers with low job security, people experiencing poverty, New Canadians, and Aboriginal peoples. It would also pursue measures that protect workers, enhance skills of marginalized populations, and ensures fairness in terms of taxation and regulation between citizens and businesses.

3. Federally-Minded, But Community-Oriented
Supporting an agenda that doesn’t retreat from involvement, but does grant more authority and ability to effectively exercise power to local communities – especially municipal and Aboriginal governments. It would also advance greater local authority (but not autonomy) in terms of delivering social programs, recognizing that our federation is heterogeneous, and that needs and best practices may vary from place to place. The federal government’s role would be to lead, but also to set broad targets, strategies, and foster collaboration, rather than retreating to its “traditional” areas of responsibility under the British North America Act.

(For my provincially-oriented progressive views, read this).

Mildred Lake Mine
A balanced approach to the oil sands, and resource extraction, is needed, should progressive want success in the west.

With an agenda along these lines, what would a minimum winning coalition of progressives have to look like? It would lean heavily towards urban environments, winning support in and around Canada’s biggest cities – not just Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, but Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax, among others. It would win heavily on both the Pacific and Atlantic coast, and amongst federally and community-oriented central Canadians. Urban and Aboriginal voters would form its core in the west and north. (For a good primer on different ‘cultures’, read Colin Woodward’s ‘American Nations’. And yes, readers, I’m firmly a disciple of Yankeedom).

Progressives may (correctly in some cases) argue that they already advance causes along these lines, but I’ve yet to see it articulated as a clear, concise agenda. Until a progressive agenda for Canada in the 21st century can be articulated in 3-5 themes, or 30 seconds, supporters like myself can look forward to spending more time in opposition than government.

Stephen Marche said it best, in his assessment of Jack Layton’s legacy:

And yet despite the marked improvement in the numbers, the left has never been in a worse state by the simplest and most meaningful gauge there is: its effect on the lives of Canadians.

While I disagree with aspects of his critique of Jack Layton, on this point, he is absolutely right. Barring a reorientation, and stronger focus on a clear agenda and constituency, progressives can look forward to more of this in years to come.

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