Lessons from Jeremy Corbyn for the NDP

In 2011 the New Democratic Party of Canada unexpectedly experienced what was termed the “Orange Wave” as the party went from 36 MPs to 103. For the first time in its history the NDP formed the official opposition in the federal parliament. This Orange Wave was largely due to spectacular results in Quebec where the party took 59 of 75 seats despite having not entered the election expecting to seriously contend. Indeed, the election day saw results such as the election of the Ottawa bartender Ruth Ellen Brosseau despite the fact that she had taken a break in the middle of the campaign to go on a previously booked vacation to Las Vegas.

The NDP’s surprise success was the product of a couple factors. The Liberal Party had been in decline since Jean Chrétien was made to resign as leader and Prime Minister in 2003 to make way for his impatient rival Paul Martin. Chrétien rewarded Martin by dumping a major scandal onto his lap. Martin’s inability to deal with the scandal effectively combined with mediocre performance as prime minister. At the same time the Canadian Alliance (né the Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservatives had finally managed to execute the merger back into a single right wing party that they’d been trying to work out for several years. As a result, Martin’s Liberals crashed out of office in 2005 and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives managed to form a minority government. In the years that followed the Conservatives were able to consolidate their position and obtain a majority. Meanwhile, the Liberals went through a series of ever more mediocre leaders from Paul Martin to Stéphane Dion and finally to Michael Ignatieff.

At the same time as the Liberals were in their steady decline to minor party status, the separatist Bloc Québécois were also on the downswing. This meant what had been the two primary parties in Quebec since the 1990s were both moribund at the same time. Socially liberal, much of Quebec was not inclined to vote the Conservative Party, especially with the ex-Reform Party’s record of anti-Francophone sentiment. Thus, the NDP suddenly appeared as a viable option for the first time.

These structural changes are important to remember when thinking about the 2011 election, but at the same time it must also be acknowledged that Jack Layton ran an excellent campaign that fit the moment perfectly. While the Liberals went strongly negative and ran a campaign meant to target the significant segment of the Canadian population who loathed the authoritarian and hard right politics represented by Harper’s Conservatives, Layton offered a positive alternative. Layton’s campaign was relentless optimistic and built heavily on the personal charisma of Jack Layton – an optimism and charisma that was given added weight by the knowledge that he was dying of cancer. The weakness of the Liberals and the BQ, the antipathy in certain parts of Canada (especially Quebec) toward the Conservatives and the aspirational and charismatic campaign of Layton all combined to lead the NDP to their best result ever in a federal election.

Jack Layton would die only a few months after the election and the NDP was faced with the challenge of how to replace him. In that leadership race they were forced to contend with what did the 2011 election results mean? How could they take this unexpected success and build on it in the next election? In dealing with these questions, the NDP took entirely the wrong lessons and chose the centrist Tom Mulcair as the new leader. As leader Layton had worked to push the party to the right and redefine it as socially liberal and economically moderate. The party leadership took this shift away from the party’s left-wing roots to be one of the crucial elements to Layton’s success in 2011. They interpreted the Liberal Party’s decline as terminal and saw the opportunity to finish re-branding the party as a standard center-left party and establish themselves as the moderate alternative to the Conservatives. Thus, they chose the former Liberal Mulcair as their new leader and firmly rejected any move back to the left.

Unfortunately for Mulcair the Liberals managed to get their act together and made the charismatic and attractive Justin Trudeau their leader. When the 2015 election was called the NDP went on the attack and completely failed to replicate the positive campaign of 2011. Worse, they had carefully calibrated their policy positions to head off attacks that they were far left nutters who would bring Canada’s economy to ruins (the Conservatives obviously made these attacks anyway). This meant that Trudeau was able to actually position the Liberals to the left of the NDP and siphon away some of the NDP’s support while the NDP failed to make significant ground among so-called moderate voters who largely stuck with the Liberals. In the end it was the Liberals who defeated the Conservatives. Since taking power Trudeau has set about pursuing an aggressively neoliberal agenda in between topless publicity appearances. There is some evidence that his initial popularity has begun to wane as it becomes clear what kind of prime minister he actually is and he’ll not easily be able to campaign to the NDP’s left in the next election.

Which brings us to the just completed election in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn has been a committed socialist, anti-imperialist and social justice activist since he was first elected at the height of the Thatcher years in 1983. While the Labour Party triangulated to the right under Tony Blair, Corbyn remained committed to his principles even though it left him isolated and relegated to the back benches. When he was unexpectedly elected leader by the Labour membership in 2015 the moderates who had long dominated the party were aghast and spent the last two years denouncing Corbyn. Instead of causing the death of the party, however, his campaign wrought widespread excitement, especially among the youth vote, and rather than being decimated, he oversaw the largest growth in Labour’s share of the vote since Clement Atlee in 1945 and Labour’s highest percentage of the vote since at least Blair’s second majority in 2001. Corbyn did all of this without compromising any of his core beliefs. He refused to move the party to the right and had the confidence to put out a thoroughly social democratic and strongly anti-austerity manifesto that turned out to be extremely popular. While the Tories still hold the most seats, they failed to win the record numbers that many had predicted. Rather than destroyed, Labour looks positioned to overtake the Tories in the next election. The centrists have been utterly discredited (though they continue to deny this reality).

While all of this has been going on the NDP has been in the midst of a leadership campaign. The candidates in this election at least suggest that the effort to turn the NDP into a Tony Blair style center-right party have been abandoned; however, the party appears to remain unable to embrace its roots and reject the destructive capitalism supported by the Conservatives and Liberals. Though all the candidates have made economic justice a centerpiece to their campaign, none of them describe themselves as socialist on their campaign website. Similarly, none take an unequivocal stance against imperialism.

I opposed Mulcair in 2011 because I opposed the continued shift to the right he represented. I continue to believe that if the NDP is to offer a meaningful alternative it needs to reject milquetoast centrism completely and utterly and, in line with Corbyn in the UK, have the confidence and moral integrity to embrace socialism. It is the only way forward for the party, but it is also the right thing to do. Ultimately, the right thing to do is more important in my view than the immediately pragmatic. What good is it to win an election if it costs you your soul?