February 7, 2012
From 1944 through 2007 Saskatchewan politics was dominated by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its successor the New Democratic Party (NDP). But then it was soundly defeated by the Saskatchewan Party in 2007 and routed in 2011. Today the NDP has only nine seats in the legislature. Dwain Lingenfelter, who had been called back from Nexen in Calgary to lead the party in 2009, has stepped down, and John Nilsen was chosen as the interim leader. The NDP Provincial Council will meet on March 10, 2012 to decide when to call a leadership convention. This is a very important decision.
What is the future for the NDP in Saskatchewan? It is clear that the powers that be in the party do not want to seriously ask what happened and why. They are pushing for an early leadership convention. Only two possible candidates are being mentioned, MLAs Cam Broten and Trent Wotherspoon. It is expected that either will continue the policy direction set by the governments of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert (1991-2007). This was the full neoliberal package including the promotion of the free market and free trade, cutting taxes and social programs, the privatization of state enterprises, deregulation, and subsidies for large capitalist enterprises. The party also took a strong stand against the Kyoto protocol and any mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.
The collapse of the NDP
The Saskatchewan NDP is in big trouble. Their vote has fallen from 275,000 in 1991 to 169,000 in 2007 and 127,000 in 2011. The party membership has fallen from 46,000 in 1991 to around 8,000 today. The provincial Liberal Party has all but disappeared; in the 2011 election they got fewer votes than the Greens. As a result, the Saskatchewan Party received 64% of the popular vote and the NDP only 32%.
When Ryan Bater resigned as leader of the provincial Liberal Party, he argued that the province had now moved to a “one party system.” Without any real shift in policy, it seems very likely that the NDP will be a weak opposition party for the foreseeable future. They may never again form the government.
It should also be recognized that the public’s participation in the electoral process has dropped dramatically. In the 1991 election which swept the NDP back into office, 83% of those who were enumerated went to the polls. In 2011 this had fallen to 66%. But the number of voters on the official electoral roll has also been falling. In 2011 the turnout of eligible voters (citizens 18 and older) was actually only 49%. Why is it that the people of this province no longer feel it is of any use to even bother to vote?
For most people in Saskatchewan times are quite good. The province has had a boom in the resource extraction industries. People have moved here to find work. Overall employment is up significantly. The average wage is now above the national average. House prices have risen with the general boom, which has benefitted the majority. So it was highly unlikely that the NDP had a chance to win this past election, no matter who the leader was.
The shift to a neoliberal orientation
When Roy Romanow and his caucus took over the government in 1991 they immediately shifted to the right and away from the party’s traditions and the 1991 election platform. There was a major showdown with the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice over the budget, taxation and economic policy. These organizations had played a very key role in the mobilization of people against the right wing agenda of Brian Mulroney and Grant Devine. Over a weekend in April 1991 Romanow and his key cabinet ministers met with prominent business leaders to assure them that it would be business as usual. There would be no shift back to the progressive social democratic policies and government of Allan Blakeney (1971-82).
By 1993 public opinion polls revealed that support for the Romanow-led NDP had fallen to 27%. In the 1995 provincial election, the turnout of enumerated voters fell to 64%, and the vote for the NDP fell dramatically to 193,000. In the 1999 election they received 157,000 votes, only 39% of the total and to stay in office were forced to form an alliance in the legislature with the four members of the Liberal Party. Using a major negative attack campaign in 2003, the NDP under Lorne Calvert managed to eke out a two seat majority in the legislature with the support of only 191,000 voters. They key to continuing in office was the existence of the Liberal Party, which split the “anti-socialist” vote.
The alternate road
So what is the alternative to the NDP’s failed strategy of shifting the party to the right and adopting the agenda of big business? In 2009, during the campaign to select a successor to Lorne Calvert, a new group of younger NDP activists emerged. They urged a major policy revision which would embrace the progressive social democratic tradition established by T. C. Douglas, Woodrow Lloyd and Allan Blakeney. They also demanded a serious strategy to reduce the province’s enormous greenhouse gas emissions. The new activists in the party backed Yens Pederson and Ryan Meili for leader, and at the convention they received 45% of the vote.
This new left in the party was effectively silenced by the party caucus under the leadership of Dwain Lingenfelter. However, many remembered that Lingenfelter was the Deputy Leader and a key member of Roy Romanow’s inner cabinet which pushed the neoliberal agenda. The decision by the majority of the NDP caucus and a number of important trade union leaders to bring back Lingenfelter and install him as Calvert’s successor shows how isolated the party’s leaders are from the real world of politics in the province. The general public had not forgotten Lingenfelter, and in all the public opinion polls support for him was well behind that of the NDP.
What can be done now? The NDP can only be a major political force in the province if it is able to rebuild its links with the important groups which have supported it in the past. They must be able to convince their former voters, now among the 50% who don’t vote, that it is once again worth supporting the party. But this can’t happen unless they are able to project a vision for the future of the province which is clearly different from that of the Saskatchewan Party. That means they have to break with the neoliberal policy orientation of Roy Romanow, Lorne Calvert, and Dwain Lingenfelter.
Some in the NDP have urged the party to put off an early leadership convention. Instead, the party should create a commission to go around the province and in a serious way seek out ideas and direction from the grass roots. Democracy means building from the bottom up. They did this after their defeat in 1986 and it helped the shift back to the left in the platform for the 1991 election.
On specific issues, public opinion polls show that a majority of the people of the province still have a commitment to social justice. There is still majority support for the key policies of the early CCF-NDP, especially the mixed economy. During the debate over the ownership of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, the majority held that the corporation should be majority owned by the people of the province. A convention to select a new leader could easily be put off for two years. Having a new leader in the legislature is not that important. The party and its policies must be re-created, from the bottom up. The new leader must be strongly committed to this change of direction.