The Saskatchewan New Democratic Party is facing the most crucial decision in its history when it chooses its next leader. They have gone from being the “natural governing party” to a weak opposition party. Without a serious change of direction, it is doubtful if they will ever form the government again.
The vote in support of the NDP has fallen from 275,000 in 1991 to 127,000 in 2011. They are now down to only nine seats in the legislature. With the collapse of the Liberal Party in the 2011 election, their share of the votes cast fell to 32% while that of the Saskatchewan Party rose to 64%. NDP membership has fallen from 46,000 at the time of the 1991 election to around 8,000 in 2011. The party is no longer even dominant in Regina.
The disillusionment of the population with the NDP is reflected in the turnout in the elections. In the 1991 provincial election, where the NDP received a majority of the votes, 83% of those who were enumerated went to the polls. This fell to 66% in 2011. But many people are no longer enumerated. Of those eligible to vote in 2011 (citizens 18 and older), only 49% voted.
This is not an unusual development. Similar trends can be found in all the advanced industrialized countries. Many former supporters of the social democrats are refusing to vote or shifting to new parties of the left, the Greens, and neo-fascist parties of the right.
The most important reason for this is the shift to the neoliberal right by the social democratic parties. Almost all of them have abandoned their historic social justice agenda for the free market and free trade policies advocated by big business.
Under the leadership of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert (1991-2007), the Saskatchewan NDP led the political change of direction in Canada. The new policies included cutting taxes on corporations and those in the higher income brackets, lowering the royalties and taxes paid by the corporations extracting our resources, privatizing state owned enterprise, deregulating the economy, and cutting and eliminating social programs.
The NDP surrendered the vote in rural Saskatchewan when they supported rail line abandonment and the closing of grain elevators, closed 51 hospitals under the “wellness model,” cut grants to municipalities and school boards, abolished the Gross Revenue Insurance Plan, and shifted their support from the co-operative movement to corporate agribusiness.
Secondly, they adopted an authoritarian, liberal party system. The leader set the policy agenda, and everyone else was to toe the line. Open public debates on important issues were no longer tolerated. The platform for elections was set by the leader and professional spin doctors. There was a strong move away from the democratic process.
The NDP was ready for a serious renewal following their defeat in the 2007 election and the resignation of Lorne Calvert as leader. Instead, the party’s caucus and a few key trade unions brought back Dwaine Lingenfelter from Nexen Corporation and mobilized to get him elected leader. Everyone knew that he represented the old neoliberal order. The results were a disaster for the party.
If the NDP is to seriously try to win enough votes to form the government it must make a clean break with the Romanow-Calvert years. We already have one party representing big business, the Saskatchewan Party. The NDP must once again become a broad democratic party pushed from the bottom up. It must return to a policy agenda that represents the interests of the large majority, the “Saskatchewan Way,” which was the co-operative social democratic agenda.
John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and political activist and author of Saskatchewan: The Roots of Discontent and Protest.