Monday, 4 March 2013

How Can the NDP Get Back on Track?

Act Up in Saskatchewan
March 3, 2013

Labour delegation meets with CCF government 1961
As everyone knows, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is no longer Saskatchewan’s “natural governing party.”  In the 2011 election they won only 32% of the vote and today Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government, in its second term, has an approval rating of around 70%. All four of the young men who have been seeking the leadership of the NDP have stressed the need for a serious renewal and revitalization.

So where should they start? With the disappearance of the provincial Liberal Party, the NDP will have to get close to 50% of the vote to once again form the government. In the past, how was it possible for the CCF-NDP to win 50% of the vote in a Saskatchewan provincial election?

The success of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)

In 1944 the CCF, under the leadership of T.C. Douglas, won the election with 53% of the vote and won again in 1952 with 54%. The CCF was actually a vehicle for a broad democratic movement which included family farmers, the trade union movement, the co-operative movement, teachers and other groups. While in office they regularly consulted with community organizations before implementing new policies.

The CCF party through the Annual Convention, the Provincial Council and the Legislative Advisory Committee exerted considerable influence over the CC F government. Furthermore, the government itself respected and encouraged this co-operation. In addition, there were other links to the grass roots of the party. Within the CCF and then the NDP, the Saskatchewan Farmers Union, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation jointly met every year to co-ordinate policy approaches to present to the party and the government.

When the CCF formulated the platform for an election, they set forth policies they fully intended to implement, and they did so. In the election campaigns they would remind voters of what had been accomplished. Defend the family farm. Rural electrification. Build the grid road system. Hospitalization for everyone. A progressive social assistance program. Modernize the school system. Civil service legislation. A new Trade Union Act. Diversify the economy. And so on.

Following the 1956 election, where the vote for the CCF fell to 45%, the Douglas government feared that it was getting out of touch with its supporters. In 1958 they began a process of expanded consultation with citizen groups. As one example, they created the Rural Development Council to advise the government, with a broad membership representing rural organizations and the general public. Conferences were organized to engage the public on more specific issues. They actively sought presentations from organizations and community groups. To help them come up with programs, they created the Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life.

The key issue in the 1960 election was to be the introduction of a comprehensive government backed medicare program. An Advisory Planning Committee was appointed by the Douglas government with representatives from the government, the medical profession and the general public. It eventually held hearings, received briefs, and presented an interim report, although its activities were greatly hindered by the representatives of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce.

The political parties of the right, representing first of all the interests of big business and finance, have the advantage of access to extensive resources as well as support from the mainstream media. The only way the political parties of the left can effectively confront the power of money is through the mobilization of the broad public. Even in Saskatchewan, the CCF and the NDP have required a large body of committed activists in order to win elections. People are attracted to a party of the left when they agree with the policies they advance.

The CCF won the 1960 election with 41% of the vote and introduced the medicare program. In 1964 their vote fell to 40%; the Liberals also took 40% of the vote but won a majority of the seats in the legislature and formed government. There was a repeat in 1967, with the Liberals winning 45.6% of the vote and the CCF 44.4%. A party renewal was in order.

The NDP wins a major victory in 1971
In the 1971 election the NDP won 55% of the votes and 45 seats in the legislature. They won a solid majority of the seats in rural and small town Saskatchewan. Why did this happen?

First, it was a time of mass participation in political activities by citizens across North America. In the United States the civil rights movement was making great advances. There was broad popular opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, both in Canada and the USA. The women’s movement was on the rise. The Red Power movement was beginning to take form, even in Saskatchewan. There was strong public support for the anti-colonial movement in the Third World. The public mood was for the expansion of democracy.

In Canada political discussion focused on foreign ownership and control of the Canadian economy as well as American cultural domination. In 1968 the Waffle group was formed within the NDP, an organized caucus that advocated an independent, socialist Canada. The Waffle was quite strong in Saskatchewan. There was widespread debate on the key political issues of the day, both within the NDP and in the general public. Citizens were engaged in important political and economic issues.

The Waffle caucus, whose meetings were always open to all, had a major influence on the party in Saskatchewan. They contested for the leadership in 1970, won by Allan Blakeney. Through policy resolutions adopted by the party, they had a major impact on the platform for the 1971 election, A New Deal for People.

The Blakeney government (1971-82) is best known for the success of its policy of creating greater ownership and control over the natural resource sector, through Crown corporations in oil and gas, potash, uranium and the forest industry. With much higher royalties on resource extraction, the NDP government was able to introduce and fund new social programs, expand public housing for low income people, and increase services for seniors.

The Waffle was expelled from the NDP in 1971, and many activists left the party. Over the period of Blakeney’s government links with the party’s extra-parliamentary allies were weakened. The NDP was not only becoming an urban party, it was also shifting from a political movement towards a traditional political party. Part of the reason for its defeat in 1982 stemmed from a number of major conflicts with the trade union movement, a large group of traditional supporters.