The other day I received an invitaion to take out a membership in the New Democratic Party. The Saskatchewan NDP is to choose a new leader on March 3. There are two declared candidates: Trent Wotherspoon and Ryan Meili. Both are elected members of the provincial caucus.
I was a member of the NDP in the 1970s when there was an open caucus within the party, known as “The Waffle,” the organization committed to an independent socialist Canada. Since then I rejoined from time to time to support individual candidates for leadership of the provincial party.
The Popular Base of the Original Party
The NDP traces its history back to the farmer-labour and democratic movements in the province in the early days of the last century. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party was formed in 1933 and elected government in 1944 with Tommy Douglas as premier. They governed for 20 years, building a progressive political economy in a hinterland area of North America. They were always the “good guys,” representing the common people. The “bad guys,” were first the Liberal Party and then the Conservatives the representatives of the capitalist interests based in central Canada and the United States. The Liberals under Ross Thatcher ran the province from 1964 – 1971.
The Election in 1971 Reflected Major Political Changes
The 1970s were new times. The civil rights struggle in the USA had led to political movements which had their supporters in Canada. There was growing opposition to the Canadian government’s support for the US government’s unpopular war in Vietnam. At the same time voices were raised against the political economy of continentalism and the domination of Canada by branch plants of American corporations.
In general the Waffle movement was very influential in Saskatchewan. It had a significent following in the NDP. In addition the Saskatchewan Farmer’s Union, the Saskatchewan Federation o Labour and the Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation were growing in strength. University students were becoming politically active. Public opinion was moving to the left. Under the leadership of Allan Blakeney the NDP won the provincial election in 1971.
The Blakeney Government, 1971 – 1982
The new NDP government was determined to change the direction of the development of the province. This required a major shift to socially progressive tax policies based on ability to pay. The resource extraction industries, heavily dominated by large foreign corporations, were challenged. The resource royalties they paid were raised substantially. A Heritage Fund was created and royalties were used to expand local ownership of the resource sector. The Saskatchewan Mining and Development Corporation was created and invested in the North. Part of the potash industry was nationalized. The Saskatchewan Oil Corporation was created.
These policies paid off. For example, social assistance rates were raised from the poverty level to the basic needs level, the highest in Canada. New social housing was built. Low income renters received support, as did low income seniors. Unemployment dropped to the lowest level in Canada,
Nevertheless, the Blakeney government was defeated in the 1982 election. A new right wing provincial party, the Conservatives, under Grant Devine, formed the government and moved the province in a different direction. They were guided by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her team and pursued a right wing liberal free market agenda. The NDP kept Allan Blakney as leader until after their defeat in the 1986 election. Roy Romanow, a Saskatoon lawyer, was selected the new leader. He represented the right wing of the party. The progressive left in the party failed to put forth a candidate.
Grant Devine’s government pushed through programs and policies that confronted the progressive social democratic culture established by CCF-NDP governments. Roy Romanow’s NDP limited their opposition to debates in the provincial legislature. But they were greatly aided by the actions mobilized by the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice. Across Canada similar coalitions were formed to oppose the free trade agreements being actively promoted by big business organizations. They included a wide range of popular groups including labour, farmers, church organizations, students, women’s organizations, the Environmental Network, etc. The crunch came when the Devine government began to privatize the large Crown Corporations.
The 1991 Election Resulted in a Major Victory for the Political Left
NDP supporters expected a return to the Blakeney policies. NDP candidates promised as much during the campaign. However, a major battle erupted when the Romanow government brought forth its first budget. It was a right wing liberal budget which raised regressive taxes and cut programs. It followed the precedent of the Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand, the neoliberal model of social democracy. The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Coalition for Social Justice urged the Romanow government to follow the path of Tommy Douglas’ government: pay off the provincial debt over 20 years and keep pushing programs that benefit the majority.
But the neoliberals were in control. TheNDP government completed the privatization of the Crown corporations in the resource sector. They privatized the Lloydminister heavy oil upgrader. They shut down the Heritage Fund. They privatized the natural gas industry created by Sask Power. They froze social assistance rates for eight years!
The NDP managed to win re-election in the election in 1995, but voter turnout fell from the normal 77%-80% to 57%. By 1999 voters began to rebel. With a 56% turnout, the vote for the NDP fell to 39% and they had to form a coalition with the Liberal Party to continue as government. NDP memberships had declined from 46,000 in 1991 to only 8,000in 1999. Roy Romanow resigned as Premier and in 2001 Lorne Calvert took over as leader of the NDP and premier.
From the Natural Governing Party to a Weak Opposition Party
Calvert continued the general neoliberal direction of the NDP. The most significant action was to further reduce the royalty rates for natural resource extraction. The right wing Fraser Institute declared the Saskatchewan NDP to be the best provincial government in Canada. Their survey of corporate directors concluded Saskatchewan was the best place to invest, with the lowest taxes and few government regulations. In the 2003 provincial election the NDP got 39% of the vote; only 58% of eligible voters cast a ballot. In the 2007 election the NDP vote fell to 37%, while 60% voted.
Calvert’s government even repealed the Blakeney government’s popular legislation protecting Saskatchewan’s farmland from froreign and corporate ownership.
Lorne Calvert resigned, and in desperation the NDP called Dwaine Linginfelter back to lead the party. He had been Deputy Leader under Romanow but had quit politics for a top job with an oil corporation. In the 2011 election the NDP received only 32% of the vote, and voter turnout fell to 51% In the 2016 election the NDP vote was only 30% with a voter turnout of 53%.
The two candidates for the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP follow the script that has been developed by social democratic parties over recent years. There have been several televised debates, which I have not watched. The media has reported that there were few differences in policy. Both want to improve social programs, reduce poverty, find housing for the homeless, create a pharmacare program, end corporate and union political donations to political parties, and work to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both are committed to defending the remaining Crown Corporations, and both want to see a shift to green energy.
What is notable is their refusal to confront the major social democrat policy shift to the right beginning with the Romanow government. There is no pledge to a return to a progressive taxation program. Why should social democrats be satisfied with foreign ownership and control of the resource sector? Why should they be satisfied with resource royalties that are lower than those set by Sarah Palin’s Republican government in Alaska?
The NDP does not want to examine why their vote has fallen so far. They don’t want to ask why so many members have quit. They don’t want to ask why 50% of voters now stay home on election day.
Ryan Meili will most likely be the next leader of the party. But it seems highly unlikely that with this liberal platform he can win the election in 2020. I will sit this one out.