The NDP needs a more aggressive social investment strategy and a greater willingness to cooperate.
If the NDP wishes to be more than just an important pressure group in federal politics, it will need to make two improvements.
The first is a more aggressive social investment strategy that justifies social spending in economic terms: not just to protect indebted and underemployed workers and growing numbers of seniors from change, but to improve their capacity to change.
This need not mean large tax cuts, the abandonment of public schools, or privatized health care; on the contrary. But it will mean recognizing that middle-class buy-in is the linchpin of the Canadian welfare state. Support for citizen engagement and a strong voluntary sector will be key. Even the taboo subject of raising productivity (often code words for either shedding labour or making it work harder) can be given a green and social democratic slant – after all, Canada’s chronic problems in that area have a lot to do with branch-plant economics, the abysmal failure to recognize the future economic importance of climate change, and underinvestment in research and development. If there is both a high road and a low road to comparative advantage, then the NDP should stand for taking the high road, even if doing so sometimes necessitates higher taxes.
The second political change that is needed is a greater willingness to cooperate with other parties and groups outside of the NDP’s core constituency. Since the NDP is already committed to coalition building by virtue of its support for proportional representation, one would expect this not to be a problem. But it is. Before Green party Leader Elizabeth May and Stephane Dion forged an agreement not to run opposing candidates in each other’s riding in 2008, she was rumoured to have approached Jack Layton and been rebuffed. In the coming election, it would be reasonable for the NDP to ask a dozen vote-splitting Green party candidates to step down in exchange for giving May a clear run at Gary Lunn in the constituency of Saanich-Gulf Islands, but that won’t happen either.
Another example illustrates the need for both of these improvements. Paul Summerville, the former chief economist for RBC Dominion Securities who in 2006 ran for the NDP in the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s, later left the party for the Liberals, complaining that the leadership would not counter the strong “anti-market rhetoric” coming from the party’s grassroots. He had a good point. Recognizing the most egregious instances of market failure, such as the private health insurance trap and deregulated financial markets in the U.S. or the burgeoning crisis of global warming, need not mean blinding ourselves to the value of markets as the principal means of everyday economic coordination for ordinary Canadians or ignoring the value of international trade as the key to our standard of living.
A sophisticated appreciation of markets and the limitations of government is an appropriate starting point for better public policy, even if it should not be allowed to become the ultimate arbiter. It is also the basis for rapprochement with Greens and progressive Liberals – something that will be necessary in any case, should the NDP hope to be part of a governing coalition in the future.