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Today's NDP Is Not Your Grandfather’s Progressive Party

The NDP's long march to the right comes at the same time as a resurgence in leftwing politics across the globe.

"Shhh, quiet. I can hear one my candidates calling Israel an apartheid state. I have to go." Photo via Flickr user Joe Cressy

It stands for "New Democratic Party," implicitly referring to democratic socialism, but today's NDP would hardly be recognizable to the staunch socialists who founded the party in the mid-20th century. The party has been quietly moving to the centre for years, and now even further right, shedding its former doctrines in favour of political viability. Some foolish idealists might ask Why bother running under the banner of a party whose founding principles you disagree with, but a little problem like that isn't going to stop the modern NDP!

Anyone who thinks the party's rightward shift began after Mulcair took the helm of the party, and not while the much-more-beloved Jack Layton was around, wasn't paying close enough attention. Layton, after all, supported the push to remove all mention of socialism from the NDP's constitution, a huge symbolic blow to the party's leftist bona fides. But Mulcair has shown a zeal for the project of strip-mining Canada's rich socialist tradition that Layton never did (he may have felt it, but he hid it better).

One of the most frustrating aspects about this craven rightward shift is that this is the first time in my life when politicians carving out real space on the left are seeing electoral success and widespread support. Common wisdom on the left for the last 20-odd years—but certainly not forever—has held that it may be fine and well to advocate for left-wing policies and social change as a fringe political party or candidate, but any serious contender has to be willing to leave that kind of childish idealism behind. Reagan and Thatcher really did a number on the Western world, and Clinton (, Bill) and Tony Blair were only too happy to cement that impact on the left.

However, the past several years have seen a resurgence in leftwing politics few expected, even given the 2008 financial crisis and the decidedly anti-people, pro-corporation response of most major governments. Arguably beginning with Occupy's protest of the global financial order, bolstered by Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden's exposure of the state of mass surveillance in which we all currently live, and even deeper entrenched with the Black Lives Matter movement for racial equality, both longtime lefties and more apolitical people alike have agreed the system is thoroughly fucked from all sides and needs a serious rethinking.

Actual, old school, real-deal leftist Jeremy Corbyn just won the leadership of the UK's Labour Party in a landslide, even over the objections of much of the party's leadership. The Scottish National Party nearly swept Scotland in the UK general election this spring. The US election machine already having kicked into full gear, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is enjoying more popularity and viability than anyone ever expected. Earlier, Syriza won election in Greece and while we're all probably thinking of the party's spectacular implosion earlier this summer, that was because the party failed to stick to its anti-austerity promises, not because the Greek people didn't have the stomach for them.

The NDP was elected in Alberta, for Christ's sake! You can argue, justifiably, that the Alberta NDP is no collection of Marxists and Trotskyites hell-bent on nationalizing everything they touch, or that their election was more a response to the Progressive Conservatives' decades of shitty reign than about the NDP itself, but the fact remains. The political winds are blowing as far left as they have any time in the last few decades, and instead of seizing on that fact and using it to his advantage, Mulcair is acting like it's 2004.

It's been during the current election cycle, when Mulcair and the NDP as a whole can practically smell the PMO (it smells like musty old white men and long-congealed whisky farts), that the behind-the-scenes centre-right shift has come to the fore. Electoral polls across the board show a tight race with the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP all with a nearly equal chance of forming government after Oct. 19.

To ensure that happens, Mulcair has boldly promised to immediately balance the budget. Even in the best of times, leftist economics calls for a generous social safety net and the deficit spending that sometimes accompanies that. But we aren't in the best of times, we're in a recession, and even centrists and some conservatives don't think balancing the budget is a good idea when the economy is shitty. Mulcair's ongoing effort to purge the party of pro-Palestinian voices has clearly been an effort to pull voters from the right, especially considering the import the Conservative Party has placed on aggressively supporting Israel. He's promised, in a time of almost unprecedented scrutiny of policing and how it impacts vulnerable citizens, to spend more money on "boots on the ground" to fight crime, rather than devote it to fighting poverty and the racial issues so intertwined therewith; the NDP has even taken to criticizing the Tories for cutting the defence budget.

The party has committed to a bump in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, which sounds progressive until you realize that the federal minimum wage will impact only federal employees, most of whom already make more than $15 per hour. The retail and service-industry workers who make up a stunningly large proportion of minimum-wage earners (and of workers) would be left out of this increase, as they are the provinces' domain.

The socialist caucus of the NDP is finally angry enough about Mulcair's anything-to-get-elected approach to politics that they're letting it be known, as evidenced by a recent Globe and Mail piece about their discontent. What that piece fails to mention, because the socialist caucus itself is unwilling to say it, is if there is any alternative. The Liberal Party is doing its best to campaign to the left of the NDP on issues like finances and electoral reform, although it's hard to say whether that's a genuine shift or an attempt to grab up voters disappointed by the NDP.

As disillusioned as the leftist MPs of the NDP may be, they apparently still think asking for our votes and urging change behind the scenes is a better course of action than, I don't know, breaking off to form their own party? Offering to join the Liberal Party if Justin Trudeau promises to stay on his current leftward track? Publicly calling Mulcair out for abandoning real leftism in favour of getting the NDP elected? Demanding the reinstatement of the party's founding principles? Obviously any of those options would be messy, but mess is part of the fun of leftist politics. Call-outs! Playing out disputes publicly in the name of transparency and democracy! Splinter sects devoted to specific causes who later join together again for a greater cause after asserting their independence! These are all important and fascinating aspects of left-wing politics, and this is a perfect opportunity for the socialist caucus to stretch its protest muscles. The only problem is they're clearly cowed, and after a quiet sob of dissent they'll fall back in line. Perhaps this will all play out after Oct. 19 if the NDP is elected (although it seems unlikely).

Given the global shift in support for real left-wing politics, from economic, policing, and immigration policies to a groundswell push for social justice, now is the best time in recent memory for a social democratic party to return to its roots and proudly carry the banner of progressivism. Instead, the NDP is running on a tired third way theory of electoral politics. It's a disappointment to Canadian voters looking for a legitimate progressive option.

Follow Tannara Yelland on Twitter.