Canadian voters knew what they wanted. They had been telling pollsters for months. They wanted to deliver a sharp slap to the Canadian political estab- lishment, to elect a weak and chastened government, and to ensure that federal politicians knew that they were on pro- bation. And they did.

In his marvellous new book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suroweicki examines the phenomenon of collective decision making. Big amateur groups make better decisions, one by one, than the smartest smaller group of experts in weeks of conflab. The pundit class and political hacks always intone with pious solemnity in advance of an elec- tion, ”œCanadians need to understand that they can’t vote for a minority government.” Yes, they can. And they did.

The election outcome was the product of just the right sprinkling of votes in the right places to deliver exactly what a majority of Canadians wanted. The NDP and the Tories got some small victories and the Liberals had a near-death experience. The Bloc were given so many seats that Quebecers underlying message was clearly, ”œOkay, you’re our vehicle to pound the Ottawa grosses té‚tes, but you’d bet- ter use the mandate well.”

Sadly, for the NDP, the message could not have clearer, either: ”œYou’re our insurance policy, but we’re only buying the cheapest coverage possible. You haven’t earned a ”œcen- tral role” in government yet.”

And the harshest note on the NDP report card from this demanding ”œleft-lib” voter is: You got only this limited role as the chaperone or the vice squad in Parliament because you didn’t offer anything believable, or uniquely appealing, that we couldn’t get some of, later, in a cheaper version from the Liberals.

Jack Layton fought a serviceable cam- paign, and a relatively gaffe-free one for a beginner. The party made a stab at fiscal prudence, but then undermined it by listing 250 ”œurgent priorities,” and estimating revenues ”œgenerously.” But they were neither fish nor fowl in the end: not a party of government, nor a thundering populist opposition. A clas- sic nightmare for an NDP leader (”œNDP” and ”œleader” here and below refers only to the federal party, not the 13 provin- cial and territorial parties) is too many chefs, too many interests, and therefore too many ”œone day policy hits.” The effort to feed all the demanding mouths showed in this campaign and the lack of focus and cohesion allowed the media to freelance on that day’s message. Layton’s inability not to address any microphone stuck under his nose got him into trouble on Quebec and on homelessness.

But the party did well, given that it has yet to face its deeper problems of relevance. To double the vote back to historic levels was an achievement. Achieving this threshold of 15-20 per- cent of popular vote again is not bank- able, especially in a runoff election following an argumentative minority- government. The Liberals will really turn up the heat on ”œstrategic voting” in that round. If history is any guide, voters will respond, and the NDP will sag back to 10 to 12 percent again. 

The NDP’s current angst can be traced to one tragic error: they got the end of the Cold War badly wrong. They misunderstood how to manage Cold War politics often before that, but the post-war realignment of demo- cratic politics was the more recent, most important opportunity lost. Curiously, they were alone among the leading social democratic parties in the world in misunderstanding who the 1989 earthquake’s victims would be.

To its great misfortune, the NDP has usually followed the lead of the British Labour party. This is a party that, until recently, was a dinosaur and the most consistent failure of the big left parties. As well, the NDP has rarely had the kind of tough, visionary lead- ership that allowed the leading parties of the democratic left to escape irrele- vance. Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent make up the entire list over three generations. They alone had the power, the guts and the vision to drag the party from its comfort zone of opposition sloganeering " a task they only occasionally took on.

The experience of the most impor- tant parties of the Left is interesting to compare:

  • 1959 " under the prodding of the future global statesman, Willy Brandt, the German SPD met and fought bitterly. They dropped the last vestiges of Marxist command and control rhetoric and the Bad Godesberg program eventually propelled them into power.

  • 1966 " Swedish Social Democrats, the world’s most successful party of the Left, survived a similar struggle, dropping nationalization almost entirely, with future Prime Minister Olaf Palme among the young turks demanding change. They’ve governed for most of the past century.

  • 1974 " Felipe Gonzalez, the bril- liant courageous strategist who consolidated Spanish democracy, began dragging his militants kick- ing and screaming into NATO, and a looser, federal Spain into the European Community. In power for a decade and now back.

  • 1982-85 " Paul Keating and David Lange pre- scribed tough taxation medi- cine and ensured Australian and New Zealand Labour sta- tus as parties of government.

  • 1995 " the most impressive turnaround of them all, as the rot was the most deep there, Tony Blair and British Labour.

On issues as varied as security policy, the role of state corporations, the market, the global economy, health care, education, and party structure, no honest New Dem could claim that the party had tackled the challenges of the post-war era aggressively. For that matter, its efforts since the end of the Second World War to give up the com- forting 19th century rhetoric of the Regina Manifesto have been sporadic.

No, the NDP ducked most of these debates. After all, a biggish slice " maybe even a third " of Canadian vot- ers are soothed by fanciful, sanctimoniously anti-American social and economic policy nostrums. The problem for the NDP in appealing to this ”œcredulous voter” segment is that most of them are more comfortable vot- ing Liberal. The failure to hail the role of the social market, to fight Quebec sepa- ratism, to challenge utopian fiscal policy nonsense, to adopt a believable defence policy or to resist the temptation to indulge in childish anti-Americanism was relatively harmless if one wanted to elect a federal caucus of a couple of dozen regularly recycled MPs.

Embarrassingly though, even Red Tories began to understand the chal- lenges of the modern public sector bet- ter than many New Democrats. Ontario Tory Bill Davis’ famous dry wit slashed the arrogance of the largest Crown corporation in the world: he would say with a shrug, in private, ”œOntario Hydro’s been a fabulous con- tributor to our success. I just wish, sometimes, that they didn’t see the province as one of their assets.”

Liberals understood that pander- ing to Quebec separatism was not a strategy for Canadian survival, as early as Frank Scott in the 1960s. Social democrats who were serious about government " Alan Blakeney, most famously, in Canada " understood that to govern successfully you had to tell the truth about economic and social policy choices.

Intellectual laziness and political cowardice were the root causes of these failures. The defenders of the ”œsocial movement theory” of the party from Carlyle King in the 1930s to Gerry Caplan and Buzz Hargove in the 1980s didn’t believe in seeking power. Power was corrupting, the gadfly role ennobling. The activists and the lead- ership also knew there was never a prospect of federal power without Quebec, so what’s the point. And some provin- cial New Democratic leaders consistently sab- otaged the federal party, claiming with hardly a blush that the route to national power was through the provinces.

The party had launched and survived a few tough fights: over pacficism in the 1930s, with the communists and their ”œuseful idiots” in the forties and fifties " though it was always a bit like shooting fish in a barrel given the Canadian communists’ surreal inepti- tude. There was struggle that the Lewis family bravely led against the anar- chist children’s crusade called ”œthe Waffle” in the seventies. It was the party’s ”œmost un-Canadian,” bloody and ultimately successful conflict, until the war over ”œTrudeau’s Charter” arrived. No one wanted to go through that kind of unpleasantness again.

The delicious irresponsibility of per- manent opposition " the Svend Robinson School, as it were " was a far more congenial political space than the harsh tradeoffs of preparing for power. The Ontario and BC New Democrats in government were painful examples of why long-term opposition parties usu- ally fail in power. A despairing BC gov- ernment and party leader asked to explain why most of the attacks on the Harcourt government seemed to be coming from the rear, observed sourly, ”œThe BC NDP has fought governments for most of the past century, just because it’s our own government is no reason to stop now.”

Ed Broadbent forced the party to accept the appeal and social democrat- ic logic of the Charter. He successfully prodded the Liberals into key changes on individual, women’s, and First Nations’ rights, and on limitations to the power of capital. In 1988, he dragged the party to a less pacifist defence policy with a credible new global strategic doctrine based on ”œcommon security.” (Full disclosure: the author was among those who expended hundreds of hours crafting the new security doctrine.)

But Broadbent left, frustrated in part by the reaction to these struggles and the churlish reaction to his 1988 campaign success " 20 percent of the vote, and 43 seats, the highwater mark in NDP history. The Berlin Wall fell and the party snapped back to 1960s anti- Americanism. Instead of a clear-eyed view of how the world had changed and how the NDP would need to respond, it substituted old slogans for hard choices about Canada’s role in the world, and the NDP’s role in Canada. By the middle of the decade, the party had drifted into describing Arab suicide bombers as the moral equivalents of the Israeli military, to the horror and quiet shame of many party loyalists. It had a perfect track record of opposing international intervention in: Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Somalia, and the Gulf War. Tommy Douglas, the first anti- fascist Canadian federal politician was, no doubt, spinning in his grave.

When the Soviet Union disap- peared, and with it overnight the competence of Marxists to govern, many New Dems heaved a huge sigh of relief. No longer would social democ- rats be tagged with the horrors of state capitalism as practiced by knuckle- dragging Soviet thugs. No longer would the Trotskyites and their bizzare Maoist enemies be a source of treachery and disruption inside the NDP. Canadian social democracy would be seen as European and civil, electorally pragmatic and modern. Wrong.

The collapse of communism high- lighted the triumph of social market capitalism. It painted in stark relief the irrelevance of traditional social demo- cratic and conservative postures. In Canada, it legitimated a two-party sys- tem. For after all, in MacKenzie King’s immortal phrase, what were social democrats but ”œLiberals in a hurry”? That we ended up briefly with a half- dozen parties was a product of our regional peculiarities. Ideologically, there were two menus on offer: a mild state interventionism combined with a modest international agenda from the Liberals, and a market-driven, mild social conservatism from the PCs. Pundits were hard pressed to describe what the NDP even claimed to repre- sent in this period. Its demands were usually framed in terms of ”œmore, sooner, faster, better,” as responses to government initiatives.

The whiff of intellectual decay had been rising on the democratic left since the 1960s. Although Marxists were the biggest victims of the ”œglorious delu- sion of ”˜68” in Paris, and Berlin and Berkeley, social democratic leaders were marginalized as well. Awkward at inte- grating the challenges of women and gays and new immigrants, they tried to square the circle of growth and jobs, with the constraints of environmental sanity and the prejudices of organized labour. They struggled with the demands for flatter, more open party hierarchies, extra-parliamentary activism and a less ritualized and more transparent style of politics.

Even in the 1980s, the NDP failed to understand that the triumph of ”œlib- eration theologies” in the third world, and ”œnew social movements” in the developed world, were not necessarily a boon to the democratic Left. With most of the Left, they failed to develop a coherent response to the nostalgic and nationalistic appeals of the Reagan/Thatcher neocons.

The earthquakes launched by the fall of communism were but the Wagnerian final act of this long- running political opera. Though few predicted the timing of the final cur- tain, the terminal incompetence of Marxism was obvious to most. For lib- erals around the world the thunderclap of the falling Berlin Wall was a huge gift: they claimed immediately that it was an endorsement of their approach to government, a middle way.

Neoconservatives in Canada and elsewhere judged the impact as parti- sanly and foolishly as New Democrats: for them it was a triumph of the hard- line Cold Warriors. Liberals, and Canadian Liberals especially, were much more clever at adapting to this new world. They co-opted the rhetoric, some of the leaders, and much of the energy of this new political environ- ment. They swept into their embrace all manner of social movement activists and former hard-liners. They successful- ly occupied a huge swathe of the mid- dle class, the moderate swing voters in many democracies. Bill Clinton’s triumphant ”œtriangulation” became the ideal for liberals everywhere.

Throughout the following fifteen years the NDP slowly declined; pushed to the sidelines, it grasped harsher and more unbelievable policy positions internationally, and clung to increas- ingly dubious economic postures. The massive public deficits of the period were ”œnot a problem, they were an investment in our children.” It looked, by the turn of the millennium, at the national level, as if social democracy in Canada would simply continue to qui- etly fade away.

Then, along came a new century, a new leader and some newish ideas. Together, in this election, they would deliver a new elelctoral triumph for Canadian social democracy. Wrong.

A plurality of Canadian voters chose Paul Martin’s smooth assurance that they could get most of the rewards of an NDP-backed govern- ment, with him and without them. They were spooked very effectively by Liberal attack ads at the prospect of the Albertan Talibanis seizing power, lynching gays, jailing loose women, and making gun ownership compulso- ry. In the absence of any strong NDP countervailing message " except beg- ging to be given a chance " English Canadian voters decided, not unrea- sonably, to vote Liberal.

As a Prairie sage of NDP campaigns put it: ”œThe Liberal Party is the Coca- Cola of Canadian politics: boring, pre- dictable, no thrilling new taste sensations; but reliable, a comfort food, and risk-free.” So when the NDP offers a ”œa green new day with no one left behind,” and the new Tories are promoting, ”œtough love and truth telling,” Coke looks pretty good. What is to be done?

Lenin disparaged those ”œsocial democrats” who would claim common cause with other social movements in his famous 1902 pamphlet. He rallied his revolutionary allies by attacking Mensheviks (today’s liberals) as the greater enemy, not the defenders of Czarism. Lloyd George and MacKenzie King believed in gentle and continuous tacking against the wind. Karl Kautsky, the great German social democrat leader believed that Lenin was the key enemy of the democratic left, not liberals. FDR understood his job was to save America ”œfrom his own class,” if it was to avoid the twin perils of left or right totalitarianism.

It may seem previous or peculiar to refer to these leaders of another century in reflecting on tomorrow’s choices for Canadian lefties. But our political cleav- ages differ more in texture than in sub- stance with those of the 1900s. Liberals, then and now, endorse a more opti- mistic hands-off approach to the inevitable acceleration of inequality in a market economy. A ”œlight hand” of reg- ulation will temper the accumulation of wealth and power, and the challenge to democracy that that presents, is a core liberal conviction. Isaiah Berlin’s ”œnega- tive liberty” " the freedom to be left alone by society " remains at the centre of modern liberalism.

Similarly, now that Canada has given up its peculiar home-grown ”œprogressive conservatism” and adopt- ed the more plain vanilla social and economic conservativism of most of the right-wing parties in the Western democracies, we see the thread run- ning back to Palmerston, Hoover and R.B. Bennett. Low-tax, trickle-down economics, married to militarism and Protestant family values, after all, have a century or more of great currency, if somewhat less credibility.

A more Malthusian pessimism informs traditional social democrats. They insist on sterner mechanisms of redistribution and intervention in a defence of democratic fairness. The state must be the instrument of this balanc- ing act, and the market is to be tolerated but regularly trimmed. Sadly, of the three surviving ”œtribes” of democratic politics, the banner of social democracy looks the most tattered today.

Libertarians, fascists, Leninists and suicide bombers are no longer wel- come in the democracies. But conser- vatives have, in some cases, managed to reconfigure themselves as national- ists, supermanagers and, most ironical- ly, modernizers. Liberals continue to successfully ooze across the spectrum, spilling left or right dependent on political fashion. Social democrats, in countries like Canada, Austria, and Japan " essen- tially conservative cultures " remain trapped in a time warp.

There is neither time nor space here to enumerate the new approachs that a ”œmodern social demo- crat” might deploy on a philosophic or ideological plane. The much missed American progressive Michael Harrington outlined some in his final book, Socialism Past and Future. Joseph Stigliltz and Robert Reich have explored the international challenges with courage. The Progressive Policy Institue in the US and the several Blairite think tanks in the UK have all plowed the domestic policy ground well. Suffice it to say that,

  • a defence of the poor and the weak,

  • an activist promotion of equal opportunity,

  • tough social, environmental and productivity performance require- ments of governments and corpo- rations, and

  • more genuine democratic decision- making, in all institutions and communities, are central to each of these ”œrevisionist” social democrats.

Some policy tools and campaign elements, which embody some of these principles, that a ”œNew NDP” could employ to move itself to compe- tition for a role in government are:

  • Cities: Neither begging nor hope are strategies. Cities need political power as well as new revenue. The Liberals can’t push their provin- cial cousins to grant it " the NDP can. Re-examine burden-sharing and consider ”œuploading” some tasks: immigrant integration, safe- ty and security, regional transport. Layton brings unique credibility to this file " use it to wedge the Liberals.

  • Democratic reform: Forget PR. Any- thing requiring a constitutional amendment died with the Charlot- tetown Accord for a generation. And you can’t reform the Commons without tackling the Senate. Set up a credible commission of ”œwise men” to look at the issue of ”œdemocratic decay.” The choices are too many and the complexities too great to simple pre- scribe solutions today. Try mandatory voting and fixed terms as ways of lev- eling the playing field in the short term " they only need a Commons majority.

  • Health: Forget playing on the margins of the medicare funding wars. No solution acceptable to the provinces can be imposed from Ottawa. The provinces are not ready to face the truth of their incompetent management of Canadians’ health. Outline detailed deliverables like a national drug plan and formulary, mandatory patient data-sharing between providers, support for family-centred home care, etc.

  • Education: Our failures in ESL sec- ondary education and university funding are well known. Forget federal/provincial sensitivities and set literacy and academic perform- ance improvement standards in return for funding. Australia, a fed- eral state with more hostile govern- mental relations did it. We need to.

  • Pensions: The next social policy crisis for boomers. Stanley Knowles created pensions, Layton might be able to save them. Force Liberals and employers to acknowledge our system is broken and fix it to protect the most vul- nerable " privately employed baby boomers.

  • Environment: Bury Kyoto, it’s dead. Deliver better air and water quali- ty to Canadians. Campaign on asthma, and diabetes and brain damaged kids. Low-head hydro, access to the power grid for small producers, and gas-for-coal power substitution all connect to the cities’ agenda. Giant wind farms are too easy to make fun of.

  • The party: Party barons are seen as Tammany buffoons, internal democracy as the plaything of union and corporate and ethnic bosses. The NDP is not immune. Reform party governance and the sources of power. Guarantee places for First Nations, women and under 25s in the councils of power and on candidate lists. Cutback union prerogatives in light of public funding changes. Force turnover through ”œinternal term limits” for party leaders. Set independent oversight rules for nominations and conventions. Cut MPs’ ability to build cash mountains and pri- vate political fiefdoms.

  • The World: Outline a sensible defence strategy: emphazise coastal and air defence, cut land forces; pump up special forces and air mobile capability, cut bases. Steal Martin’s idea of a G20 and give it some teeth. Admit previ- ous errors on Kosovo, et al. and outline a progressive case for armed intervention. Return to sanity on the Middle East.

None of these messages is radical given the revolutionary changes taking place within social democracy international- ly. Compared to the SPD’s ”œvolte face” on global security policy, the international changes are notional. Nor are they risk-free: Gerhard Schroder is almost cer- tain to be defeated by his own party, and then the German electorate, for pushing a more modest reform agenda. Compared to Blair’s efforts to force choice in both health and education on the public sector, these ideas are timid. ”œCanadian” issues such as Quebec, our aboriginal shame, direct vs. income taxes, and North American integration will still need to be addressed.

But even incremental changes such as these should move the NDP’s ”œcom- petence to govern” marks from F to C+. These changes need to be delivered as part of a competent economic and fiscal management agenda, believable rev- enue and cost projections, and a com- mitment to throw out the bottom 327 items on previous campaign wish lists.