On June 7, Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove wrote in the comment pages of The Globe and Mail (where else?) that the New Democratic Party must turn Left. The following day, The Globe published a letter from David Dargie Steeves of Charlottetown, saying: ”œMr. Hargrove is right-on … The NDP has not shifted with the times and taken on new issues such as clean water, the environment, globalization and aid to poor nations.”

I read Mr. Steeves’s letter three times to make sure it wasn’t a sarcastic shiv being inserted between Mr. Hargrove’s third and fourth ribs. But no. And neither his let- ter nor The Globe‘s decision to publish it will come"or should come"as a surprise to the party’s functionaries and members of its parliamentary caucus.

Of course the NDP has policies on clean water, the envi- ronment, globalization and aid to poor nations. What it doesn’t have is a voice. The only message it can get out to the public through the right-of-centre news media is that its members are falling all over themselves in disarray and that Svend Robinson says increasingly odd things. Equally to the point, or maybe on the same point, the party has had very, very few spokespersons since the 1980s with the articulateness, the electricity, the savvy and the public respect to break through that media filter. Which makes the furore over the Asper family’s idea of hegemonic editorial-page policy the length and breadth of the former Southam newspaper chain seem pretty funny, implying as it does that great political- economic variety of thought and coverage existed before the Aspers arrived to throttle journalistic freedom.

In any event, the party does appear to have become mostly irrelevant to Canadians’ national political discourse. In the last federal election, the voters told the NDP to go away and rethink itself. And now Alexa McDonough has quit as national leader.

Is this the end of history for Canadian social democrats? On the contrary, the party’s current seeming irrelevance is not only historically aberrant but shows signs"mere flops in the bottom of the boat at this point"of being on the wane. In postmodern Canada, the NDP and its policies should be the natural home to a significant electoral constituency that is hungering for a political vehicle to express their views about their country and their world. It is a constituency identified by social researchers as young, well-educated, rapidly growing in numbers and severely annoyed by the failings of traditional political institutions to act on the issues that concern them. Those issues are, first and foremost, the environment and qual- ity of life both in the cities where most of them live and on the planet which all of them inhabit. Most might not call themselves Left by any con- ventional definition or even know what Left means; they are not, for example, ideological advocates of the welfare state. They do, however, accept the interventionist and mediating state, and they do believe in a democracy of equality and in collective social action when they see an outcome that serves their individual self-interest. They reject the neo-liberalism of Canada’s other national parties but are uncertain about the polit- ical alternative. Why this emerging constituen- cy"for want of any other term, call it the ”œGreen Cohort”"has not found the NDP, or the NDP found it, has several explanations

  • The penny-hasn’t-dropped factor. Political scientist Heather MacIvor of the University of Windsor suggests the NDP’s lack of access to media to get its policies into the public square means it will take time for Canadians in the Green Cohort to link the political ideas taking shape in their mind with the NDP. She is think- ing maybe five, six years or more. The NDP, she says, probably should look at those years as build- ing years.

  • Which is why the next leader is so impor- tant. Given the obstacle of the media’s filter, Prof. MacIvor says it is more necessary than ever before that the party elect a leader able to connect with what Canadians are feeling. So far, no obvious charismatic star has appeared among the declared or rumoured candidates. If the party doesn’t get someone good this next time out, the enforced wait in the anteroom of political rele- vance will be longer.

  • The party’s Left-Right debate isn’t helping. In fact, it confuses the voters. NDP candidates in the last election were told to say the party speaks for ”œworking people.” What code-language is that? If being Left means being committed to a democracy of equality, where the state isn’t dom- inated by the market, where freedom is equated to the positive notion of individual autonomy and the capacity of all citizens to fulfill them- selves, then who in the NDP wouldn’t be Left? But the notion of a party of class struggle in one of the developed world’s most egalitarian soci- eties is a difficult synaptic connection for the overwhelming majority of Canadians to make" as is any talk about Canada not being a market economy or not being part of a global market world. At last May’s conference on the future of Canadian social democracy, organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), Svend Robinson described the markets as a dog that should be put down. In response, a signifi- cant number of young participants"then-MISC director Desmond Morton called them ”œa surpris- ing number”; I don’t think their number is sur- prising"spoke of being as proud of their achieve- ments as young entrepreneurs as they are of their social-democratic credentials. These people are the Green Cohort.

The Left-Right debate merely creates the impression, baldly, that the party doesn’t know where the nation or the world is going and has run out of ideas, imagination and smarts. In an interview after announcing she was stepping down, Alexa McDonough said that she lamented that the federal NDP caucus does not have the ”œclear focus” that the NDP caucus in the Nova Scotia Legislature had when she was provincial leader. A different time, a different world, and a revealing admission. Why wasn’t the absence of focus resolved? It’s a dark and puzzling world, to be sure. To quote poet Margaret Avison,

With the maps lost, the voyages

Cancelled by legislation years ago,

This is become a territory without a name.

But political parties, especially opposition parties, are supposed to have focus. That’s their reason for being. That’s why people vote for them. ”œPeople don’t want the NDP to be an inter- nal debating society,” said Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton.

  • Meech-mouseyness doesn’t help either. Being wedded to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords is understandably a burden for the party. How does the NDP articulate visions for Canada when philosophically it has bought into hamstringing the federal government in the social-program areas that matter so much to the party and to its commitment to democratic equal- ity? The electorate doesn’t care for Meech and Charlottetown now and didn’t care for them then. The electorate, particularly the Green Cohort electorate, wants smart, pragmatic ideas for the country. The Green Cohort thinks global and pan-Canadian, increasingly even in Quebec. Timidly refraining from presenting detailed poli- cies"a model for the reform of primary health care comes immediately to mind"because ”œeverything has to be worked out with the provinces” does not gain the NDP any ground.

  • And inadequately identifying potential supporters is really bad. University of Toronto politi- cal scientist Neil Nevitte’s book, The Decline of Deference (Broadview Press, 1996), should be required reading for everyone in the party. In his 25 years of research into the values of Western Europeans, Americans and Canadians, Nevitte has identified two fascinating aspects of Canadian society. He finds that Canadians have the most egalitarian families in the North Atlantic community and that they have record- ed the most explosive increase in levels of post- secondary education. The result, he says, is this rapidly expanding values cluster of Canadians" he calls them the Postmaterial Cohort; I’ll stick with Green Cohort"who are increasingly well- educated, well-informed, in-your-face and sple- netic, more politically engaged than either Americans or Europeans, more ready to get involved in protests, consumer boycotts and just about any form of political activism going down. They cross boundaries of class, ethnicity and gender. They are mostly cosmopolitan. They tend to be younger. They are hungry for democ- racy and angry at the inadequacies of their for- mal political institutions. According to studies published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, they put more faith in civil society and the courts than in parliamentary institutions. They are passionate about quality-of-life issues: the environment, health (which they link to the environment), education, social stability and the state of cities. They have little interest in right- wing ideas about education, health care and morality. They are tolerant of alternative lifestyles. They want an inclusive society. They are not opposed to capitalism or global market liberalism but they want corporate responsibility and democratic accountability.

Like social researcher Marc Zwelling, who presented similar findings at last May’s MISC conference, Neil Nevitte says Canadians are not conforming ideologues but individualistic prag- matists, ready to support through taxation smart ideas that work"but not ideas that don’t work. In Marc Zwelling’s words: To draw in these peo- ple"it’s the Green Cohort he’s talking about" forget rhetoric; promote common-sense ideas that fit real needs.

Of course, it is also this cohort that is disen- gaging the most rapidly from traditional political participation. What image, message and policies will bring them in from the cold? What would the NDP need to do to knit together a coalition of environmentalists, socialists, trade unionists and, most important, this new, younger cohort of voters? The suggestions that follow are hardly profound. They should be obvi- ous to anyone who looks at the good research in social and demographic values being done in Canada and compares it to the current lacunae in Canadian political parties.

  • Leader. First, the NDP needs a party leader with a vision of the country that stirs Canadians’ hearts"and the party better beat the bushes hard to find one because Paul Martin, if, or actually when, he becomes leader of the Liberals, will be good at vision-messaging. Canadians ache for a national vision. They love their country, love the civilization that has been created on the northern half of this continent. They don’t need idiotic Canada Day opinion polls in the newspapers to tell them that. But it is not an unpredicated love. Neil Nevitte’s research shows that a majority of Canadians (55 per cent) would support union with the United States if it meant all our environ- mental problems would be solved"which shows not only how central the environment is to Canadians’ core values but how big the chunk of Canadians is who hold at least some Green Cohort values. It also shows that ”œCanadian” has to mean something. It has to be tied to culture and mythology, to belief in a noble future. To break through the media filter, the NDP needs a leader who can articulate the country’s mytholo- gy, put words on what Canadians collectively feel about themselves"no easy task. To a well-educat- ed, well-informed, sceptical electorate, the worn, patriotic clichés of the past will be worse than use- less. The NDP needs a leader who can convinc- ingly argue that culture is a greater determinant of where people go together than either political ide- ology or economics.

  • New party members. The party needs to pull these Green Cohort people into party mem- bership, use them to rejuvenate political dis- course within the party and rescue it from its fusty lassitude and tired rhetoric. It needs to find candidates in this group to run in the next election.

  • Environment. This is the central issue of the Green Cohort. But ”œthe environment” does not just mean keeping the world safe for bun- nies and bears. ”œThe environment,” when the Green Cohort uses the term, embodies a sophis- ticated, informed world-view that links clean air, clean water and respect for the planet and its life to health care, the quality of urban life, globalization, a definition of the commons and a host of other issues. The NDP must be the unambiguous political champion of the envi- ronment.

  • Public health care. Canadians want a smart, pragmatic, workable model of reformed health care. Simply carping at government to put more money into the system and tossing labels at the electorate"Homecare? Pharmacare? The NDP supports it"won’t fly. Public expectations of the system are through the roof. Public demands, if the system remains unchanged, are almost certainly beyond affordability. The NDP needs to present a holistic model that factors in the assault on health-care costs of industrial pol- lution, of inadequate housing for poor people, of bad lifestyle, of stress, of workplaces that don’t reflect the requirements of 21st-century Canadian families. It needs a model that rede- fines the roles of health professionals, that rede- fines hospitals"why shouldn’t patients have their beds made by relatives?"that with new ideas of outreach and services moves primary health care into communities.

  • Social justice. Social justice is not merely the cant of the welfare state. The growing gap between rich and poor, in Canada and globally, is not only unjust, it is socially destabilizing. It touches on the quality of life of every Canadian. Those who find themselves left out or left behind undermine the well-being of the whole. The Green Cohort believes in the inclusive society.

  • Globalization. Global market capitalism and global trade mechanisms are a fact. What is absent are comparable global mechanisms that protect the environment, protect workers, pro- tect national cultures, that impose responsibili- ty on global corporations. The politicians and the international bureaucrats in institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO" even the corporations themselves"know the existing trade mechanisms don’t work, that trickle-down does not work. The NDP must be in the political vanguard of proposing a just, responsible and intelligent world order, a dem- ocratically accountable world order. Identifying the party under some anti-globalization rubric is plain silly.

  • The commons. Canadians want a clear delineation between what can be left to the mar- ket and what is in the public good and therefore should be outside the market. The great majority of Canadians want health care and education outside the market. They most certainly do not trust the environment to be protected by the market. They want their universities protected from the market and, indeed, most Canadians would view the degree to which the federal gov- ernment ties university research grants to match- ing grants from corporations as an assault on Canadian values.

  • The cities. These are the engines of the new economy. These are the loci of global com- petitiveness. These are where most Canadians live. Throughout the developed world, national governments are redesigning and refurbishing cities, addressing inadequate public transit, air pollution, substandard housing for the poor, the quality of public education. The NDP has to put Meech-mouseyness aside and champion a new federal relationship with the cities.

  • Parliamentary democracy. The NDP must strongly advocate proportional representation and independent parliamentary committees and oppose both corporate and union funding of political parties.

  • Aboriginal Canadians. Yes, their status in Canadian society is the nation’s disgrace, and the numbers of Aboriginal Canadians who continue to be excluded from mainstream Canadian life must always be on the party’s agenda.

  • The name. Why Canadian social democ- rats continue to come up with names for their party that most of their fellow Canadians cannot decode may be charmingly Canadian but is cer- tainly irritating. The party should call itself the Social Democratic Party of Canada.

The NDP, and the CCF before it, has always stood for what is collectively best about Canadians, for what Canadians value most about their collectivity. The party cannot be blamed if, today, it has become a bit fumbly, a bit uncertain of what it should look like. It’s a confusing world, a world transforming at horrendous speed. But the purpose of political leaders and parties is to look into the darkness and find light, to show the path ahead in terms of what makes sense to a people’s culture and to what people believe about themselves. This always has been the case. All that is different now is that the NDP and its next leader must be as smart, as well-informed and as pragmatic as the electorate whose attention it wants to capture.