Canada’s “election to nowhere”

Peter Solenberger

November 12, 2021

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose “Vote for me because I’m me” campaign didn’t work. (Photo: Liberal Party website)

On September 20, 2021 the Canadian state — English Canada and Quebec — had a general election. Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the “snap” election two years before it was legally required. He intended it to be a referendum on his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and expected to win back the parliamentary majority the Liberals had lost in 2019.

The maneuver failed. The results were essentially no change in the distribution of seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals will form another minority government with parliamentary support from the parties to their left, the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Bloc Québécois, and the Greens. The Conservatives will remain the Official Opposition. And the far right People’s Party will continue to be shut out.

In what follows I’ll detail the results, describe the parties and map them into their U.S. counterparts, explore why Canadian politics are to the left of U.S politics, and discuss the rightward shift of the NDP.

Readers who want a Canadian socialist take on the election could read Canada: No Change by Michael Roberts or listen to the Post-Election Debrief podcast by Bruce and Amadeus on the Socialist Project website.

The results

Like Britain, Canada has a parliamentary system. Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected first-past-the-post in ridings.Six parties competed for 338 seats in the House of Commons in 2021 and 2019. Five competed in 2015, since the People’s Party hadn’t yet split from the Conservatives. Here are their results for the three elections, with the parties ordered by the number of seats they won in 2021.

Popular Vote

Party 2021 2019 2015
Turnout 62.3% 67.0% 68.3%
Liberals 32.62% 33.12% 39.47%
Conservatives 33.74% 34.34% 31.89%
Bloc Québécois 7.64% 7.63% 4.65%
New Democrats 17.82% 15.98% 19.71%
Greens 2.33% 6.55% 3.45%
People’s Party 4.94% 1.62%

Seats in the House of Commons

Party 2021 2019 2015
Liberals 159 157 184
Conservatives 119 121 99
Bloc Québécois 32 32 10
New Democrats 25 24 44
Greens 2 3 1
People’s Party 0 0

Turnout declined significantly in 2021, reflecting a feeling among voters that the election was pointless.

The Liberals won more seats in the House of Commons than the Conservatives, although they trailed in the popular vote. The two parties each lost half a percentage point in the popular vote. The Liberal votes were more efficiently distributed, so they gained two seats, while the Conservatives lost two.

On the left, the New Democrats improved their popular vote by nearly two percentage points and gained a seat in the House of Commons. The Greens lost more than half their popular vote and lost a seat. The Bloc Québécois held even. Their votes, concentrated in Quebec, gave them more seats than the NDP, despite a much smaller popular vote.

On the right, the People’s Party, a Donald Trump-inspired split from the Conservatives, gained significantly in the popular vote but failed to elect an MP, because its votes were too scattered.

The parties

In a January 2020 interview Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” Canada is a country where the analogs of Joe Biden and the AOC are in different parties.

The Liberal Party is the analog of the Clinton-Obama-Biden wing of the Democratic Party. The Liberals promise much and deliver little. Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, became Prime Minister in 2015 at the age of 43, a fresh face for a tired party.

Trudeau’s first-term government legalized recreational marijuana and established a federal carbon tax. But Trudeau also attempted to get Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould (JWR) to intervene in an ongoing criminal case against Quebec-based construction company SNC-Lavalin. JWR, the first Indigenous person and third woman to hold the office, refused, so he had her expelled from the Liberal caucus.

Claiming to be an environmentalist, Trudeau in office championed oil and gas extraction. Hoping to ride his government’s handling of Covid-19 to victory, he recklessly held an unnecessary election, as cases and deaths soared. By time of the election, he had nothing more to offer than “Vote for me because I’m me.”

The Conservative Party is the analog of the Bush-McCain-Romney wing of the Republican Party. It favors lower taxes, a balanced budget, deregulation, law-and-order, a strong military, NATO, hostility to China and Russia, and support for Israel. Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole opportunistically claims to support unions, Quebec autonomy, and Indigenous rights, but that’s all show.

During his 2020 campaign for the Conservative Party leadership, O’Toole pandered to Trumpist tendencies in the party. Having won the leadership, he tacked back toward the center with a promise to modify but not repeal the Liberals’ carbon tax and ban on assault weapons. Knowing that the Conservatives couldn’t win by becoming Trumpist and would be outflanked on the right by the People’s Party if they tried, he ran on a combination of economic conservatism and “Canada nice.”

The Bloc Québécois has no U.S. analog. Its politics are social-democratic and Quebec nationalist. It runs in federal elections, but only in Quebec, hence its high vote efficiency. It’s allied with the Parti Québécois, which runs in provincial elections. Both parties seek to protect the Québécois identity and Quebec’s sovereignty.

The Bloc lost badly to the NDP in the 2011 “Orange Wave.” It rebuilt by focusing on “Quebec’s interests,” not independence. By 2019 it had restored its position as the third-ranking party in the House of Commons and the fourth-ranking in the popular vote.

The New Democratic Party is the analog of the Bernie Sanders-AOC wing of the Democratic Party, but organized as a separate party. Its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was formed in 1932 by socialist, labor, agrarian and co-operative activists. The New Democratic Party (NDP) itself was formed in 1961 by the CCF and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL), the Canadian analog of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) in the U.S. See my article Lessons from the birth of the NDP and Jim Naylor’s article Clarifying the Canadian Example for the history.

The CCF was a radical response to the Great Depression. The postwar CCF and the NDP were social-democratic. Naylor’s book The Fate of Labour Socialism: The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Dream of a Working-Class Future (2016) describes how the experience of the 1930s and 1940s shaped that transformation.

Like other social-democratic parties the NDP adapted to neoliberalism and helped to administer the capitalist state on that basis from the 1980s on. In the 2021 election the NDP, in a left imitation of the Liberals, tried to ride the popularity of its leader, Jagmeet Singh, offering no real policy alternatives.

Others in the NDP, most prominently Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis and the other proponents of the 2015 Leap Manifesto, have tried to pull the NDP toward more radical environmental and social justice policies, particularly the Green New Deal. In the 2021 election Lewis ran as an NDP candidate in an affluent, uncompetitive Vancouver riding and came in third with 26 percent of the vote. If the NDP leadership had given him a more competitive riding, be might have won.

The Green Party is a partial analog of the Greens in the U.S. The Canadian party is stronger electorally. Its 2021 results, the worst since its 2004 breakthrough, were about the same as the U.S. party’ best results, Ralph Nader’s 2000 run. Like the European Greens, the Canadian Greens have adapted to their role as a parliamentary player and have moved right.

This was vividly displayed in June 2021, when Jenica Atwin, a First Nation activist and Green MP from New Brunswick, the first Green elected outside British Columbia, condemned the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, described Israeli policy as apartheid, and criticized the Green Party response as “totally inadequate.” A top aide to Green Party leader Annamie Paul labeled Atwin’s statements “antisemitic,” although they were in line with party policy, and declared, “We will work to defeat you.” Atwin “crossed the aisle” to join the Liberal Party caucus.

This conflict was part of the Greens’ self-destruction in the 2021 election. Paul failed to win a seat and resigned her leadership post.

There is a Green left. Dimitri Lascaris ran against Paul in the 2020 leadership contest on a platform of more radical reforms and came close to winning. But the lure of office is great, and Paul’s moderation seemed to the convention delegates more likely to win votes.

The People’s Party is an analog of the Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party. It was formed in 2018 by Maxime Bernier. Libertarian in outlook, Bernier narrowly lost the 2017 Conservative party leadership election to replace Stephen Harper. He decided to throw in his lot with the far right.

The People’s Party ran on a platform of “Canada first,” reducing immigration, scrapping multiculturalism, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and ending Covid-19 mandates. Bernier says that people who espouse antisemitic, racist, or xenophobic positions “are not welcome” in the party, but the party’s far right edges into fascism.

Why are Canadian politics to the left of U.S. politics?

The political spectrum in Canada is clearly to the left of that in the U.S. The Canadian two-party system broke down nearly ninety years ago, and the distribution of support for the six parliamentary parties described above is to the left of the distribution for their U.S. analogs. As the 2021 election results show, the NDP, the Bloc Québécois, and the Greens are much stronger than the electoral left in the U.S. The People’s Party is much weaker than the Trump wing of the Republican Party. Why?

Barry Eidlin’s Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada (2018) explores this question in relation to the place of unions in U.S. and Canada. See Meredith Schafer’s Why No Labor Party Here? for a review of the book. Eidlin argues:

The social and political struggles of the 1930s and 1940s forged two labor movements and two labor regimes that, although bearing a surface resemblance, were organized along different logics. In Canada, the working class was incorporated as a class representative, whereas in the United States, it was incorporated as an interest group. This happened through what I have termed different processes of political articulation, the active work of parties in organizing political conflict and coalitions. Differences in how labor was politically incorporated enabled or constrained labor’s legitimacy and organizational capacity in different ways in both countries. Canadian labor’s role as a class representative legitimatized it and expanded its organizational capacity in the postwar decades, leading to union stability. Meanwhile, U.S. labor’s role as an interest group delegitimatized it and undermined its organizational capacity, leading to union decline. Put differently, the class idea was more firmly embedded in politics, policies, and organizational practices in Canada relative to the United States. (256-57)

Looked at from the top down, the Democratic Party incorporated and coopted labor, while the Liberals marginalized and alienated labor, leading it to form first the CCF and then the NDP. Looked at from below, the U.S. union leaders, including most socialists, chose not to break with the Democrats and allowed themselves to be incorporated as an interest group, while the Canadian labor socialists formed their own party and were incorporated as class representatives.

An obvious next question is why? Why did the two labor movements diverge. The answer has to be more than the choices of the capitalists, politicians and union leaders, since these were constrained by conditions in the two countries. The answer, it seems to me, centers on the historically determined fact that the U.S. was and is first among the traditional (G7) imperialist countries, while Canada was and is seventh.

That’s not to say that the divergence was inevitable. Much credit goes to the labor socialists who formed the CCF. But the obstacles to independence were greater in the U.S. The capitalists offered bigger carrots and wielded bigger sticks.

This question goes far beyond the scope of this article. Naylor’s and Eidlin’s books are a good starting point for readers who want to explore the question further.

The rightward drift of the NDP

In a June 2021 comment on my article Lessons from the birth of the NDP James Williams poses a question:

Peter, your article raises a number of questions, but chief among them is, why the rightward drift of NDP (and the European social democratic parties in general)? I know Lenin’s explanations about the Labor Aristocracy and the usual explanations about labor bureaucrats, but are these sufficient after all these years?

I’ll conclude this article with an overdue response. The traditional explanation is not just Lenin’s. Marx observed in an 1858 letter to Engels that

…the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable…

His observations about English workers and Britain’s rule of Ireland and U.S. workers and Black slavery are pertinent. Rosa Luxemburg saw the union and party bureaucracies as purveyors of reformism.

The explanations of reformism by Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, and other Marxists seem to me sufficient at a general level. But there are important variations in reformism from place to place and over time. These require a concrete analysis.

Taking the Canadian case, why was the CCF of 1932 so radical? Why did the CCF of the postwar period shift from abolishing capitalism to reforming it? Why did the Canadian industrial unions support the transformation of the CCF into the social-democratic NDP? Why did the NDP adapt to neoliberalism?

Addressing the last question, which is what I think Williams is getting at, the unions and the social-democratic parties were incorporated into the postwar capitalist order. They adapted to it. They became bureaucratized and moved far from their origins in militant, democratic class struggle.

By the 1970s excess capacity had accumulated, economic growth was slowing, and the capitalists could no longer simultaneously maintain the postwar labor and social reforms and their profits. They began the neoliberal offensive to jack up the rate of exploitation and shift income and wealth from the workers to themselves.

After years of class collaboration the unions and social-democratic parties fought rear-guard actions but, overall, retreated. The leaders were reluctant to risk their positions. The privileged were reluctant to risk their privileges. The ranks lacked confidence. By the 1980s the retreat became general.

There have been many struggles since the mid-1990s, when “There is no alternative” began to give way to “Another world is possible.” But the retreat continues. Looking at Canada and the U.S. in the 1930s can help us understand what would be necessary to turn the situation around today.

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