As it prepares for a likely federal election call in 2021, the New Democratic Party may be far too preoccupied to notice – but it was 60 years ago this week that the NDP came into being during a sweltering five-day convention in the Ottawa coliseum.
The 1800 delegates debated policy resolutions on Medicare, which was about to be introduced in Saskatchewan but was still years away as a national program. They also talked about controls on foreign investment, whether Canada should remain in NATO, and the need, vaguely defined, for centralized economic planning.
There was an extended debate about choosing a party name to replace that of the awkwardly named but hallowed Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Eventually the delegates chose the name New Democratic Party over that of the simpler, but non-descriptive New Party.
Party name and leadership
There was some discord surrounding the leadership vote, although the result was never in doubt. There were two candidates, both from Saskatchewan, the only province in which the CCF had formed government. In 1961, Tommy Douglas had been the premier there for 17 years. He was 63 years old. His opponent was Hazen Argue, a 40-year-old farmer who had been elected to the House of Commons in 1945 at the tender age of 24.
The CCF began primary as a radical agrarian movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Its parliamentary arm preceded the creation of the party itself in 1932. A small group of progressive farmers and Independent Labour candidates were elected as MPs in the 1920s. They coalesced in the Ginger Group around the leadership of Rev. J.S. Woodsworth, and punched above their weight in the House of Commons then, as they do today. Woodsworth, for example, offered to support a Liberal minority government in 1926 in return for a promise to introduce pensions for seniors. That resulted in the 1927 Old Age Pensions Act. Thank you.
There were great hopes for the CCF following its Depression era founding, but they were only modestly realized in electoral terms. The party was popular at war’s end in 1945 as it promoted policies such as unemployment insurance and the family allowance. Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the Liberals seized upon many of those reforms, at least in part to keep the CCF at bay. The CCF won 28 seats in the 1945 election under M. J. Coldwell, who had succeeded Woodsworth as leader, but they had expected to win more.
After that it was mostly a holding pattern, until the disastrous election of 1958, which produced a Conservative landslide. The CCF was reduced to a rump of eight seats. Coldwell was among those defeated, and he became a dispirited and lame duck leader.
The CCF had formed government only in Saskatchewan. Its federal prospects looked grim. Stalwarts such as long-time party secretary David Lewis, and defeated MP Stanley Knowles, began talks with labour leaders to create in Canada an approximate equivalent to the Labour Party in Great Britain. It was those plans and that organization which led to the founding convention in 1961.
There were no obvious potential leaders among the eight-member caucus, although Hazen Argue wanted the job. Douglas was the CCF’s best national asset, and an obvious candidate for leader, but he was reluctant to leave the premiership in Saskatchewan for the uncertainties that awaited a party mired in a distant third place in parliament. Eventually, he was convinced to make the move for the good of the national party. In the leadership vote on August 3, 1961, he defeated Argue by a margin of almost four to one. Argue pledged continued allegiance to the party but within six months he defected to the Liberals.
It was not an easy road. In 18 of the 19 elections from 1962 to 2019, the NDP won an average of 25 seats. In May 2011, which was an outlier, the party elected 101 MPs and formed the official opposition under Jack Layton. Tragically for everyone, he died from cancer just a few months later.
The NDP has never won power federally, but it has become a permanent and positive force in Canadian politics. The party has continued the earlier progressive tradition of prodding Liberal and Conservative governments, usually during periods of minority government or national crisis. The NDP led by David Lewis got a Foreign Investment Review Act in the 1972-74 minority government of Pierre Trudeau. The NDP under Ed Broadbent played a significant role in the constitutional debates in the early 1980s. It is largely thanks to the NDP that the Section 35 was written into the Constitution Act in 1982, recognizing and affirming existing Aboriginal and treaty rights.
In another minority government in 2008, Jack Layton convinced Stephen Harper to make an apology on behalf of the Canadian government to former students of residential schools. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NDP under Jagmeet Singh has pushed the government relentlessly for better Employment Insurance benefits and paid sick leave for workers, and for improved payments under the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The NDP has long lobbied for a public and universal childcare program and for pharmacare, which the Liberals have now promised – yet again.
Provincially, the NDP has formed majority governments in Nova Scotia, Ontario and all four western provinces, as well as in the Yukon.
The NDP never did become the party of labour, although a higher percentage of unionized workers vote for the NDP than do Canadians as a whole. Unions have offered important and welcome assistance in a myriad of campaigns, including the four in which I was a federal NDP candidate. The ties are deep and amicable. Federal laws now make it impossible for unions to provide much money or even assistance in kind, so it is more important than ever to reach out to individual workers.
Canadians do not need another election just now. The minority parliament is working well; but the prime minister may see an advantage in creating an artificial crisis. I hope that he does not do it, but if he goes ahead he will most likely find that the NDP base is solid and growing.