Monday, June 20, 2011

Layton hasn’t learned a key lesson of New Labour

By John Sainsbury
The Ottawa Citizen
June 20, 2011

Jack Layton wants to position the NDP as “a government in waiting,” to use the term favoured by a previous party leader, Ed Broadbent. But Layton says he won’t take the party on a rightward march, to the centre of the political spectrum, in order to achieve that objective.

It’s puzzling then that he should be complicit in Sunday’s motion at the NDP’s weekend policy convention that sought to remove the word “socialist” from the NDP constitution — a proposal that party delegates sensibly bounced back to the party’s executive committee. “Socialist,” after all, neatly defines the NDP as a party of the left, so Layton’s apparent willingness to discard the label has to raise questions about the direction that he wants to see his party headed.

Perhaps Layton (a keen student of politics with a PhD in political science) is intent on emulating Tony Blair, who famously transformed Britain’s Labour party from a bunch of squabbling ideologues into a centrist political juggernaut that, re-branded as “New Labour,” trounced its Tory opponents in three consecutive elections.

If so, Layton seems to have missed one of Blair’s key moves.

At a special party conference in 1995, Blair didn’t take the word “socialist” out of the Labour Party constitution. On the contrary, he put it in there for the first time. “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party,” the amended constitution declared. The phrase “spirit of solidarity,” with its resonances of working-class militancy, was tossed in for good measure.

(In his autobiography, Blair describes how he put the finishing touches to the document during his daughter Kathryn’s birthday party: “I would go between games of pass-the-parcel and rewriting British social democracy.”)

Blair was making his genuflections to Labour party traditions, while plotting (in his words) “something revolutionary, transformative,” namely the removal of Clause 4 from the party constitution. That hotly debated clause committed Labour to seeking the “common ownership [i.e. nationalization] of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Hallowed text for many party loyalists, it had become a political albatross at a time when a clear majority in Britain had come round to the view that national prosperity required a flourishing private sector. Clause 4 was probably one reason why Labour contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, when pitted against a deeply unpopular Conservative government in the general election of 1992.

Unlike Tony Blair, who understood that symbol and substance each have their place, Jack Layton, by playing fast and loose with the word “socialist,” is in danger of severing his party from its history. And he’s doing so without securing anything equivalent to a “Clause 4 moment” that would demonstrate his mastery over policy making.

Cut off from its philosophical moorings, the NDP, under its amiable but oddly ineffective leader, is quickly becoming a drifting, rudderless barque, piled high with good (and expensive) causes, defined by the exigencies of the moment and not by an enduring vision for Canada that connects past, present, and future.

In fairness to Layton, the word socialist sets off more alarm bells in North America than it does in Europe. But that’s no good reason to scrap it. There is after all a strong tradition of practical socialism in Saskatchewan, nurtured by a succession of NDP governments. The fact that conservatives in the province have furiously contested their achievement should, in itself, make the federal NDP wary of any rhetorical gesture that, by demeaning socialism, undermines their provincial cousins.

Layton should also be alert to the fact that socialism is far from being a dirty word in Quebec, his new political bailiwick, where the province’s biggest corporation, Hydro-Quebec, is publicly owned and an object of much national pride.

And let’s face it, it’s not as if Stephen Harper will stop taunting the NDP with the socialist tag just because the word is no longer in the preamble to the party constitution. When the taunts start up again, Layton can hardly respond with: “I’ve got news for you Mr. Harper, we ain’t socialists any more.” The groans from the party faithful would be deafening.

So think twice about removing the word “socialist”, Mr. Layton. In the long run its retention will cause you far less grief. Your party delegates have done you a big favour by putting the issue on the back burner.

John Sainsbury is a professor in the department of history at Brock University.

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