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In Left Field

Ed Broadbent and the future of the NDP

Graeme Young

Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality

Ed Broadbent, with Frances Abele, Jonathan Sas, and Luke Savage

ECW Press

328 pages, hardcover and ebook

On July 6, 1975, Ed Broadbent, then a thirty-nine-year-old member of Parliament from Oshawa, Ontario, delivered a speech at the New Democratic Party convention in Winnipeg, capping off his campaign to become just the third leader in the young party’s history. It was a tumultuous time. Across the rich world, the social democratic settlement that had been brought about by the twin catastrophes of the Great Depression and the Second World War was beginning to unravel with the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system, the oil shock precipitated by the Arab-Israeli conflict, the beginning of industrial decline, and the emergence of persistent inflation. The year before, the NDP had suffered a significant electoral setback when, after supporting the minority Trudeau government in Parliament since 1972, it lost almost half its seats despite seeing its vote share decline by only 2.4 percent.

The NDP, Broadbent argued in Winnipeg, needed “to accept the socialist challenge of the 1970s and beyond.” It needed to “move beyond social issues” and address “the economic question,” which was actually a two-part question about “economic power, and who will wield it” and “our national priorities, and who will decide them.” The NDP and its precursor, the Co‑operative Commonwealth Federation, Broadbent stressed, had played a vital role in securing pensions, family allowances, unemployment and hospital insurance, and medicare. It was now important to challenge corporate power and to ensure that “the people” would make the crucial decisions about the Canadian economy and society. Broadbent won on the fourth ballot the following day, going on to lead the New Democrats for over fourteen years.

Can Honest Ed still show the way?

The Canadian Press Historical Archive

Economic policy has long been viewed as the weak point of progressive politics, because many on the left have a natural reflex to respond to economic questions with social policy: prioritizing an expansion of the safety net to provide greater protections in the form of high-quality public services and benefits to ease the deep inequalities produced by market outcomes and to correct for past and present forms of marginalization. This is indeed a laudable instinct and one that has concrete benefits for our health, our communities, and our ability to live decent, meaningful lives. The national pharmacare program, a top-priority condition of the NDP for its support of the current Liberal government, could certainly strengthen the Canadian welfare state. It will not, however, fundamentally shift the balance of power in our economy in a way that Broadbent envisioned. Nearly half a century has passed since his appeal. The economic question remains unanswered.

As the neo-liberal era has been shaken by recurring crises, seemingly entrenched inequality, and looming climate catastrophe, politics across much of the world is once again in a state of flux — with efforts to re‑embed markets within their social foundations and to ensure that economies are structured to serve our societies rather than the other way around. While leaders and movements across the broad spectrum of the mainstream left — from Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn to Greece’s Syriza coalition and Spain’s Podemos party — have emerged throughout Europe and North America in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007–08, the intellectual case for what exactly a new economic settlement might look like has not yet been fully developed. The left, in effect, has been caught off guard, for several reasons: the post-materialists have concerned themselves with group inequalities that are less explicitly based on economic issues; the horrors of state socialism seem to delegitimize progressive politics more generally, even strands that are rightly critical of it and that seek to offer a more democratic alternative grounded in rights and equality; the neo-liberal consensus has become so dominant that challenging it strikes many as both futile and electorally dangerous; the intellectual struggle appears long lost in the economics profession, with esoteric theorizing that is absurdly removed from the experiences of those who would supposedly benefit from challenging social inequalities; and with no power comes no responsibility, giving the left the luxury of not seeking serious answers to some of the most complex and fundamental questions raised by the demands of government.

Although the NDP has had its own brief resurgence — forming the official opposition for the first time in 2011 and briefly appearing close to forming the government in 2015 before finishing a distant third — it has also remained detached from a broader resurgence of progressive politics internationally. It has been strangely adrift and has failed to properly respond to the country’s transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, largely abandoning its role as the political arm of the labour movement and distancing itself from the economic interests of its traditional working-class base. In the absence of purpose, it has struggled to build a coherent and united coalition that is able to firmly establish its place on the Canadian political spectrum, let alone to win elections. A change in direction, it seems, is needed. Can Broadbent point the way forward?

Ed Broadbent never wrote his memoirs. He seemed to have little interest in refighting old battles. He instead chose a different path, publishing, with three interlocutors, a reflection on his life and ideas just a few months before his death in January 2024. Books presenting a grand sweep of political thought on the left are frequently unremarkable. It is all too common for self-satisfied ideology to take the place of thoughtful analysis and for substantive discussion to give way to a regurgitation of whatever ideas happen to be floating around disparate movements with, at best, a tenuous consideration of how they fit together. But there is more to Seeking Social Democracy. Broadbent comes across as a refreshingly original thinker in his own right and — a rarity in politics — a writer with something substantial to say.

Broadbent was briefly an academic before he was a politician. Perhaps the latter occupation made him readable and the former made him worth reading. Much of Broadbent’s intellectual inspiration came from unexpected places. His time as a doctoral student coincided with a startling revitalization of Marxist thought: in England, the New Left Review was founded in 1960 and was followed by the Socialist Register in 1964. In the intervening years, Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution, and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class were published in quick succession. Broadbent was drawn especially to the apostates, the heretics, and those who flouted the orthodoxy of their fellow travellers — and this interest took him outside the mainstream currents of the more dogmatic left.

The God That Failed, a 1949 collection of essays edited by the British Labour MP Richard Crossman, influenced Broadbent’s early view that individual freedom would be limited by state ownership, a suspicion that would linger in his “Orwellian skepticism about the state being viewed as any kind of panacea.” When he spent time studying at the London School of Economics, the great home of the Fabian socialists and of such titans of twentieth-century progressive politics as Clement Attlee and B. R. Ambedkar, the only seminar he bothered to attend regularly was run by Michael Oakeshott, who, in his seminal essay “On Being Conservative,” wrote skeptically of politicians “imposing their favourite projects” and of “Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay.” For a young social democrat, this was hardly a doctrinaire education. Broadbent’s thinking would be all the better for it.

It was also in London that Broadbent began to study seriously the work of John Stuart Mill, the towering figure of nineteenth-century English liberalism. Sitting in the British Museum Reading Room, where Marx had spent countless hours constructing a critique of capitalism that had, at the time, served as the bedrock for leftist political economy for nearly a century, Broadbent found himself drawn to Mill, coming to believe that the two contemporaries had similar views of the corrosive effects of capitalism on society — although Mill faltered in still justifying the system. Back at the University of Toronto, Broadbent, under the supervision of C. B. Macpherson, completed his dissertation on Mill’s conception of the good society, arguing that “the goal of good government should be to foster the development of creative and cooperative human beings.” Broadbent was repelled by the capitalist exploitation that he found in liberalism but was “drawn to the idea of autonomous individuals free to develop their unique capacities and talents,” which Mill discussed at length. The two things could not go together. We are compelled, Broadbent wrote in an article published in 1968, the year he entered Parliament, either to revise downward our understanding of democracy or to advocate for a form of democratic socialism. The latter was to be, in theory and in practice, the great project of his life.

If approaching socialism from the vantage point of Mill seems idiosyncratic, Broadbent was at least in good company. It is not a coincidence that comparable sympathies infuse the thinking of the two most readable titans of the New Left: the heroes of Thompson’s masterpiece are, along with those who refuse to be chewed up and spat out by the industrial revolution, radicals like Paine, Cobbett, Hazlitt, and Carlile. And Noam Chomsky, who has little use for Marx, traces the intellectual lineage of his own libertarian socialist tradition to the Enlightenment of Rousseau, Humboldt, and Kant, believing that capitalism is unjust for the same reasons that classical liberals opposed state intervention. Capitalism, here, is the promise of liberalism betrayed, and one must refuse to accept the injustices that come with economic change.

While Broadbent did not follow this line of thinking to its natural conclusion, perhaps its most profound implication is that it flips socialism on its head, turning it from a politics of ends to a politics of means. This, surely, is a useful turn. Human beings are not a means to an end — a class on Kant was an early favourite from Broadbent’s undergraduate days — and the propensity of some strands of the left to treat them as such in the service of a utopian egalitarianism has too often brought consequences that range from suffocating to monstrous. The objective of politics is instead to maximize human freedom and to provide the conditions necessary for that freedom to be exercised. It is not to tell us where to go; it is to give us the ability to define and pursue our own conception of the good. Mill might approve. Maybe even Oakeshott.

Broadbent used the term “cooperative individualism,” taken from the subtitle of his dissertation, to characterize the type of society he envisioned. He believed much flowed from that — particularly the importance of equality as a precursor for equal opportunity and the value of decommodification (“the idea of making particular goods universal and removing them from the domain of market competition altogether”). Yet it remains unclear how Broadbent squared this belief with his skepticism of excessive reliance on the state and with his view, again from Mill, of the importance of competition in challenging monopolies and the centralization of power. Perhaps a more promising aspect of his thinking is his support for industrial democracy, fuelled by the belief that “the egalitarian ends sought by the best parts of the liberal tradition ultimately required socialist means to fulfill.” The great liberal project of democratization may be incomplete until it enters economic life, particularly the workplace. The freedom to control your own labour is one of the pillars of leftist political thought, but there is a difference between democracy and ownership, and one wonders what Broadbent had in mind for the latter, especially if he believed, as he wrote, that “only a collectively owned economy can avoid exploitation, and thus make the good society realizable.”

The classic question of who should get what and why has never had a consistent answer in leftist thought. Marx himself hedged on this point, with his prescription in Critique of the Gotha Program of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” sitting uncomfortably with his description of labour exploitation in Capital. Mill, for his part, offered a strongly labourist understanding of distribution when, in detailing socialist sympathies in his autobiography, he described looking forward to a time “when the rule that they who do not work shall not eat, will be applied not to paupers only, but impartially to all.” This is hardly egalitarian or even particularly compassionate. It would be instructive to learn how cooperative individualism might navigate these thorny problems.

The project of sketching out what the good society might look like in practice, then, is ongoing, a point that Broadbent would probably have been quick to concede. Still, there is much here to fuel discussions about a plausible way forward for progressive politics in a way that speaks to Broadbent’s call to take economic issues more seriously. In focusing on redistribution and good public services, social policy can never be more than part of the answer, and then only in a truly progressive policy agenda, which surely must also include a firm understanding of how to change the rules of the economic game to ensure that benefits are not so concentrated in the first place. Our economy is capable of tremendous dynamism and creativity because of our collective endeavours. It has the potential to deliver dramatic improvements in shared prosperity and holds the promise of self-fulfillment if it allows us to occupy our time with things that we find meaningful and rewarding. How the economy can also address its own core injustices and unwanted consequences — from cyclical downturns to environmental degradation — is something that any left-of-centre political party has to engage with.

A lot of work needs to be done if the NDP wants to show what the good society might look like in practice, but surely Broadbent’s belief in decentralized decision making, worker empowerment, and expanding the scope of democracy from political to economic life provides a basis from which to think about an alternative to the status quo. Times may change, but some ideas never go out of fashion.

Broadbent was teaching at the newly established York University in Toronto when he was asked to be the NDP candidate for Oshawa–Whitby in 1968. His speech at the nomination meeting included passages about Marx and Mill. Abe Taylor, the president of United Auto Workers Local 222 and the man who nominated him, later said that if he had heard that speech in advance, “he would probably have nominated the other guy.” Broadbent would not be the last to learn that practical politics is far from the academy. He had to become fluent in a new language if he wanted to put his ideas into practice. Tommy Douglas, the party’s first leader, was a master at translating principled positions into everyday concerns, as was his successor David Lewis. In time, Broadbent would be too. Cooperative individualism had to move from theory to praxis. It also had to remain in the background; as far as Broadbent could recall, he never used the term in his long political career. The New Democrats, he believed, needed to win. And social democratic principles would allow them to do so.

Here a puzzle emerges. If, as Broadbent often observed, Canadians consistently express social democratic values when asked about a broad range of political issues, why have they never supported the country’s premier social democratic party at a level that would allow it to come close to forming a government? Responding to this conundrum, the NDP has undertaken an extensive process of what the University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane refers to as moderation and modernization: moving away from the control of its members and key constituencies, most notably organized labour, and focusing instead on its voters and competitors, particularly voters it could win over from the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. The party has also become more centrist and professionalized. The results of this strategy have been decidedly underwhelming. With its confidence and supply deal masking a string of disappointing electoral results stretching back to 2015, those who have been discontented with the NDP’s move to the centre may claim that abandoning its roots while getting no closer to electoral success is a poor bargain. One need not long for a return to the Regina Manifesto, the anti-capitalist creed adopted by the CCF at its inaugural convention in 1933, or lament the party as, in an oft-quoted phrase, a “protest movement becalmed” to think the critics have a point.

That the new NDP is a palimpsest of changing ideas is unremarkable. But any party needs to take its voters with it if it wants to go somewhere new. The experience of its European peers serves as a stark warning: supporters of social democratic parties are not interested in milquetoast centrism, and if that is what is on offer, they will take their votes elsewhere.

If the NDP is becoming a party that stands less for social democracy and more for a form of soft progressivism — combining middle-class concerns with narrow group interests — then it risks becoming indistinguishable from the Liberal Party. Before Broadbent’s death, his colleague Andrew Jackson wrote that “Ed’s cardinal rule was, and remains, to never be outflanked on the left” and that his “strategy was to win over progressive liberal voters by standing definitively to the left of the Liberal party.” Questions of ownership and economic democracy are presumably areas in which the NDP could draw a distinction between itself and its primary competitor for centre-left voters, but an unwillingness or inability to speak to these issues blurs the lines between the two further. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, those who are inclined to support the NDP are in a particularly difficult position if they feel that voting for the Liberals will increase the odds of having a government that is at least somewhat progressive rather than one that is actively harmful to their interests. Such a scenario is of little help if the New Democrats aspire to become a party of government, as Broadbent believed it should be, rather than merely a party of conscience.

The nature of our electoral system means that relatively minor changes in public opinion — or even in the basic motivation to get out and vote — can lead to dramatic lurches in public policy. If the confidence and supply deal holds, the minority Liberal government is likely to be in power until 2025. Forecasting an election so far in advance is essentially meaningless, though recent polls suggest that the Conservative Party, which has moved sharply to the right under Pierre Poilievre, would be the first choice of the plurality of Canadians if they went to the polls today. Canadians have a curious history of being drawn to populist political movements that are remarkable for their poor grasp of basic economics. The popularity, such as it is, of Poilievre — a man whose professed views on inflation and cryptocurrencies are remarkably economically illiterate and could have proven disastrous had he had any real power since becoming leader of the official opposition in September 2022 — invites the uncomfortable question of why being so dramatically wrong can matter so little in public life. Particularly concerning for the NDP is the appeal that the Conservatives seem to enjoy among the working class and young Canadians, two groups that, for different reasons, are especially vulnerable to the impact of the housing crisis, insecure and poorly paid employment, and inadequate pensions. Economic hardship can drive voters to the left. It can also drive them to use their power to demand change, whatever the origin of that change. The New Democrats, by propping up the Liberals, have made themselves a target of this anger rather than a potential outlet for it. Pharmacare may come, but its cost could be high.

Here we return to the challenge that a reading of Mill raises for social democrats: What does freedom look like? Where does it come from? What is its relationship with government? And, by extension, why does the NDP have so little to say about it? The language of freedom and the desire to fix what seemed to be a broken system led a different generation of young people to support Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and, more recently, led working-class voters to back Donald Trump and Brexit. The NDP finds itself unable to make a convincing case for how what is essentially a populist version of the right-wing libertarianism imported from the American conservative movement promises not freedom but profound restrictions in the face of undemocratic, largely unaccountable private power. Freedom can be rather illusory if you have few rights in your relationship with your boss, your landlord, or your government, or if you cannot afford a basic standard of living, or if you see opportunities to live a decent life closed off through no fault of your own. A belief in economic democracy could allow the NDP to make this case and to position itself not as the party of telling people what to do but as the party of giving people the capacity to make meaningful decisions about how to live their lives and creating the conditions in which they are able to act on them. If the Conservatives have co‑opted the language of freedom, it is because the New Democrats have surrendered it. They are now paying the price.

What’s worse, poor communication and a lack of political vision have led to the NDP losing its ability to speak to groups that were at the core of its base, from farmers and blue-collar workers to religious voters driven by their faith to the more secular realm of politics. Perhaps most important, the party has lost the ability to speak to a universalism that relates to what it might mean not only to be Canadian but to have a common humanity around which a just, inclusive, and even successful political project can be built.

A cursory survey of Canadian politics leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that there is a distinct lack of engagement with big ideas, a lack of vision of the future that we might want to buy into, and a lack of willingness or ability to identify and speak to coming challenges — such as artificial intelligence, the energy transition, and increasingly unrealizable dreams of home ownership and upward mobility — that we will have to deal with sooner rather than later. If the NDP is failing to inspire, to provide answers to the pressing questions that Canadians face in a way that brings us together rather than pulls us apart, it is not alone. This, it seems, is our politics now. And we are all the worse for it.

Surely it does not have to be this way. Ed Broadbent’s ability to speak in everyday language to everyday needs shows there is much that the NDP can look to in its own history to craft a common narrative of the good life that both meets people where they are and points us in the direction of shared goals. The best forms of working-class politics have always been aspirational, based on an understanding of fairness that demands an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, of solidarity with those who refuse to back down in the face of injustice, and of a firm belief that, no matter how bleak things might seem, a better future is there for the taking if we wish to seize it.

The NDP, at present, does not appear to have a realistic vision that respects and places at its heart the freedom and dignity that is the promise of democracy; that is grounded in shared values of hard work, fairness, honesty, dignity, and respect, no matter who we are or where we come from; and that provides us with the opportunities that we need to live the types of lives that the good fortune of being Canadian makes possible. If the party wants to convince people that it is worth supporting, it should probably get one.

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Graeme Young is a research fellow at the University of Glasgow.

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