Origins of the campaign
In 1995, I ran for the leadership of the federal NDP. I had never been an election candidate, much less a Member of Parliament, nor did I have a base in the party, having only rejoined the NDP a couple of years earlier. I had let my membership lapse back in the 1960s when I began doing broadcasting work and wanted to establish at least some formal distance from political parties. I had always, however, supported the NDP, and by the 1990s I despaired of its future. I rejoined not because I was happy with the party but for the opposite reason. I was dismayed by its loss of confidence and its continuing strategic failure and, with that, its lost opportunities. I myself considered democratic socialism as appropriate as ever – indeed, the only political philosophy that made sense – and saw possibilities everywhere.
The party, in my view, was still stuck in the 1960s, or was it the 1930s or, for that matter, the 19th century and the beginnings of the British class war? Prominent critics of the NDP’s outdated culture, meanwhile, like former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, weren’t much better. Their timeline had stopped in the 1980s, with its right-wing ideological ascendancy. The 1980s were the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, of financial speculation, the rise of sweeping market doctrine, the inflation of brand-name propaganda, and unvarnished praise of corporate business. Broadbent and others of like mind weren’t immune. They had come to accept that era’s dominant assumptions and speak its language as if, having said goodbye to old-style socialist politics, they saw those assumptions as the natural order of things. They talked, for example, about the need for the NDP to accept “the market” and corporations – they considered their doing so bold declarations – but they didn’t go beyond that. Not knowing much about enterprise and what makes economies tick, they simply accepted the right-wing perspective on such matters. They were also saying, in effect, that democratic socialism was passé. The NDP’s role was simply to be a more socially-minded counterbalancing force.
The 1980s, however, were the past, too, and in my view an aberration. I wanted the NDP to leapfrog from its origins in the 1930s and 1960s into the 21st century instead – to look ahead historically instead of into the rear-view mirror. This didn’t mean the NDP would be less radical. Quite the contrary, it would be more radical, but in a different way – “radical and modern at the same,” as I would later put it.
What bothered me most was that the NDP lacked strategic sensibility. The party’s caucus and membership were flummoxed by the tidal wave of right-wing ideological power and they floundered around, having no idea of what to do, not least because nobody in the party seemed to think strategically. So-called “renewal conferences” were just the past warmed over, which is what one would expect from people inside the same political party talking to each other. In particular, the NDP had two profound strategic weaknesses. First, it had little or no presence on economic issues, having long abandoned the field to its political opponents. New Democrats, in this way, seemed to have agreed with their antagonists that democratic socialism was finished. Second, they had failed to recognize that we lived in a mass-media society, where our real opponents were not the Liberals or the Reform Party (as it was then) but concentrated right-wing media power that set the frame within which politics took place.
There wasn’t much expertise in the NDP in these areas, either. It had been allowed to atrophy. The party had ended up going round and round fixed almost exclusively on social issues – electorally it was addicted to health care – just a shadow of what a major political party needed to be.
I had done a lot work, including several major books, in both those strategic areas and knew them initimately.
I set out to turn the NDP’s attention to the strategic challenge before it, instead, and to outline what the future might look like – to do so in left-wing terms rather than right-wing terms in circumstances where the right, politically, had appropriated the future. I had the advantage of having a background in the two key areas – economics and media. I tried for the better part of two years to arrange a strategic planning session with the federal caucus, without success. I decided then that the only other practical alternative was to run for the leadership myself the next time the possibility arose, and use that platform to make the case – the case for a “politics of the future.”