Canada’s Liberal Rebound

With Bob and Bill vying with each other to show America who’s tougher on crime, stingier with the budget, and meaner to the underclass, it’s hard to imagine liberalism getting off the canvas to fight another day. But news from our neighbors to the north may signal a shifting of the political winds. On May 28, Canada’s third most populous province, British Columbia, bucked virtually every trend in global politics by reelecting a government of self-described “democratic socialists.”

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the New Democratic Party (NDP) victory was the fact that 38-year-old party leader Glen Clark made no attempt to disguise his left-wing sympathies. While the B.C. Liberal Party (which, despite the name, is actually on the conservative end of the Canadian political spectrum) was campaigning on a platform of debt and deficit reduction, the NDP promised to raise B.C.’s minimum wage to keep pace with inflation, freeze tuition fees for postsecondary students, and fight spending cuts for health and social programs. “Rather than join the fashion for hair-shirt finance . . . Glen Clark steered to the left,” noted a preelection article in The Economist (April 27, 1996).

“This was a bit of a watershed election,” says Joel Connelly, chief political writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “I saw its significance in the reversal of the right-wing trend and the fact of a progressive government standing proudly progressive and surviving.”

Connelly says the B.C. election may have some lessons for American campaigners in November: Clark “basically adopted a theme that Clinton had in 1992–‘We’re on Your Side’–but followed it up with some very tactical promises to middle-class and working poor people who are having a little bit of trouble coping with the rising cost of everything in this world.”

Clark would, of course, be situated on the far left of the Democratic Party, Connelly says. “He reminds me a little bit of Senator Paul Wellstone, a left-wing political activist turned college professor turned senator from Minnesota, and a little bit of Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa–although Harkin is older and more bitter and more craggy, while Clark is young and enthusiastic and a conscious coalition builder.”

Still, the NDP–and its brand of democratic socialism–is very much a Canadian phenomenon. The party has never held power federally, but it has held the balance of power in two minority governments and was the original architect of many of Canada’s major social programs, including Medicare.

And despite the landmark victory, no one in the NDP is gloating. The election was one of the closest in Canadian history; the Liberals actually collected almost 38,000 more votes than the NDP. Under the parliamentary system, though, each of B.C.’s 75 ridings (districts) elects a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and the party with the most MLAs forms the government. The Liberals won several wealthy urban ridings by substantial margins, but the rural ridings opted to remain with the NDP. The final results were NDP 39, Liberals 33; two other parties, both located to the right of the NDP, shared the remaining three seats. Some neocons were so upset that the Liberals could win the popular vote but lose the election that they immediately began to demand that the electoral system be revamped.

Writing in Canada’s national newsmagazine Maclean’s (June 10, 1996), Chris Wood declared that “the B.C. vote contained moral lessons that plainly deserve a hearing at both ends of the political spectrum. The NDP may have been sharply reminded that voters have real concerns about debt and taxes. For the right wing there was an even sharper reminder: that voters, at least in prosperous British Columbia, are not willing to risk the sacrifice of valued social programs simply in order to reduce the public debt.”

NDP Member of Parliament Svend Robinson, one of the party’s most influential players on the federal scene, says there was also an important lesson for all of Canada’s left-wing politicians. “It was an incredibly powerful message that should resonate right across the country: You can buck this right-wing neoconservative debt-deficit hysteria with a government that says right up front that we believe in the power of a democratically elected government to effect change in health care, in education, in the environment, in equality,” he says. “And that’s a message that desperately has to be heard in this country.”

And in the United States. If only Bob and Bill were listening.

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