Forest of Dean & Wye Valley


In A.Graham on June 30, 2011 at 1:26 pm

In May, Canadians went to the polls in a snap election which saw the Tories win an overall majority. But the real shock to the electoral status quo was the disintegration of the Liberal vote, the virtual elimination of the separatist Bloc Quebequois -and the rise of the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), to become Canada’s official opposition party.
When the votes were counted, the Conservatives emerged with 167 seats, and the NDP with 102. The once mighty Liberal Party lost 43 of its seats, ending up with a mere 34 MPs. One of those who lost his seat was the party’s leader, Michael Ignatieff. The Bloc Quebequois slumped to just four MPs – whilst Elizabeth May gained a seat for the Green Party in British Columbia.
For the New Democrats, it was an astonishing rise in their party’s fortunes. But achieved with mixed emotions. One NDP supporters was quoted as saying, “it’s amazing…. it’s bittersweet because even though we won, the Conservatives got a majority. To me that’s the scariest thing.”


The NDP has certainly come a long way since the party was founded back in 1933, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. These were the depression years, with 30 per cent of the Canadian workforce unemployed. It was particularly grim in the prairie province of Saskatchewan. On top of the depression there was drought – and farmers and farmhands faced starvation.
It was against this background that Socialists from all over Canada came together to found a new party – the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The principles of the CCF were laid down in the “Regina Declaration”, which ended with a call for the eradication of capitalism.
Amongst those joining the new party was a young immigrant from Scotland, Tommy Douglas. Douglas had become a Baptist minister, but faced with the appalling poverty and desparation he saw about him every day, he soon became a convert to Socialism.
He went on to become premier of the province, when the CCF formed the first avowedly Socialist government in North America, in 1944. He was to remain premier for 17 years. 


In 1961, the CCF changed its name to the less cumbersome one of New Democratic Party – and Tommy Douglas became its leader. One of his major achievements, as far as Canadians are concerned, was the introduction of Medicare – Canada’s version of our National Health Service. This was first introduced in Saskatchewan, despite bitter opposition from doctors in the province. Later, in 1966, it was rolled out across Canada.
Tommy Douglas died in February 1986. The party he and others had helped to found in the Canadian prairies had come a long way – but despite being the instigators of Canada’s health system, it had failed to break through the two party stranglehold on Canadian politics. Governments came and went – but at federal level they were always either Liberal or Conservative.
Is the pattern about to change? And has the once mighty Canadian Liberal Party, the party of Pierre Troudeau, now been eclipsed?
The success of the NDP in May’s election undoubtedly owes much to the leadership of Jack Layton, an experienced political operator with a folksy image. But he is no Tommy Douglas. Indeed his family background makes him a strange choice for leader of a left-wing party. Layton’s grandfather was a member of the right-wing Union Nationale government that ruled in Quebec for many years, whilst his father was a prominent Conservative politician.

As leader of the opposition, he will have to be able to mount an effective attack on the redneck Tory policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Future generations of voters will judge him and the NDP on his success.


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