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The New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Labour Movement in Canada

Andrew Jackson
Senior Policy Adviser

A short history of the Canadian NDP and an opportunity to take inspiration of the relations between the party and the trade unions.

Canada’s social democratic party, the NDP, was founded in 1961 as a formal partnership between its predecessor party, the CCF, and the Canadian Labour Congress or CLC, the umbrella organization of the labour movement which then represented close to one third of the work force. It was based on the British Labour Party model of direct union affiliation to the party and a formal labour role within party structures. In the event, only a few unions affiliated a significant number of their members, and hopes that CLC endorsement would persuade union members to embrace the NDP as their party proved overly optimistic. True, the NDP, with a core federal vote of about 20%, was more electorally successful than the CCF, but the NDP vote among union voters has usually been little higher than among the electorate as a while. This is partly because the NDP has been traditionally weak in the relatively highly unionized province of Quebec, though the NDP did well in highly unionized manufacturing and resource communities in English speaking Canada.

“Back in the 1970s and 1980s into the 1990s, labour was a major source of financial support for the NDP, especially in election years”

Back in the 1970s and 1980s into the 1990s, labour was a major source of financial support for the NDP, especially in election years, balancing off to a degree corporate funding for the Liberals and Conservatives. Union leaders and activists, for the most part, saw the NDP as their party and saw the other parties as essentially identical in terms of  their at best tepid support for labour rights,  public services and decent social programs funded from fair taxes. Their was close cooperation between labour and the NDP federally and in most provinces, and unions often engaged in efforts to sway the votes of their members. Even then, however, some unions were close to the Liberals and many public sector unions refused to take a strong partisan stance. 

Fast forward to the 2000s and the relationship has changed. The federal political party financing rules changed in 2004 to virtually ban union political contributions and the use of paid labour staff in election campaigns. This change was supported by the CLC and even the most pro NDP unions as a reasonable quid pro quo for limits on corporate funding of parties, and since union funds were replaced in large part by public financing of the parties. 

The NDP retained labour representation in its own structures, though the direct influence of labour may have waned a little. There was something of a change in political strategy, with the CLC and many member unions choosing to fund issue-based campaigns in the pre election  period, with the focus on putting working class issues front and centre in elections in the hope that union members would find their own way to the NDP. 

Labour/NDP relations have been greatly complicated by a shift of some large unions from NDP partisanship to strategic voting in the 2000s. A palpable shock ran through the labour movement when the CAW, historically very close to the NDP, more or less endorsed the Liberals in the 2006 federal election. A significant number of unions have embraced strategic voting in Ontario and in recent federal elections, urging their members to support NDP incumbents, but to vote Liberal where this is judged most likely to defeat Conservatives. Calls for strategic voting have been put forward in the context of the “first past the post” electoral system which strongly penalizes third parties.

The primary motivation for strategic voting has been to block the election of Conservatives who, under former Prime Minister Steven Harper, opposed basic labour rights and called for changes in labour law to ban or strictly limit union political activity.  With the shift of the Conservatives to the hard right, the two largest parties are no longer ideologically indistinguishable, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as former NDP Leader Ed Broadbent once put it. True, the Liberals generally defer to corporate elites and interests, but they are more progressive than the Conservatives on social issues, and are more supportive of labour rights and investment in social programs. Calls for strategic voting at the provincial level have been most salient in Ontario, where the NDP has traditionally been a third party, unlike the Western provinces where provincial elections are basically a battle between Conservatives and the NDP.

“Labour’s best strategy is to work with the NDP to develop a bold platform which puts the Liberals on the defensive.”

In the recent federal election, the labour movement was clearly divided. The largest public sector union, CUPE, and most of the large private sector unions still support the NDP, but the biggest single private sector union, Unifor, and many smaller public and private sector unions took no clear position in the election beyond opposing the Conservatives.  The CLC urged labour voters to consider a range of issues and to vote, but did not directly endorse the NDP over the Liberals.

Unfortunately, strategic voting at best only works to preserve a modest NDP base, and undermines growth. This strategy may block the Conservatives temporarily, but a weak NDP ultimately favours the right since it ceases to put electoral pressure on centrist and even right-wing Liberals to respect labour rights and to invest in social programs and public services.  Labour’s best strategy is to work with the NDP to develop a bold platform which puts the Liberals on the defensive.

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