A small set of Eastern Canadian intellectuals and political activists write a radical political program with the intention of having Canada’s main left-of-centre party adopt it as the basis of the party’s electoral platform. However, in the subsequent convention, held in Western Canada, where a particularly vicious economic downturn has thrown tens of thousands out of work, many of the rank and file members push back against some of the more controversial ideas in the manifesto. Despite opposition, the party accepts the manifesto as party policy, but the debate leaves festering wounds that many worried would eventually split the party apart.
Does this set of circumstances sound familiar? For anyone who followed the NDP Convention in Edmonton this past weekend it should. The party, despite strong opposition from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and organized labour, adopted the Leap Manifesto as the basis for party policy moving forward. Predictably, many in the Canadian media have denounced the manifesto, as well as former NDP members. It even prompted this Maclean’s cover:
Yet, the above description also perfectly captures the founding of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the NDP, in 1932-33. After a conference in Calgary in the summer of 1932 various representatives from organized labour, farmers’ movements and a group of left-wing parliamentarians known as “The Ginger Group,” headed by J.S. Woodsworth, organized themselves into a political federation. However, it was the nascent group’s next meeting in Regina in 1933 that produced one of the most famous documents in Canadian history, the Regina Manifesto.
The majority of the Regina Manifesto was written by two Eastern Canadian academics, Univeristy of Toronto history professor Frank Underhill and McGill law professor F.R. Scott. These two men were founding members of the League for Social Reconstruction, essentially a 1930s think-tank, whose membership was composed of middle-class Toronto and Montreal professionals and academics; a world away from the labourers and farmers of the CCF. Hence, when Underhill and Scott composed their manifesto, it reflected their political and economic priorities, many of which were similar, but not identical, to the other sections of the CCF.
Particularly controversial was the Manifesto’s position regarding farm ownership. In clause four, Underhill and Scott wrote that, “The security of tenure for the farmer upon his farm which is imperilled by the present disastrous situation of the whole industry, together with adequate social insurance, ought to be guaranteed under equitable conditions.” However, this stance seemed to contradict clause three, which called for “social ownership” of primary industries. This led one Toronto delegate, Bill Moriarty, to describe the CCF’s policy in an editorial published in Workers’ Age as, “Social ownership for the city, private ownership for the country.” Yet such a contradictory position was necessary to secure the support of farmer organizations across the country. But for many farmers and their elected representatives, the various compromises in the Regina Manifesto were not enough and the Ontario section of the United Farmers ultimately split from the CCF in 1934.
Fundamentally, the divide in the CCF over the Regina Manifesto mirrors the divide in the present-day NDP over the Leap Manifesto. The party, then as now, is an amalgamation of different interest groups who share broadly similar, but not identical political goals.Particularly divisive, both then and now, is the divergent priorities of rural and urban Canadians. While core issues have changed, from the role of private property to the role of fossil fuels in the Canadian economy, the party still struggles with these basic ideological and economic divisions.
In that respect, the debate over the Leap Manifesto is not anything new. If we should learn anything from the CCF-NDP’s early history it is that ideological conflict is ingrained in the party’s history, but so is compromise. The party has been able to, over its 80 plus years, effectively manage often bitter ideological divisions, the latest divide over the Leap Manifesto will be no different. So sorry Macleans, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein aren’t going to kill the NDP, even if it does make a sensationalist cover story.