To move forward from the political impasse British Columbia Labour currently finds itself in, it is important to know of Labour’s political initiatives over the last hundred years.
British Columbia’s Unions and political parties arose in the same period after 1900, unlike Central Canada, where political parties preceded the formation of Unions. Electoral success for Labour first came in 1901, with the election of James Hawthornthwaite in Nanaimo. The protracted struggle between workers and the coal corporations gave rise to the election of Labour candidates who, at times, held the balance of power in the legislature.
With the decline of the Socialist Party after the Great War, due to conflicting visions and internal splits, other Labour parties attempted to fill the void. The Canadian Labour Party, originally started by the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, was a united front of Communist and non-Communist workers from 1924 to 1928, which broke apart over the franchising of Asian citizens. Labour’s political initiatives had fallen to their nadir in British Columbia but, with the advent of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1933, the stars aligned for progressive and Labour forces in BC.
The CCF captured 33% of the vote in the 1933 provincial election. More significant than the 42% of vote received in the traditional labour bastions, was the 27% share in the other constituencies where, in 1928, labour candidates had received less than 0.5% of votes.
The growth in the ownership of radios had enabled popular Dr. Lyle Telford, a leading proponent of the planned economy, to spread support for the CCF outside of traditional Labour areas. The 1933 election was the ‘take-off’ point of modern Labour BC politics which are a combination of labourism, Christian socialism, social democracy and Marxism.
The populist and socialist elements of the BC CCF were at odds over both leadership and policy. The CCF social clubs, which sprang up around BC, beyond the coalmining areas and urban areas where the Socialists had their powerbase, were the foundation for the CCF’s 1933 electoral success. The reality of different political visions within a single party continues in the BC NDP to this day. In 1961, the Canadian Labour Congress looked to breathe new life into Labour Politics, partly by distancing a new party from the overt socialism of the CCF. In alliance with the CCF, the CLC formed the New Democratic Party which entered into formal relations with the Trade Unions.
A salient feature of BC politics has been the fielding of political coalitions to keep the ‘socialist’ from power. From the early 1940s, four iterations of ‘free market’ coalitions have ensured the CCF / NDP has not formed government except when, in 1993, the ruling coalition and its leader became so discredited that the NDP won and 1972 when the Liberal and Conservative parties created a four way race with the Social Credit Party and the BC NDP.
National character is reflected in British Columbia. While Australian Labour aimed at state power, achieved in 1909, Canadian Labour has more modest goals. Contrasting Labour in Britain and Canada, some asserts Canadian unions are “entrenched in capitalist relations” which will perpetuate our struggle for our children and grandchildren. Canadian Labour has strived for a junior partnership in a corporatist vision of Canadian society, to have a voice at the table rather than state power.
Do activists want a more robust programme of social democracy, or even socialism, or do they feel the appeal to the electoral centre by the BC NDP is most effective for Labour’s aspirations? I believe Labour Campaigners are comfortable with the current liberal programme, though they are frustrated with the lack of success in forming government.
Changes in the last 25 years in British Columbia have shifted provincial politics. BC is no longer solely a resource based economy and class struggle has taken ‘a back seat’ as relative union power has declined. New issues have emerged. The growth of single interest groups with a narrow focus on environmental and other issues, the growth of the provincial state, a new wave of immigration from Asia, the growth of the service industry, First Nations land rights, technological change and globalization, have come to the fore. The advances in communication have reduced regionalism and a larger government bureaucracy combined with institutionalism have restrained the populist’s freedom of action, two important factors of past politics. It is a brave new world in BC, even if basic economic relations have changed little since James Hawthornthwaite was first elected in 1901.
In two party elections, Parties tend to campaign in the middle. The BC NDP offers to be competent and fair managers of the province with support for the disadvantaged. But, if the BC NDP operates within restrictions of a globalised economy, their policies differ little from their free market rival except in giving Labour some voice.
The effect of globalization on the Ontario and BC NDP governments in the 1990s restrained the NDP governments. They could not establish corporatist institutions nor shift the balance of labour legislation without a corresponding drop in investment and growth, making the re-election unlikely.
Neo-liberalism and globalization are external pressures affecting the policies of the BC NDP. The shift from a social democratic orientation toward a liberal outlook is applauded by many but what is best for Labour?
We can sort Labour and Politics in BC into district periods. But we need to bear in mind the gap between the ‘official’ politics of organizations, often contained in the Pre-ambles to their constitutions, and the electoral platforms that are rolled out to contest elections. These following documents quoted are not so much what people believed but more what they could agree to.
The first period is the era of the Socialist Party of BC. The platform of the Socialist Party was revolutionary, looking to end capitalist relations, by what means is left somewhat unclear. Their platform is straight forward and to the point:
“We, the Socialist Party of British Columbia…affirm our allegiance to and support the principles and program of the international revolutionary working class.
Labor produces all wealth and to labor it should justly belong…. The capitalist is master; the workman is slave. So long as the capitalists remain in possession of the reins of government all the powers of the state will be used to protect and defend their property rights.
….. The interest of the working class lies in the direction of setting itself free from capitalist exploitation by the abolition of the wage system. To accomplish this necessitates the transformation of capitalist property in the means of wealth production into collective or working class property. The irrepressible conflict of interests between the capitalist and the worker is rapidly culminating in a struggle for possession of the powers of government—the capitalist to hold, the worker to secure it by political action. This is the class struggle.
working class lies in the direction of setting itself free from capitalist exploitation by the abolition of the wage system. To accomplish this necessitates the transformation of capitalist property in the means of wealth production into collective or working class property. The irrepressible conflict of interests between the capitalist and the worker is rapidly culminating in a struggle for possession of the powers of government—the capitalist to hold, the worker to secure it by political action. This is the class struggle.
In accordance with this principle the Socialist Party pledges itself to conduct all the public affairs placed in its hands in such manner as to promote the interests of the working class alone.”
Throughout the Socialist Party era, 1901 to 1924, there was tension between socialists with their aim to end capitalism and more pragmatic Labour and community leaders.
The second period is an interim period between more long lived trends. The Canadian Labour Party, unlike the Socialist Party, maintained formal relations with trade unions and included a large block of United Front Communist. The party did do much to prevent vote splitting with single labour candidates endorsed by both the Communists and Labour Unions. In 1928, the issue of Asian suffrage split the party wide open. Coupled with the poor showing in the 1928 provincial election, Labour looked for a new alternative and found it, in 1933, with the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
The CCF’s official political alignment is contained within the Regina Manifesto. Gone is the revolutionary socialism but a strong commitment to the replacement of the capitalist system remained:
“The CCF is a federation of organizations whose purpose is the establishment in Canada of a Co-operative Commonwealth in which the principle regulating production, distribution and exchange will be the supplying of human needs and not the making of profits.
WE AIM TO REPLACE the present capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated, in which economic planning will supersede unregulated private enterprise and competition, and in which genuine democratic self-government, based upon economic equality will be possible….. We believe …. in a planned and socialized economy in which our natural resources and principal means of production and distribution are owned, controlled and operated by the people.
This social and economic transformation can be brought about by political action, through the election of a government inspired by the ideal of a Co-operative Commonwealth and supported by a majority of the people. We do not believe in change by violence. …. The CCF aims at political power in order to put an end to this capitalist domination of our political life. It is a democratic movement, a federation of farmer, labour and socialist organizations, financed by its own members and seeking to achieve it sends solely by constitutional methods.
ends solely by constitutional methods.
The BC NDP, formed by an alliance of the CCF and Labour does not seek to end the capitalist system but is prepared to regulate, restrict and nationalize parts of the economy. The present preamble to the BC NDP constitution sum up the spirit of social democracy:
“The New Democratic Party believes that social, economic and political progress in Canada can only be assured by the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs.
The principles of democratic socialism can be defined briefly as follows:
a) the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people and not for profit,
b) the modification and control of the operations of monopolistic productive and distributive organizations through economic and social planning, towards these ends, and
c) where necessary, the extension of the principle of social ownership.”
The Federal NDP preamble was the same until last year when a new constitution, liberal in tone, was adopted. The overt social democracy of the previous document is gone.
“New Democrats believe in freedom and democracy and in a positive role for democratically elected and accountable … governments …. New Democrats affirm a role for government in helping to create the conditions for sustainable prosperity. We believe in a rules-based economy, nationally and globally, in which governments have the power to address the limitations of the market in addressing the common good by having the power to act in the public interest for social and economic justice, and for the integrity of the environment.
…. New Democrats are committed to working together for peace, international co-operation, and the common good of all – the common good being our fundamental purpose as a movement and as a party.”
One of the greatest challenges for the BC NDP is bound up
with the dynamics of two party races.
Both parties tend to move to the middle to win the undecided vote.
The danger is that the BC NDP will become
indistinguishable to the electorate
from other liberal orientated parties and
lose the uniqueness that has characterized BC Labour Politics