What does it mean to be on the left?

‘There is not much room to the left of the Liberal Party without risking going completely off the spectrum and out of the discussion altogether.’
Sid Ryan, former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
Sid Ryan, former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.  (VINCE TALOTTA / TORONTO STAR) | Order this photo  

Should the New Democratic Party move to the left to create an alternative to the Liberal government?

According to Sid Ryan, the answer is yes. The high-profile union leader is mulling the idea of running for the leadership of the federal NDP if none of the current candidates is far enough left to fit his political agenda.

I have always appreciated principled people, and Ryan is one of them. However, what does it mean to be on the left?

This conundrum has tormented the socialist movement for the last couple decades, not just in Canada but worldwide.

To be fair, Ryan has suggested some elements to define the left. The National Post reports that Ryan’s platform would include free university tuition, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, national pharmacare, a social investment bank, 500,000 new units of social housing, and brokering peace between Israel and Palestine. Ryan also calls for an exit from NATO, which he calls “little more than a war machine.”

Article Continued Below

Is that what the left is all about?

Free university tuition is a request to be supported, but it is not the solution to the problems in education. It has been demonstrated in countries, not necessarily governed by leftist governments, that free or low tuition for university addresses social concerns but doesn’t solve the problems in the entire system, one of which is a lack of funding.

Getting out of NATO is not a leftist trademark either. Even Donald Trump, during his presidential campaign, mused about the idea of the United States leaving NATO if certain conditions were not met. They are not the same ideological reasons supported by Ryan but, again, it is an ideological statement with no practical differences. Left and right know full well that NATO was an anti-Soviet military organization, and all know, as Ryan said jokingly, “Who’s going to invade us? Russia?”

Ryan also expresses a desire to broker a peace accord between Israel and Palestine. Again, is this a leftist trademark? Hardly. It’s also not enough to be called leftist just to ask for an increase in the minimum wage of 1 per cent more than the Liberals.

Ryan also mentions the need for a national pharmacare plan and a social investment bank. Ideologically, both are bold statements. But in reality they mean nothing.

Proposing a social investment bank to help Canadians without a plan to deal with the entire banking system is just more words.

The idea of national pharmacare is appealing but other, non-leftist countries already have such systems. Furthermore, can we afford it? Canada is already financially gouged by the pharmaceutical multinationals charging, at times, over 50 per cent more than what European countries are charged for the same products. Governments of all political denomination, including the NDP, have not shown the ability or political willingness to address the issue. Extending pharmacare nationally, without dealing with the multinationals, only means funneling more billions of dollars into the coffers of European and American multinationals.

Last, the 500,000 new units of social housing. This socially worthy proposal, along with most of Ryan’s other ideas, would require more spending and, even if he never mentions it, more tax revenues. Tax and spend, however, is not even a trademark of the left. Isn’t this already a Liberal characteristic?

Many NDP followers are focused on the Sanders phenomenon in the U.S. And, says Ryan, “I think it’s now time to try a Bernie Sanders style of political engagement.”

But Sanders’ political approach wouldn’t work in Canada. American voters looked at Sanders only because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton and, of course, Donald Trump. With a decent candidate, Democrats would now control the White House, with Sanders just one of many candidates who dropped out of the race early. And Trump would have gone back to his TV shows and real estate business.

In Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is popular and voters are not desperate for a Sanders or a Trump.

To Ryan’s question (“Is there really that much difference between the NDP over the last number of years and the Liberal party?”) the answer is no.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of globalization, and the growing influence of religion in political discourse, the traditional ideological spectrum has dramatically narrowed.

There is not much room to the left of the Liberal Party without risking going completely off the spectrum and out of the discussion altogether.

Angelo Persichilli is a journalist who served as director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2011-12.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s