Canada’s realignment of the left

The breakthrough of the socialist NDP means that Labour finally has a strong sister-party in North A

While millions of Britons were enjoying their May bank holiday, a huge political realignment took place in Canada.

Most people will have paid little or no attention to yesterday's Canadian elections, but those who have include ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie and the Tory maverick Daniel Hannan, both understandably jubilant about the Conservative Stephen Harper's surprise majority victory.

Yet the rise of the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) from the fourth-largest political grouping to 103 seats and 31 per cent of the vote is arguably more significant. So were the trouncing of the once-dominant Liberal Party and near wipe-out of the separatist Bloc Québécois.

Back in 2003, I worked for the NDP MP Libby Davies. She is now deputy leader of the official opposition, rather than a parliamentary party that in 2003 had a meagre 14 MPs in the House of Commons, out of a parliament of 308 MPs, having polled 8 per cent in the previous election. The transformation of Canada's political landscape since then is quite remarkable.

The election campaign started in March when the minority Conservative government was found to be in contempt of parliament and lost a vote of no confidence by 156 votes to 145. In any normal circumstances, you might imagine that the opposition would stride into government.

However, while Canada's Liberal Party dominated 20th-century politics, producing iconic politicians such as Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson and Jean Chrétien, the party has been in crisis since it lost office in 2005. Today, that crisis has become a meltdown. The Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, lost his seat and has already tendered his resignation, becoming the third leader in the past six years to resign.

On 8 April, a week before the party leaders' televised debate, the polls had put NDP support at 15 per cent. After a strong performance by the NDP leader, Jack Layton, in the debate, the polls suddenly had the NDP and the Liberals equal on 25 per cent.

Initially, it seemed as though the NDP surge was worryingly similar to the "Cleggmania" that saw the Liberal Democrats climb last May to nearly 30 per cent in the British polls before collapsing in the final days.

But even though both the Liberals and Conservatives suddenly turned their fire away from each other towards the NDP, the only effect seemed to be stronger support for the New Democrats. Unlike in Britain, the party's momentum kept rolling into the polling booths.

Blocked

The province where the most seismic shift has occurred is Quebec, historically a battleground between the Bloc Québécois (which seeks independence from the rest of Canada) and the Liberals. Last night the Bloc collapsed from 47 seats to four, with the NDP taking a staggering 58 of the 75 constituencies in Quebec, having won just one seat in the 2008 elections.

It is the clearest signal that Quebeckers have tired of the Bloc and have shifted their support to another left-wing party.

The NDP also made significant gains in British Columbia and Ontario, the usual battlegrounds where elections are decided, though it failed to make a breakthrough in the Conservative heartlands of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Many people will be asking who the NDP are. Like the Labour Party, its members are a product of trade unionism and left-wing intellectualism, though it did not come into existence until the early 1960s when the Canadian Labour Congress and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation merged to create it.

Ideologically it is a socialist party, but also one that has tended to be environmentally friendly and socially liberal, something that marks it out and makes a stark contrast to Harper's climate-change scepticism and Republican-style attitude to gun control, migration and prison policy.

In addition to this, the NDP campaigned on a ticket that would have increased wealth taxes and corporation tax for big companies while cutting tax for small businesses. Both the NDP and the Liberals steered clear of the spending cut fetishism of the Conservatives, producing plans to eliminate Canada's budget deficit by 2015. On defence, it was committed to bringing home all Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

Hit the ground running

But the NDP's moment of triumph is also bitter-sweet. It went in to polling day hoping to hit 100 seats, but also that the Liberals would hold up enough support to deny the Conservatives a majority. Indeed, many pundits thought that an NDP/Liberal coalition was a distinct possibility.

Instead, the NDP will have to land on its feet quickly as official opposition and government-in-waiting, and with nearly three-quarters of its MPs elected for the first time. It will have to demonstrate quickly that it is a viable party of government, or else risk a Liberal revival four years from now.

Despite this, the NDP's breakthrough means that Labour finally has a strong sister-party in North America, and promises a profound rebalancing of Canadian politics on the left. Canada is usually seen, and rightly so, as a socially liberal, centre-left country. This should provide the NDP with fertile ground to complete the leap from obscurity to government.

The complete collapse of the Bloc Québécois makes it difficult to see how it can recover, and it is quite conceivable that both the Bloc and some Liberals will be swept inside the NDP tent.

The Liberals have recovered from drubbings before, but never on this scale. The once-dominant "Grits" will start life tomorrow as Canada's third party in all the main provinces bar Quebec. It will require a Herculean effort and a lot of luck for them to come back.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.