Laytonian social democracy: one small practical action at a time

What was innovative was the way Layton talked about social democratic ideas as pragmatic solutions to everyday problems that bring hope and optimism to average Canadians.

Jack Layton with Ed Broadbent during the 2008 federal election on stage among a crowd of supporters.
Photo by Matt Jiggins from Wikimedia Commons.

Fifteen years ago today, Jack Layton became the Leader of the federal NDP at the Toronto Convention Centre. While delegates did not know it at the time, he would go on to become the most electorally successful leader of the federal CCF-NDP and bring the party closer to its dream of forming the federal government than it had ever been.

Reflecting back on all of the NDP’s ups and downs since that day, it may be appropriate to start to understand Layton’s political thought and the model of social democracy that he advocated. It is now the time to ask: what is Laytonian social democracy? To explore this topic, I looked back at Layton’s 2004 book (Speaking Out: Ideas that Work for Canadians) as well as the NDP’s platforms during his time as leader and the 1321 questions that he asked in the House of Commons.

What I found is that the Laytonian model of social democracy is defined by the concept of pragmatism. The underlying premise of Laytonian social democracy is emphasis on what I call the “practical small action.” Indeed, he starts off Speaking Out by stating that “I’m a pragmatist who has seen good ideas in action” and that his book is about “ideas that work” that will bring about “opportunities to make the world a better place” (page 11).

Having pragmatism as Layton’s guiding star does not mean that he does not desire deep societal change. Many of the ideas that he proposed were audacious, novel, and ahead of their time. Rather, Layton’s pragmatism reflects a preference for small and immediate actions that build toward more sweeping change of society in an incremental fashion. While these actions may not be ambitious in scope, they provide the basis to be hopeful and optimistic that we are the road to building a better society.

Layton’s preference for “the small practical action” is reflective of a tradition of social democracy that goes back to the writings of Eduard Bernstein who talked about how the “movement is everything” in his 1899 book entitled Evolutionary Socialism. What Bernstein meant is that social democracy entails the slow and gradual reform of free market capitalism. There is no fixed final goal or end point. Social democracy is about the constant movement (however, gradual) towards a fairer capitalism for all. It is like running a marathon that does not have a finish line.

We can see the pragmatism of Laytonian social democracy in what I call the five fights of Layton’s life. I use the word “fight” purposely here because it was how Layton was branded during federal elections — as a Prime Minister who would fight for everyday Canadian families.

The five fights of Layton’s life

#1- The Fight for Prosperity

Layton often talked about the urgent need to “kickstart” the economy to provide well-paying jobs for average Canadians. In order to do so, he felt that the state needed to intervene in the economy to promote economic growth.

His pragmatic approach was that creating new forms public ownership was not a way to increase economic prosperity. He found that expanding public ownership was costly, controversial, and might even violate free trade agreements. Layton never once mentioned the phrases “public ownership”, “public enterprise”, or “Crown Corporations” in his questions to the House of Commons. While the 2004 NDP platform did mention new Crown corporations to invest in renewable energy and to manufacture prescription drugs, those ideas were quietly dropped from subsequent platforms and the creation of new public enterprises was not advocated. Rather, Layton’s ideas on public ownership were limited to expanding existing federal Crown corporations such as Canada Post and Via Rail and vowing to prevent any privatization of Canada’s health care system.

Rather than creating new public enterprises, he was interested in the carrots and sticks that the federal government could use to influence the behaviour of the private sector. He was certainly ahead of his time when came to the idea of corporate social responsibility. As he argues in Speaking Out, the federal government needs to reward businesses that marry economic growth with environmental stewardship, social equity, and human development and penalize those who do not (pages 35-38). Reading through his book and NDP platforms from the 2000s, one can see that he proposed all sorts of carrots offered from the state to encourage businesses to pursue profits in a way that helps out all of society. Such carrots included tax credits for businesses that create jobs, subsidies for research and development on green cars, and low interest loans for companies that do energy efficient retrofits. He proposed a lot less sticks — that is regulations that would force the private sector to act a certain way. However, some examples would be Layton’s insistence on a $10 per hour federal minimum wage, more disclosure of the details of foreign takeovers, and stricter regulations on importing goods from countries with weak and environmental laws.

Layton’s whole point was that prosperity is created by the state providing incentives and regulation for the private sector to act a certain way. Government can guide markets and eventually change the way that markets act in the long run — what he calls the “catalytic approach to transforming markets” in Speaking Out (page 211).

#2- The Fight for Economic Equality

Layton saw greater economic equality being attained mainly through adequately funding existing universal social programs and creating new targeted social programs.

His books and NDP platforms proposed a large number of targeted initiatives such as a $1000 grant for low-income students, school lunch programs for schools in poorer neighbourhoods, addictions services for the homeless, and skills training grants for the unemployed. By the 2011 election, he was not proposing any new universal programs to be created in the first mandate of a NDP government. Rather, a NDP government would initially concentrate on improvements to existing universal programs like pensions and health care. Adding a further level of what can be viewed as pragmatism, he insisted that any new targeted programs or improvements to existing universal social programs would be gradually phased into place within the context of balanced budgets.

To allay fears that NDP was a ‘tax and spend’ party, Layton gradually backed away from proposals for wealth redistribution through higher taxes on high-income earners such as an inheritance tax (which he championed in the 2004 election but later dropped). Rather, by 2011, he insisted wealth redistribution through the tax system would come through higher corporate taxes and no personal taxes should be increased.

A final way that Laytonian social democracy proposed to achieve economic equality is better consumer protection — unlocking cell phones, reducing bank fees, and capping interest rates on credit cards. The pragmatic part of these consumer protection proposals is that these actions would be immediate and help out the “pocketbook” of average Canadians while only affecting the bottom-lines of relatively few businesses. On the other hand, it was quite daring to be taking on such large corporations and these measures represented a shift of power away from business to consumers.

#3- The Fight for Environmental Protection

Layton was one of the first politicians in Canada to be clear about the urgency to fight climate change and the need for federally imposed targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Already in 2004, he called global climate change “the most important environmental issue of our times” in Speaking Out (page 45). In fact, my analysis of his questions in the House of Commons during his career, I found that he asked the second most questions on the topic of the environment. He asked 13% of his questions on the environment, second only to the 14% that he asked on government operations, corruption, and scandal.

Layton saw that the federal government needed to combat climate change in way that did not unduly harm economic growth. Additionally, the state should not exclusively rely on regulation of the private sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions- such regulation needed to be coupled with subsidies to help private companies make their operations less carbon intensive. For Layton, there should be some basic regulations such as a cap and trade scheme, better fuel standards for cars, and a moratorium on drilling for oil on the Great Lakes. He also called for the elimination of federal subsidies and tax breaks for the oil, gas, and nuclear sectors in the 2008 NDP platform, an innovative idea that has still not been implemented today. Alongside of this regulation, there would be a variety of initiatives to subsidize customers and private sector companies to make more environmentally friendly choices that emitted less carbon.

Most importantly, Layton firmly believed in the potential of the “green economy” at a time when the use of this term was very uncommon and most politicians argued that job losses were a necessary trade-off for environmental protection. For Layton, the regulations and subsidies needed to protect the environment would have the positive side-effect of economic growth. He was very optimistic about the job creating capabilities of environmental protection. In this sense, economic growth and protection of the environment were not trade offs for Layton. Moving to a less carbon intensive economy through a pragmatic mix of regulations and subsidies from the state was the path to greater economic prosperity.

#4- Fight for Human Rights, Minorities, and Democracy

The commonality of Layton’s ideas on women and minorities was they represented small steps in the direction of greater equality for these groups. He hoped, then, that the ensemble of these small steps would begin the movement for greater social justice in Canada.

Laytonian social democracy mostly conceives of LGBTQ2 issues as human rights issues and wants to expand human rights protections for this group. One of his practical and innovative ideas in this area, contained in the 2004 NDP platform, was to include discrimination based on “gender identity” and “gender expression” within the Canadian Human Rights Act- a measure that was finally put into place in July 2017.

Layton was also supportive of the idea of the Québécois as a national minority within Canada. Two of his practical ideas were to recognize the right of self-determination of the Québécois by allowing the National Assembly to set the terms of a succession referendum and the construction of asymmetrical arrangements between the Quebec provincial government and the federal government.

As part of a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, Layton wanted to immediately increase the funding available to improve infrastructure and education on reservations. Indeed, Layton forced the Martin Liberal government to insert more money for housing on Indigenous reserves as a condition for the NDP’s support for the passage of the 2005 federal budget. He saw the need for more immigration (particularly, family reunification) but also the need for better settlement and skills recognition to ensure that immigration helped grow Canada’s economy. He called for better pay equity in the public sector for women and more funding for women’s groups as first steps towards creating a greater equality between men and women.

On democracy it was pretty simple for Layton — abolish the senate, bring in electoral reform, and make institutional changes to reduce the power of the Prime Minister. While these were practical alterations to our existing electoral and Parliamentary system, they were also innovations that would bring about quite radical and immediate change to the ways that Canadian politics operates. Though, it may be noted that Layton never really pushed strongly for a more deliberative or participatory type of democracy. When he does discuss democracy in Speaking Out, he talks about giving more money to local groups and local governments to create thousands of small projects that could make a big difference together (Page 29, 162-163, and 174-186).

#5- Fight for Peace and International Development

Under Layton, the NDP dropped some of its more daring foreign policies ideas that could scare off voters and hurt the Layton’s reputation for pragmatism, such as a “Tobin tax”, forgiving debt of developing nations, or getting out of free trade agreements. Rather, Layton maintained a commitment to more conventional ideas like increasing foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of Canada’s GDP, promoting peacekeeping, and supporting multilateral international actions instead of following the United States on foreign policy. Despite pressure for Canada to join the American missile defence system in the early 2000s, Layton insisted that Canada must assert its independence in foreign affairs as it done in the past with American government like refusing to be involved in the Vietnam War. His pragmatism approach here is that Layton did not want to “re-do” Canada’s role in the world. He simply wanted to go back to a Pearsonian internationalism that he felt had been abandoned by Martin and Harper.

One Small Practical Action at a Time

My assessment of the version of social democracy put forth by Layton demonstrates that his ideas themselves were not all that striking. They generally fall within a broad definition of contemporary social democracy and are in line with the actions and platforms of several European social democratic governments and NDP provincial governments in the early 21st century. What was innovative was the way Layton talked about social democratic ideas as pragmatic solutions to everyday problems that bring hope and optimism to average Canadians. For Layton, social democracy was about working together and involving all segments of society to find practical ideas to make positive change.

Layton acknowledged that society’s problems are large in scope and was able to articulate a far-reaching social democratic critique of free market capitalism. But, even if the problems are big and entrenched, Laytonian social democracy requires that the solutions be immediate, short-term, and simple. Ultimately, he held that social democracy could be bold and pragmatic at the same time. Social democrats should be proposing ground-breaking ideas that are ahead of their time, but such ideas have to be clear, workable and make sense to the average voter.

The lesson of Laytonian social democracy for today’s NDP is to emulate Layton’s undeniable ability to communicate the concepts of social democracy in ways that related to everyday Canadians. Additionally, Laytonian social democracy could teach Jagmeet Singh and his team how to frame the ideas that set the NDP apart from the Trudeau Liberals in a way that is digestible yet transformational.

As the NDP heads into the next federal election, it should bolster the policy ideas that differentiate itself from the Liberals as well as improving Canada one small practical action at a time. Such an incremental approach might not only win elections and fend off the Liberals who are aiming to steal away NDP voters, it might also be able to eventually change the world.

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