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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the New Democratic Party (NDP): their Failure in Quebec, 1932-1997


Damien-Claude Bélanger,
Département d’histoire,
Université de Montréal


Formed in 1932, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a democratic socialist party, sought to end the Great Depression through a vast platform of constitutional centralisation, social programmes and nationalisation. After the thirties and the Second World War, the CCF embarked on a slow march towards the political mainstream, gradually becoming a centre-left party. Indeed, in 1961, the CCF was replaced by the New Democratic Party (NDP), in an attempt to make political inroads in Ontario and Quebec, by moderating its platform and forming a broader power base . Although the 1961 reorganisation of the moderate Canadian left would lead to a noticeable shift towards the political centre and mainstream for the CCF-NDP, thus increasing its share of the federal vote in every province except Saskatchewan, and enabling it to score certain new provincial political successes, the party has consistently failed to achieve power on the federal level, and to gain wide acceptance in Quebec. Indeed, both factors are intimately related as Quebec has tended to support the winner in federal elections, and it is difficult for a party to form the Federal government if it is shut out of Quebec.

Canadian historians and political scientists have frequently reflected on the ongoing and historical inability of the CCF-NDP to elect a federal government. Unlike the Labour party in the United Kingdom, the CCF-NDP has not been able to marginalise the Canadian Liberal Party and usurp its political power base, despite conclusive polling data which has shown that since 1945, Canadian public opinion and New Democratic policies have often converged on significant issues.

The causes of this continued failure are both institutional and political. The CCF-NDP has never been favoured by our electoral system: single-member district plurality (SMDP). This system awards a parliamentary seat to any candidate who obtains the largest share of the vote in a particular riding, whether or not the majority of ballots has been received. Thus, SMDP rewards parties who have solid regional bases or important national support by amplifying their share of seats beyond their share of the vote. Indeed, the parties that come to power in Ottawa generally obtain a larger percentage of seats than they received of votes. In 1997, for example, the Liberal Party formed a majority government with less than forty percent of the vote, and the Bloc Québécois received a majority of Quebec’s federal seats with a similar share of support. While SMDP has favoured both the Liberal and Conservative parties in their quest for power, and has provided regionally based parties such as the Bloc Québécois or Social Credit with a larger share of seats than votes and thus of political importance, it has consistently hampered the national CCF-NDP. Although it historically has enjoyed a regional power base in the West, particularly in Saskatchewan, the CCF-NDP has traditionally obtained diffused national support that has failed to translate into political gain and stature. In the 1965 general elections, the NDP received 17.9 % of the vote but only 7.9 % of seats. This pattern has dogged the CCF-NDP in federal elections from 1935 to 1997 and will most certainly continue in the near future.

This inability to obtain a share of seats consistent with its share of the vote has hampered the political prospects of the CCF-NDP, particularly in Ontario. Moreover, since the 1930s, the Liberal Party has been able to consistently neutralise the CCF-NDP by implementing its own series of progressive social legislation. Indeed, faced with a left-wing challenge to its power, the Liberals, from King to Trudeau, have sought to integrate popular New Democratic proposals into their own political platforms. This political flexibility has allowed the Liberal Party to appear as the « safe » alternative to the perceived radicalism of the CCF-NDP, while capitalising on the popularity of the latter party’s proposed social programmes by copying them.

However, the CCF-NDP’s continued failure to achieve power in federal politics is intimately tied to its powerlessness in making significant inroads in Quebec. Indeed, it has never had a single member elected in a general election in Quebec. Historically, most majority governments have benefited from Quebec’s tendency to vote as a bloc. In Canadian politics, Quebec’s large number of seats is frequently the key to forming a government.

Several factors have combined to block CCF-NDP success in Quebec. Overall, the party has been plagued by the same problems in Quebec as in English Canada. However, the CCF-NDP has also suffered from specifically québécois issues. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Roman Catholic Church denounced the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation as being socialist, atheistic and a threat to Quebec’s traditional social order. Thus, voting for the CCF became almost a sin for Catholics. In 1934, the Church felt sufficiently threatened by CCF « radicalism » to actively foster the writing and diffusion of a manifesto, the Programme de restauration sociale, that sought to offer a Christian alternative to the Regina Manifesto, the CCF’s first electoral blueprint.

However, while some historians and political scientists have seen Episcopal disapproval as the root of CCF-NDP failure in Quebec, the party’s problems have run much deeper. Indeed, ecclesiastical condemnations did not prevent Wilfrid Laurier from receiving massive support from his home province in the 1896 elections.

Historically, francophone Quebecers have been very reticent to support third parties which do not come from French Canada. In this sense the CCF-NDP’s problems are similar to those that were faced by the Progressive Party, the Reconstructionist Party or the Social Credit, until it gained a French-Canadian wing led by the charismatic Réal Caouette in the 1950s. The CCF-NDP, born largely out of Western radicalism, has always been perceived as being a party of English Canadians. With political platforms which often called, either explicitly or implicitly, for the invasion of provincial prerogatives through constitutional centralisation or the use of the federal government’s power to spend, the CCF-NDP has been seen as a party which would erode Quebec’s provincial autonomy. Provincial autonomy was for a long time, and remains currently, a potent force in Quebec. Moreover, the party has never been able to attract well-known francophone spokesmen from Quebec, intensifying its « foreign » image in the province. While Frank Scott, one of the CCF’s chief ideologues, was a Quebecer and spoke French, as an anglophone his appeal among francophones was somewhat limited. The electoral system has largely contributed to maintaining the English-Canadian image of the party in Quebec. Indeed, the CCF-NDP has received some support in Quebec. However, the votes it has garnished have tended to be diffused. In the 1988 general elections, the party obtained 14 % of Quebec’s ballots but was unable to elect a single Member of Parliament. Thus, the system of SMDP has insured that the CCF-NDP has never been able to elect a Quebecer in a general election. This has consistently blocked the party from obtaining higher profile Francophone leaders, and thus of increasing its visibility in French-Canada, as well as achieving greater success nationally. The Party can hardly claim to be a credible national party without representation from Quebec. In turn, this hampers its chances of success in the rest of the country.

Overall, CCF-NDP policies, and the lack of Francophone leaders, have given Quebec’s electors the impression that it is insensitive to the province’s particularism and aspirations, despite serious efforts made during the periods of leadership of David Lewis and Ed Broadbent. Indeed, all of the party’s overtures to French Canada seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Furthermore, since the 1960s, left wing voters and intellectuals in Quebec have tended to support Quebec independence, making the NDP even less attractive to those from whom it might potentially draw support.

Overall, the CCF-NDP’s inability to successfully connect with Francophone Quebecers has seriously hampered its political progress. In effect, from the creation of the party in 1932 to the election of 1984, with the notable exception of the 1958 general elections, Quebec’s voters remained, federally, solidly Liberal. Our electoral system, clerical influence and unpopular policies have all contributed to making the CCF-NDP a marginal force in Quebec’s federal political arena.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College