The Left-Right Divide and Canadian Political Parties

In an introductory course to political science at SFU, I devote an entire class to political ideologies. I begin with the left-right divide, then address liberalism, libertarianism, socialism and communism.

The left-right divide is a long-standing schema dating to the French Revolution. Convened in Paris to elaborate a new constitution for the country, political actors organized themselves into two ideological coalitions: “progressives” who contested the monarch’s authority and legitimacy, and “conservatives” who were generally sympathetic to the established order. The story goes that, in the room where the deliberations were being held, progressive forces sat to the left of the Chairperson, while conservatives sat to the right.

In current terms, the left refers to those who believe that the State must intervene in society in order to remedy injustices and inequalities. It is the duty of the State to promote and even stimulate fairness within society.

my_turnIn contrast, the right is more respectful of traditions; it believes that the world order is legitimate because it is the result of a long-term undertaking by previous generations. From an economic perspective, the State must respect freedom of choice and thus avoid making decisions that reduce options available to citizens.

That said, how well does the left-right divide reflect present-day political reality? For example, in the present campaign, can one still talk about a “progressive” left and a “conservative” right? In blunt terms, are political parties not opportunistic, more motivated by polls than by their ideological foundations?

Quite the contrary, I believe. The left-right divide can still help us explain the vast majority of positions defended by Canadian political parties. Take the NDP promise to create 1 million daycare spaces across the country for no more than $15-a-day. In terms of the left-right divide, the NDP proposes to mobilize the state apparatus and state resources in the name of principles of fairness and gender equality. On the one hand, the measure would promote greater equality across society because many households would no longer have to spend a big chunk of their income on childcare. On the other, affordable childcare, as evidenced by the Québec case, enables women to enter the labour market and to occupy management positions.

For their part, Conservatives have announced a series of tax credits. A first for single and widowed seniors, a second for home renovation, a third for membership dues in service clubs, a fourth for… There should be no doubt that these measures are from a party on the right side of the divide. The right is faithful to tax credits because these respect freedom of choice. For example, membership dues will be partially reimbursed irrespective of the social club.

Finally, the left-right divide can also shed light on positions vis-à-vis the wearing of the niqab during the public citizenship oath. First, both Liberals and New Democrats oppose the ban on face coverings—including the niqab—during citizenship ceremonies. Why? For Thomas Mulcair, it is mainly a question of freedom of religion, whereas Justin Trudeau evokes individual rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter. Both leaders, therefore, believe that the state must protect and promote fairness within society, in this particular case by respecting religious beliefs and practices. Stephen Harper supports the niqab ban. To my mind, the weight of traditions bears on this decision; the Conservatives are bound to traditions, namely out of respect for past generations that have helped shape our country’s path.

In summary, it would appear that the left-right divide still has relevance in the study of Canadian politics.

Rémi Léger is a professor of political science at SFU.