Harper has a clear strategy to win: use a long campaign to outspend the other parties, mobilize the Tory base while fear-mongering about alternatives, and depend on historically low voter turnout and support from the corporate media. To defeat Harper, and to reverse his legacy, the NDP will need to mobilize on real alternatives to the Tories and Liberals, connected with the movements that have challenged Harper these past four years.
Harper has wrecked havoc on the planet and its people for almost a decade, but he hasn’t done it alone. The first half of his rule was only possible due to an informal coalition with the Liberals, and when Harper won his majority in 2011 it merely concentrated the corporate vote. But the real story of last election was the historic rise in the vote for the only party associated with the labour movement, the NDP—based on accumulated anger against Harper, disillusionment with the Liberals and the Bloc Québecois, and inspiration from the Arab Spring.
Movements outside Parliament had pushed the NDP to oppose the Iraq War in 2003 and the Afghanistan war in 2006—which in turn provided a wider audience for the movements and greater support for the NDP. The NDP filibuster against attacks on postal workers showed the potential for using Parliament as a megaphone for the movements. But despite the pressure of movements, the main trajectory for the NDP (and every social democratic party around the world) has been towards the centre—including supporting the Liberal military budget in 2005, proposing a coalition with the Liberals based on dropping opposition to war and corporate tax cuts in 2008, and voting for war on Libya in 2011.
Movements rise but Orange wave receeds
As a result, since 2011 we have seen a rolling wave of resistance movements across the country, but a receeding of the Orange Wave. As the Occupy movement exploded around the world against the 1%, the Ontario election had its lowest voter turnout—with an NDP centrist campaign that failed to mobilize the 99% around an alternative. As hundreds of Air Canada workers were on wildcat strike and hundreds of thousands of Quebec students were in the streets, the NDP purged socialism from its constitution and elected an ex-Liberal, Mulcair, as its leader—who was silent on the strike but promised to run the NDP provincially against the left alternative Quebec solidaire. As Idle No More emerged across the country and Chief Theresa Spence challenged Harper, Mulcair refused to meet with her and instead called on her to end her strike.
As Mulcair explained in 2013, “In Nova Scotia, Manitoba—and coming soon in BC—New Democratic governments are setting the standard for good public administration.” Applied at the provincial level, the focus on ruling over resisting was disastrous. The NDP was voted out of office in Nova Scotia after only one term—which they used to raise tuition and attack paramedic’s right to strike. Offering no climate job alternative to pipelines and fracking, the NDP failed to defeat the hated Liberals in BC and failed to pick up a seat in New Brunswick. The same centrism by Olivia Chow allowed John Tory to pose as an alternative to Rob Ford in the Toronto mayoral election, while a downright right-wing campaign by the Ontario NDP allowed the Liberals to outflank the NDP to the left. In the meantime the federal Liberals have resurrected themselves, burying their record and posing as an alternative to Harper. Trudeau hoped to replicate the Ontario election at the federal level, through “strategic voting” that transfers votes from the NDP to the Liberals—who would continue Harper’s policies.
Orange wave rises again?
It’s thanks to movements outside Parliament that the Orange Wave is rising again. The explosion of protests across the country against Bill C-51 exposed Trudeau’s complicity with Harper and pushed the NDP to oppose the attack on civil liberties. Likewise, while the NDP refused to support the campaign to raise the minimum wage last year, the growing Fight for $15 has won over the NDP federally. The promise to rip up Bill C-51 and deliver childcare and a higher minimum wage for federal workers is a good start, but the NDP will need to go further to provide a real alternative to mobilize people at the polls and undo Harper’s legacy—like scrapping Bill C-45 and respecting First Nations, saving door-to-door mail delivery and restoring Harper’s massive cuts to healthcare, stopping the bombing of Iraq and Syria and reversing billions in military spending, restoring corporate taxes while ending oil subsidies, and opposing tar sands while creating a million climate jobs. These demands would put both Harper and Trudeau on the defensive and mobilize not only the NDP’s base but also the millions who are too disillusioned with social democracy to bother to vote.
But the NDP has focused its initial ads exclusively on Harper’s “corruption and mismanagement,” not his policies, while making overtures to the Liberals around a coalition—throwing them a lifeline when they are sinking, and reinforcing the myth that there’s a substantial difference between the corporate Tories and the corporate Liberals. The focus on being better managers of a system in crisis, without offering real alternatives, is what cost NDP recent elections across the country—and is a reflection of what an NDP victory would look like. The historic election in Alberta, which the NDP hope to replicate at the federal level, shows both the inspiration of an NDP victory based on hope for an alternative and the immediate contradictions this raises—as Rachel Notley has promised to continue expanding the tar sands, in line with NDP policy.
Ballot box and the streets
Harper relies on historically low voter-turnout, which are a legitimate reaction to the experience of social democracy. To sustain the NDP through a long campaign and to mobilize people at the polls the party will need to articulate a clear alternative to Harper’s agenda of austerity, war and climate chaos. Panicked by this possibility, the corporate press are calling on Mulcair to “tame his party’s fervent base.” But Harper never falls into that trap; he knows that to win elections you need to mobilize your base, and the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US show the left is just as capable of that strategy.
Meanwhile, developments in Greece show that even an electoral victory on a left platform isn’t an antidote to austerity or a substitute for resistance movements. Regardless of the composition of Parliament we need stronger movements beyond the election, but can use the election as a tactic towards that—pushing the NDP to echo movement demands during and after the election. After 10,000 marched for jobs, justice and the climate, we need to inject these politics into the election campaign—exposing the Tories and Liberals, pushing the NDP to reflect the movements, and building resistance outside Parliament beyond the election.