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Thin soup from the NDP kitchen

By: 
John Bell

August 22, 2015

While Tom Mulcair’s NDP is holding on to its tenuous lead in the pre-election polls, their campaign is not exactly setting the nation on fire.

Increased support seems due to growing dislike and distrust of Stephen Harper’s Tories more than any great enthusiasm for Mulcair and his policies. That the disaffection for Harper has swung behind Mulcair rather than Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is a result of the one, clear, courageous stand taken by the NDP: to vote against Bill C-51 and to promise to repeal it if elected.

Thanks to that strategic error by Trudeau’s braintrust, subsequent Liberal attempts to outflank the NDP to the left have not found much traction. His promise to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% would seem to custom-made for the NDP platform, but Mulcair instead promised to keep corporate taxes low. “We want to make sure that the Canadian tax rate for our large corporations remains below the U.S. combined rate and we're going to continue to work on that,” Mulcair told reporters.

Despite a couple of positive promises—raising the minimum wage for federally mandated employees, decriminalizing (not legalizing) marijuana, starting a national day-care program—Mulcair’s campaign seems more concerned with calming jittery right-wing voters than with attracting new, young or disaffected ones. His disappointing statements on energy and resource extraction have been dealt with elsewhere.

Worryingly, the NDP leadership has turfed several quality candidates because of their public support for human rights in Palestine. In Nunavut, Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine said he was disqualified by the party because his support for Palestine would be portrayed as anti-Semitism. Nova Scotia candidate Morgan Wheeldon was forced to resign because of a history of mild, and entirely accurate, criticism of Israel.

These decisions suggest that—despite opposition to the specifics of Bill C51—an NDP government would continue Canada’s recent history of militarism and “national security” hysteria.

Finally, when confronted with past examples of his praise for Margaret Thatcher’s free market policies, Mulcair doubled down. “A government should never pretend it can replace the private market. It does not work,” Mulcair said in 2001. “It didn't work in England. Up until Thatcher's time, that's what they tried, the government stuck its nose everywhere.”

Now he says: “My No. 1 priority is to get good services to the public. That hasn't changed and that's what that statement was about. Making sure that the public gets the best services possible.”

As if Thatcherism was about improving service! It was about privatization, union-busting, and imposing increasing austerity on working people. The “New Labour” direction epitomized by Tony Blair adopted the “free market” mantra and transformed the British Labour Party into something barely distinguishable from the Tories.

Wanted: more Corbyn, less Blair

This is the direction a Mulcair government would want to take. But timing is everything. Even while those at the top of the NDP want to emulate “New Labour,” there is a rousing, growing movement to restore the British Labour Party to its social democratic roots—sparked by the leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn is a long-serving Labour MP who has remained staunchly on the left, opposing his own party’s positions on war and austerity and using his platform to regularly aid those building grass-roots movements. Corbyn was allowed into the race to elect a new Labour Party leader literally at the last second, receiving nominations from a number of sitting MPs who don’t support him but were pressured to do so by local party members. They and the party leadership were confident that he represented only a tiny fraction of the membership, and could be largely ignored. They were wrong.

Corbyn has brought opposition to austerity and privatization into the mainstream. He says he will reverse the cuts to the health care system; will reverse privatization of the post office and rail systems; will scrap tuition fees and restore grants for a national education plan. He has called for an end to attacks on welfare and for restoration of state support for affordable housing. He promises to reverse Tory cuts to social support for people with disabilities.

His campaign has turned into a movement. Rallies became mass meetings. The largest venues routinely turn away hundreds. At one rally Corbyn stood atop a fire truck to address hundreds who had been unable to enter a hall. Thousands of people are joining the Labour Party to support him. Many are young people, but he is also re-invigorating older party members who had opposed Blairism.

Predictably, the Labour Party bureaucracy is freaking out. They are unleashing the worst kind of red baiting. They are moving to revoke the voting privileges of Corbyn supporters, not just new ones but also some who have been members for decades. Some Labour MPs have stated they would refuse to serve in a Corbyn-led government.

As a socialist I find this a joy to behold. The decades old consensus that there is no alternative to cuts and austerity is being shaken to its core. I’m also aware that Corbyn’s success—polls show he would stand a good chance of becoming Prime Minister—pose huge problems and debates.

Pat Stack, a comrade from Britain and author of a pamphlet entitled Can Socialism Come Through Parliament? (spoiler alert: the answer is no), writes: “Corbyn’s campaign is offering us all hope, and an opportunity to make socialist ideas seem relevant and real, and can pave the way to the more complex debate of how we actually achieve these aims.” Compare that excitement of a real movement for change with Mulcair’s campaign.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be voting NDP and using what opportunities the election affords to raise arguments about the viability of socialist ideas and tactics. But I’ll do so while noting the thin soup coming from Mulcair’s kitchen. And I’ll do so hoping a Corbyn-style movement from the NDPs rank-and-file will light a fire under his ass, should he become PM.

Join the discussion Election 2015: how do we stop Harper? Monday August 24, 7pm at Steelworkers Hall (25 Cecil St), Toronto

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