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What next for the Orange wave?

Jesse McLaren

March 25, 2013

“The work we started under Jack Layton that weekend finally paid off on May 2, 2011. As you know, that’s when we won 59 seats in Québec and formed the first ever New Democrat Official Opposition. Together, we changed the face of Canadian politics forever. This April, I want you to be there as we build our next breakthrough…We’ll be laying the groundwork to defeat Stephen Harper in the next election and form the first ever New Democrat government. Together we can build the Canada we know is possible—a greener, fairer and more prosperous country for future generations.”
This call to next month’s NDP convention from Thomas Mulcair, shows the leadership’s perspective: Jack Layton was responsible for the Orange Wave, and now NDP policies will continue on an uninterrupted path to power, which will result in a better society. But faced with breakthroughs of the Quebec student strike and Idle No More, which have laid the groundwork to challenge Harper’s austerity agenda, Thomas Mulcair turned the other way—undermining the hope for change that was at the heart of the NDP's success at the polls.
Interpreting the Orange Wave
The historic Orange Wave that catapulted the NDP into Official Opposition emerged from outside of Parliament: the economic crisis, years of anger at the Harper agenda, disillusionment with the Liberals and the Bloc Québecois, and inspiration from the Arab Spring. Millions of people voted for the NDP for the first time, hoping for a real alternative. The surge in NDP seats creates the possibility of magnifying movements opposiing corporate Canada, using the ballot box as a megaphone for the streets. This synergy, afterall, was what brought Layton to prominence, when activists inside and outside the NDP pushed the party to speak out against the Iraq War in 2003, which helped stop Canada's involvement in the war and led to a surge for the NDP.
But the NDP leadership drew the opposite conclusions based on their experience in Parliament. In 2005 the NDP supported the Liberal budget that included a massive increase in military spending. At the 2006 convention in Quebec, the party’s membership and the anti-war movement pushed the party to call for troops out of Afghanistan; but in 2008 the NDP leadership proposed a coalition with the Liberals that sacrificed opposition to the Afghanistan War and corporate tax cuts in exchange for a few seats in power. Then in 2011 the NDP unanimously supported the war in Libya, and their platform called for maintaining military spending. The Orange Wave was not because of NDP centrist policies but in spite of them, but the NDP leadership drew the opposite conclusion.
The ballot box and the streets
As a result, the NDP leadership has counterposed the ballot box and the streets, leading them from opposition to equivocation. The Occupy movement saw millions identify with the 99% against the 1%, including many NDP activists—but there was no leadership candidate that reflected the radicalization. The two top contenders were Brian Topp, who championed the Greek social democratic party PASOK (whose support for austerity led to its meltdown), and Mulcair. In the same week as 200,000 Quebec students and hundreds of Air Canada workers were on strike, the NDP elected Thomas Mulcair.
While he won his Outremont seat in 2007 by appealing to the movements—calling the Afghanistan war a “war of aggression” and the Liberals attitude towards the Kyoto climate protocol “an embarrassment”—the NDP leader has accommodated to the war drive, and distanced the party from movements for free education, self-determination, environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty.
Mulcair has supported sanctions against Iran and imperial intervention in Mali. The NDP has not challenged Harper’s $490 billion military spending, and merely asks for “restraint” from all sides when Israel launches assaults on Gaza.
As the historic Quebec student strike was gaining momentum, with support from the left alternative Québec solidaire, Mulcair instructed his MPs to not vocally support the students and then announced the NDP would run candidates in the next election—against Québec solidaire. The casseroles across the country showed the support for Quebec and the desire the spread the fight against austerity. Rio Tinto workers in Alma won an inspiring victory, including solidarity from workers in BC. But the NDP leadership has reaffirmed its support for the reactionary Clarity Act, which has already driven Alma MP Claude Paltry to the Bloc Québecois.
As the historic Idle No More movement was launching a movement for indigenous sovereignty and solidarity, Mulcair called on Attawapiskat Chief Spence to end her hunger strike. There are growing movements uniting indigenous and non-indigenous people against tar sands and pipelines (including inroads into the labour movement), but Mulcair is instead pushing for refining tar sands domestically and sending it eastwards.
Capitalist Parliament
The Quebec student strike and Idle No More are breakthroughs that have laid the groundwork to challenge the Harper agenda. The NDP should be using every opportunity to support them, calling for the $490 billion in military spending to go towards eliminating tuition and massively investing in green jobs so we can shut down the tar sands, while respecting self-determination of First Nations and Quebec. But these movements are firmly rooted in the streets and challenge the Canadian state that Mulcair wants to lead—a state based on colonialism, resource extraction and militarism. 
While the Orange Wave has changed the face of Canadian parliamentary politics, it has not changed the fact that whoever is in power has to accommodate to the corporate 1% who really run society—and who are driven to make society less green, less fair and less prosperous for the 99%. A better world is indeed possible, by following the Arab Spring and fusing social movements with economic resistance. Ultimately this will need to replace Parliament from below, but until then we need to work with activists in Canada's only labour party to push the NDP to use its voice inside Parliament as a megaphone for movements outside. 

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