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End of the Orange Wave?

Jesse McLaren

October 11, 2013

Six months ago, federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair told delegates at the party’s national convention: “In Nova Scotia, Manitoba—and coming soon in BC—New Democratic governments are setting the standard for good public administration….We are the party best positioned to defeat Stephen Harper in the next election. And in 2015, that’s just what we’re going to do.”
Six months later, the vote for the NDP in Nova Scotia has collapsed, the NDP failed to win the election in BC, polls indicate the Tories would win an election in Manitoba if it were held today, and the federal NDP have slipped back into third place in the polls. Reacting to his electoral defeat in Nova Scotia, NDP leader Darrell Dexter said “we didn’t see this kind of erosion, but in politics you have to deal with what you have in front of you.” So what happened?
Missing the Orange Wave
This is a significant shift from the Orange Wave two years ago, which catapulted the NDP into official opposition. This was based on anger at Harper, disillusionment with the Liberals and BQ, and hope from the Arab Spring that a better world was possible. That the Orange Wave was based more on hope than experience can be seen from a post-election analysis showing the surge for the NDP was dampened by the experience of the NDP in government in Nova Scotia: “From 2008-2011 the NDP gained votes in 293 of 308 ridings, had the same vote in 10 ridings, and only lost votes in five ridings (one in Newfoundland & Labrador, three in Nova Scotia and one in Ontario).” The Orange Wave was in spite of the NDP record, not because of it. But the NDP leadership, federally and provincially, interpreted the Orange Wave as vindication and encouragement of their right-ward shift away from social and labour movements.
In Ontario growing anger at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford derailed provincial Tory leader Tim Hudak’s election campaign, but the NDP spent the 2011 election reassuring people it would balance the budget by freezing tuition and transit fares at the inaccessibly high levels at which the Liberals had raised them. As a result, despite the explosive Occupy movement, voter turnout in Ontario reached a historical low, and while the NDP picked up support from the Greens there was no change in the combined Tory-Liberal vote. Horwath has continued on this path, ignoring a mass labour rally against McGuinty and instead supporting his austerity budget with minor tweaks.
In BC in 2012 it was the same story of the NDP providing little alternative, leading to disillusionment: “Voter turnout was 49 per cent, less than the 50 per cent turn out last election, and all parties received less votes: the Liberals lost 28,000 votes, the NDP 48,000 and the Green Party 4,000 votes…With the exception of their opposition to the Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan pipelines—the NDP platform consisted of timid tinkering around the edges of twelve years of Liberal devastation of wages, transit, social programs, and education.”
In Nova Scotia the experience of neoliberalism produced a steady erosion in the combined Liberal-Tory vote, from 69 per cent in 1999 to 52 per cent in 2009. This was paralleled by a progressive increase in vote for the NDP from 30 per cent in 1999 to 45 per cent in the 2009 election, when Dexter won. But this week’s election erased this decade, with the NDP falling to 26 per cent of the polls, and the combined corporate vote rising back to 71 per cent.
Social Democracy
What examples of “good public administration” led to Dexter’s disaster in Nova Scotia: granting corporate bailouts and scrapping rent control and tuition caps, pushing privatization and revoking the right of paramedics to strike. As a Nova Scotia student wrote in 2012: “The NDP, in opposition, starkly opposed the under-funding of PSE in Nova Scotia and the high levels of tuition fees students paid. However, since coming to power in 2009, the NDP has scrapped the tuition freeze, slashed funding to PSE and threatened the wholesale destruction of one Canada’s premier fine arts universities, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD).”
This is not just bad strategy, but a reflection of the NDP in power. As the only party with roots in the labour and social movements, the NDP deserves the vote of the left in order to raise the confidence of ordinary people to resist capitalism. But this resistance is just as necessary when the NDP is in power, because it accommodates to capitalism—closing hospitals in Saskatchewan, imposing wage cuts in Ontario, and attacking indigenous communities in BC. The cruel irony is that labour governments often anger and disillusion their base and pave the way for brutal right-wing governments—from BC Liberal Gordon Campbell and Ontario Tory Mike Harris, to British Tory David Cameron and Australian Tory Tony Abbott. This is the danger in Nova Scotia, as Solidarity Halifax wrote: “both the Liberals and Conservatives have a record of inflicting massive pain on the people of Nova Scotia. From privatizing public assets like Nova Scotia Power at criminally low prices to cutting thousands of nurses and teachers while closing hospitals and schools, electing the Liberals or Conservatives would be a step backward.”
Mulcair’s strategy of “bringing the centre to us” could do the same for the Orange Wave nationally. His record could undermine the NDP’s electoral chances—and the movements that sustain them—before the election, or could set the stage for what NDP power will look like: “ignoring the Quebec student strike and supporting the Clarity act that denies Quebec’s right to self-determination, refusing to meet with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and calling on her to end her hunger strike, ignoring Canada’s military budget and supporting Harper’s imperial intervention in Mali, repeating the myth that migrant workers are ‘depriving Canadians of their livelihood’, supporting the tar sands and eastward shipment of oil, removing socialism from the party’s constitution preamble, the list goes on.”
Reconnecting to the Orange Wave
In Quebec, on the other hand, the left alternative Quebec solidaire has not counter-posed elections and movements but sought to combine them. The results: by openly supporting the Quebec student strike and free education, amongst other progressive policies, QS both strengthens social movements and has made electoral gains. This is the model for fighting austerity—in the ballot box and in the streets, campuses and workplaces.
Following on the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, the Quebec student strike and Idle No More have shown the desire for radical change and the methods of mass mobilizing necessary to achieve it. The hope behind the Orange Wave has not gone away, but for the NDP to reconnect to it the party needs to reconnect to the movements--opposing Harper’s militarism and pipelines, and supporting indigenous, environmental, student and labour struggles.

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