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Why vote NDP?

March 17, 2014

With a potential provincial election in Ontario this year, and a federal election next year, there is recurring talk of “strategic voting” to defeat Conservatives Tim Hudak and Stephen Harper.
Nothing “strategic” about voting Liberal
“Strategic voting,” at least conceptually, is premised on the idea that you should vote for whichever candidate seems to have the best chance of defeating the party you don't want to win, like the Hudak or Harper Tories.
In practice, however, strategic voting inevitably seems to mean nothing more than NDP supporters casting their votes for Liberal party candidates in the name of defeating Conservatives. The only strategy being helped by this approach is the strategy of the Liberal party—which is backed by the same corporations and supports the same policies as the Tories.
NDP record
Does it then follow that we should all vote NDP? Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horvath has had conspicuously little to say on the issue of raising the minimum wage, a strategic blunder which has allowed Liberal Kathleen Wynne to position herself as the progressive candidate on this issue.
NDP provincial governments have a long history of betraying their supporters once in office, with Nova Scotia's NDP premier Darrell Dexter being simply the most recent of numerous examples of NDP governments reducing spending on education, attacking the rights of public sector workers and imposing austerity politics in order to balance budgets. The NDP government in BC attacked a First Nations blockade at Gustafsen Lake just like the recent attack on Elsipogtog.
With the record of the NDP in government being so poor and the current version of the NDP in Ontario so lacklustre, should we still vote for them? The short answer is yes, but not because of the NDP's policies or track record once in office.
NDP vote
We vote for the NDP not because of what they say or what they may or may not do once in power, but in spite of it. The crucial reason for voting for the NDP is not what sort of government they might form but rather the effect that a vote for the NDP potentially has on the confidence of ordinary people themselves to fight back against austerity.
The NDP is historically the only mass party in the country that is not explicitly a party of big business. It is structurally connected to the organized labour movement and is seen by people all over the country and across the political spectrum as a party of the political left. So when the NDP makes electoral gains, it is taken as a sign that more people share progressive ideas and want to see change.
The “Orange Wave” in 2011, which swept the federal NDP to it's largest vote in history and status as Official Opposition, was interpreted by many as a rebuke to the politics of austerity. An increase in the NDP vote makes progressive-minded people feel more confident, it tells us that we are less alone, and tells the conservative think tanks and opinion-makers that large numbers of people oppose their agenda. An increased vote for the NDP can have the effect of helping convince ordinary working people that we're not isolated and that we have the power to change things.
Social democracy
The common sense on voting is that it is the supreme act of political participation by the population in the political system. One may criticise voting all one wants, but what this means is that for many people, the act of marking their ballot is the one act they feel free to perform that expresses how they see the world and what direction they want society to take.
When people have voted Liberal or Conservative all their lives and make the decision that, this time, they will cast their ballots for the NDP, this is a shift to the left. It may be the first time in their lives that they have begun to see society as being divided between the rich establishment and the rest of us. Casting their ballot for the NDP is a way to give that shift in ideas some expression.         
Revolutionaries must welcome such a change in people's ideas, endorse it and work to make it grow. We turn our backs on the potential radicalisation of all sorts of people if we don’t see that, for many, voting NDP is the first step they will take in developing a more progressive and thoroughgoing critique of society. A larger vote for the NDP, then, has the potential to strengthen the vital work of increasing the confidence of ordinary people in their own ability to defeat austerity.
So vote NDP, but do it with no illusions. Vote NDP because it's a vote for our class, a vote that will be interpreted as a vote against austerity and the politics of inequality and division. But don't conclude that the NDP will deliver on any of those things. They will not. Vote NDP, but also be working today, tomorrow and the day after any election to build the networks of ordinary people whose own activity will be the key to building a more just society—including challenging the NDP leadership when they sell out, and winning NDP activists and others to a revolutionary alternative to capitalism.
If you agree with these ideas, join the International Socialists.

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