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Should the left still vote for the ONDP?

James Clark

May 22, 2014

Two weeks into the provincial election, anger continues to build at the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP). With each passing day, the party seems to lurch further to the right. From its “Makes sense” slogan – an echo of Mike Harris’ “Common sense revolution” – to its promise to cut $600 million from the budget, the ONDP sounds more like a watered-down version of the Tories than a party of the working class.
The party’s shift rightwards has produced more than just anger. Among traditional NDP voters, it has generated confusion and demoralization – with some preparing to vote Liberal for the first time ever, and others announcing their plans to “sit out” this election. Among the left, it has sparked a debate about the future of the ONDP – should we try to take it over, or ditch the party and start a new one?
These are important questions. How we respond will affect our ability to challenge the austerity agenda, not just in the weeks ahead, but for years to come. As activists, we need to think through the election’s impact on the political terrain in Ontario, and develop a strategy that puts us on the best possible footing to resist neoliberalism – regardless of who wins on June 12.
Why elections matter
In the short term, the most immediate question is how to vote, or whether to vote at all. For some activists, voting is a complete waste of time because, in their view, it creates illusions in the ability of the system to be reformed and diverts our attention from building movements. But this view assumes, incorrectly, that elections have no impact on movements. Elections are important because they draw huge numbers of working people into discussions about how to improve their lives and the world around them. Not surprisingly, under capitalism, most people believe that elections are the only way to do this, and therefore pay more attention to politics during elections than they would otherwise. The left should use this opportunity to raise its own demands, shape the terms of debate, and convince this audience that meaningful change happens outside parliament.
Elections are also important because their outcome affects the balance of class forces. When the Tories do well, the corporations, the banks and the rest of the ruling class feel more confident to go on the offensive – making our work as activists more difficult. By contrast, when the NDP does well (even with a right-wing platform), party activists who make up a big part of the labour and social movements feel more confident about their struggles. This is why elections matter – not because getting the NDP elected will win our demands (it won’t), but because its electoral success – even on a small scale – can improve the conditions for building a viable movement against austerity.
Not everyone buys this logic. In response to the ONDP’s rightward shift, some activists insist that the party under Andrea Horwath’s leadership no longer represents working people, and that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have become a left-wing alternative; as a result, they plan to vote Liberal on Election Day. This argument is flawed for two reasons.
Why vote NDP?
First, the criteria for voting NDP is not the strength of its platform, which almost always pales in comparison to its members’ aspirations for a better world. Instead, the criteria should be its connection to the working class. This is what makes the NDP qualitatively different from the Liberals, the Tories and even the Greens: it is organically and structurally linked to the trade union bureaucracy and, by extension, to the broader labour movement. Their interests remain opposed to those of the corporations and the banks. A vote for the NDP is therefore a vote against the bosses’ parties: the Liberals and the Tories, who each represent competing tactical approaches of the ruling class. It is also in this sense that voting NDP demonstrates a basic sense of working-class consciousness, which the left should aim to develop.
But not everyone agrees with this characterization of the ONDP. An increasing number of activists dismiss it as “just like the other parties” or “another liberal party.” This is still a mistaken assessment. Regardless of the party’s platform, and even of Horwath’s frosty relationship with the trade union leadership, the ONDP remains deeply connected to (and reliant upon) Ontario’s labour movement: hundreds of union staffers work on elections, while thousands of members volunteer; union funds help pay for ONDP campaigns and operations; and union delegates play a role in the internal life and decision-making of the party.
Second, this is not the first time that the ONDP has shifted rightward, while retaining its link to labour. On many other occasions, the party has adopted right-wing positions that put it at odds with its base, and that led to similar calls to vote Liberal or abstain altogether. During Bob Rae’s tenure from 1990 to 1995, the party abandoned its commitment to public auto insurance, allowed a free vote on a bill for same-sex benefits (which led to its defeat), and forced public sector workers to take 12 unpaid holidays a year – the so-called “Rae Days.”
Social democracy
In this light, the recent rightward shift of the ONDP is really no surprise – especially given the general trajectory of social democracy towards Third Way or Blairite policies. Rather than seeing such shifts as breaks from the “real” social democratic tradition, we should recognize them as familiar patterns: under capitalism, all social democratic parties – no matter how many seats they hold in parliament – are confronted by the unrelenting pressure of capital, which often forces them to abandon their principles. The absence in Ontario of a strong and mobilized labour movement to counter such pressures also likely contributes to the ONDP’s rightward shift.
This is not to suggest that we let the ONDP off the hook, simply because of social democracy’s history of succumbing to market forces. The point is to demonstrate that, despite this history, the ONDP remains a fundamentally different party from its Liberal, Tory and Green opponents, and that this difference – its links to labour and the working class – is the main reason to vote for it.
Nevertheless, even among activists who recognize this difference, many still plan to vote for the Liberals. Their reasons have less to do with seeing them as a left-wing alternative to the NDP than with seeing them as a “lesser evil” to the Tories. This is what is known as “strategic voting” – casting a ballot for whichever party is more likely to defeat a Conservative candidate.
‘Strategic voting’
The problem with "strategic voting" is that it’s not strategic at all. Presumably, strategic voters are motivated to vote against the Tories because they perceive their agenda as significantly worse than the Liberals’. Again, if we focus only on party platforms, this may be more or less true. In practice, the reality is much different. In 1993, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals won a majority, thanks in part to strategic voting against the Tories’ record of free trade and budget cuts. Once in power, the Liberals expanded free trade and introduced the deepest cuts to social programs in Canadian history, the opposite of their promises. Likewise, despite its “left-wing” budget, the Ontario Liberals have already implemented 80 per cent of the Drummond Report’s austerity measures, and have attacked public sector workers and their right to collective bargaining.
The other problem with strategic voting is that it assumes that the only way to fight the Liberals’ and Tories’ austerity agendas is through elections, as if the labour movement outside parliament has little or no role to play. Given labour’s weak state, it’s understandable why progressive voters feel compelled to vote strategically – especially in the face of Tim Hudak’s promise to slash 100,000 public sector jobs and gut workers’ rights. This also explains why sections of the trade union bureaucracy also endorse strategic voting: despite the potential strength of their base, labour leaders are more likely to rely on elections (or legal battles) to advance their interests than to mobilize their members in any serious manner.
In addition, strategic voting doesn’t consider the impact of elections on the political terrain outside parliament, where activists organize in between campaigns. This point is crucial: the day-to-say struggles that exist before an election will still be there when it’s over. The same is true of the austerity agenda, neoliberalism, and all the contradictions of capitalism.
Austerity agenda
For example, imagine if strategic voting prevents Tim Hudak’s Conservatives from forming government, and instead produces a majority Liberal government at the expense of the ONDP. It may stop Hudak from implementing his slash-and-burn policies, but it won’t stop the austerity agenda – which, at their core, the Liberals fully embrace, but only with a different tactical approach than the Tories. Fewer NDP MPPs will mean far less pressure on the Liberals to court their support, or to offer the kinds of reforms they promised in their recent budget. Instead, an emboldened Liberal government – whether an outright majority or a strengthened minority – will confidently advance austerity, and on its own terms.
Another possible outcome is that strategic voting could fail to prevent Hudak from forming government, only marginally boosting Liberal support, but still at the expense of ONDP seats. In this situation, the political terrain outside parliament – where the real fight against austerity must take place – would be much more difficult, given the widespread demoralization of the NDP base and the labour movement, and the triumphalism of the Tories’ ruling-class backers. Tellingly, no matter how much the NDP attempts to obscure its links to labour, the mainstream media almost always interprets its electoral losses as a rejection of “labour’s party” – and with it – the possibility of any alternative to the Liberals or the Conservatives.
Given this context, the left should base its strategy – including how to vote – on what will strengthen the labour and social movements beyond the election. On these terms, it makes the most sense to call for a critical vote for the ONDP, despite the limits of its platform.
But this is just a start. The left must confront the much bigger project of building a viable, long-term movement out of the fragmented and isolated struggles that dot the current landscape. And just as it recognizes the impact of elections on movements, it must also recognize the impact of movements on elections – and organize accordingly. This dialectical relationship between the ballot box and the street is the key to addressing emerging debates about the future of the ONDP.
Much of that debate represents the frustration among members and supporters who want the ONDP to offer a real, left-wing alternative. The overall weakness of the movements has raised the stakes even further: because of the difficulty of imagining the possibility of a large-scale, ongoing mobilization that could actually push back the austerity agenda, activists increasingly pin all their hopes on the electoral prospects of the NDP – a move that heightens their sense of betrayal and disappointment when the party fails to deliver.
This weakness also distorts the debate to the extent that activists become singularly focused on changing the ONDP – finding a new leader, taking it over or creating a left-wing version of it – without any sense of how the labour and social movements could play a role in this process. Their mistake is to treat the symptom (the ONDP’s rightward shift) instead of the disease (the low level of struggle outside the party). As a consequence, the increasingly urgent task of “fixing” the party becomes a substitute for – instead of the outcome of – the difficult, time-consuming project of systematically rebuilding struggle from the ground up.
Next steps
That said, this debate is an important one, and represents more potential than the usual “regroupment” discussions that frequently pop up on the far left. Without a doubt, the election’s outcome – no matter who wins – will only intensify the debate.
In the short term, there is a real urgency to address strategic voting, abstention, the idea that the Liberals are a “left-wing” alternative, and the working-class nature of the ONDP; our response will affect the extent to which we can have an impact on the election itself, and our ability to shape the political terrain once the election is over. For this reason, the left should call for a critical vote for the ONDP. In the long term, our focus must be on the concrete issues immediately facing working people, and on building the kind of rank-and-file response that mobilizes them in large numbers: the fight to defend trade union rights and to stop so-called “right-to-work” laws; the fight to defend Canada Post as a public service; the fight for a $14 minimum wage; the fight against Line 9 and for a clean environment; the fight for Indigenous sovereignty and for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women; among many other struggles.
If we build these struggles broadly, and successfully attract wider forces beyond the self-identified left, the possibility of changing the ONDP’s political direction – and of harnessing it (or something entirely new) as an electoral vehicle for the demands of the movements – becomes far less abstract than it is at the moment. As new struggles emerge, so too do new networks and new relationships – both among the left and with wider forces that have real social weight. In the process, this kind of regroupment may begin to generate among the wider public the kind of support for progressive, working-class demands that pressures the ONDP to take them up. And the more that pressure grows outside the party, the more influence the movements have inside it.
No matter who wins this election, this must remain our primary focus: rebuilding the capacity of the labour and social movements to confront and resist the austerity agenda in all its forms. It is here – among the struggles of ordinary working people, in their workplaces, on the campuses, and in their neighbourhoods – that the left will find the strength it needs for such a project, and the potential for the kind of regroupment that, in the years ahead, could dramatically transform the electoral landscape.
If you like this article, register for Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include "The NDP and the crisis of social democracy", "After the election: taking on the anti-union threat in Ontario and Quebec", "Why is capitalism in crisis", and "Why do we need revolutionary organization."

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