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NDP convention: to stumble or to leap?

Anthony Malcolm

May 5, 2016

From April 8-10, a convention took place in Edmonton to decide the future of the NDP. At the end of the weekend, the future was cloudy, though perhaps brighter than before. 

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

The NDP made historic gains in 2011, based on anger at the Conservatives, disillusionment with the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois, and inspiration from movements around the world from the Arab Spring to the occupation in Wisconsin. For the first time the Official Opposition was not the twin parties of Canadian capitalism but Canada’s labour party, which is supposed to represent the working class.

Then the NDP took Alberta, the heartland of wild west capitalism and social conservatism, from a PC government that had run the province into the ground with reckless disregard for the climate, the provincial infrastructure, and the workers. The federal NDP began the election campaign in the lead, by echoing movement demands for $15 minimum wage, childcare and an end to Bill C-51. 

But in an election defined by expense scandals, police state omnibuses, attacks on refugees and “barbaric cultural practices,” and austerity, the party that should stand against all those forces managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

This has seemed a strange occurrence upon reflection, because Canadians voted overwhelmingly for the idea of progress and change. With the Liberal party positing themselves as left wing, there was only one party that the media pegged as centrist or right wing. That big tent Conservative party received only thirty percent of the vote from Canadians, in what was one of the highest voter turnouts in years. So why did the NDP, who ran high in the polls and in public approval, get such a bad result, and why do they continue their decline? Those questions were asked before the convention, and the answers were twofold: the leader, and the platform.

NDP removed the symptom, not the problem

Mulcair failed his leadership referendum, winning only 48 per cent of the vote from his party delegates. This was a man who praised Margaret Thatcher, the enemy of labour unionists. Someone who had removed the word socialist from a party, and who lost the election by promising to “balance the budget,” allowing the Liberals to monopolize the surge in vote for change. 

While he might have been effective in question period, he ran the party as a top-down manager, silencing members of the party who were too pro-Palestine, too anti-oil, too anything that approached radical. 

The party agreed, after stirring speeches by the leaders and the membership, that there’s no room in this country for two liberal parties. But removing Mulcair won’t transform the party. For years the NDP have moved towards the centre, federally under Jack Layton, and provincially across the country. The NDP, like social democratic parties around the world, exist to manage capitalism not to overthrow it. From Britain’s Labour Party, to PASOK in Greece and the ANC in South Africa, social democratic parties have subordinated movements to the capitalist state. Mulcair is merely the latest expression of this behaviour, and removing him does not do away with the reformism at the heart of the party.

Stumble or leap?

Another issue at convention that highlighted the party’s predicament was the debate over climate justice. In addition to removing Mulcair from the leadership, the NDP made a second welcome move: to study the Leap Manifesto. 

The Leap manifesto declares, in no small words, that the time for austerity and moderatism are over. Large steps must be taken to curb and reverse climate change, income inequality, militarism, and infringement of indigenous rights. The NDP has committed to analyze the points outlined in the manifesto, and adapt the appropriate points into their electoral platform.

A great deal of ink has been spilled by, as Avi Lewis calls them, the “Very Serious Pundits” of Canada. They’ve attacked the Leap manifesto and the vote against Tom Mulcair as the end of the NDP, a renewal of an age where the NDP were a fringe party. These are the same pundits who have railed against the rise of Bernie Sanders, and of Jeremy Corbyn. The same pundits who lauded Tom Mulcair for his dedication towards balanced budgets. These same pundits continue to misread the Canadian working class and the needs of the planet. They advocate for austerity and slow movement on climate action, for a continuation of failed neo-liberal policies.

But the Leap Manifesto has also been attacked from within the NDP leadership and section of the trade union bureaucracy, who echoed the mainstream pundits and lashed out at their own membership for engaging in the climate justice movement. The same reformist logic that led the NDP to choose Mulcair as leader and campaign on “balancing the budget” is leading the right-wing within the party to attack the Leap Manifesto rather than fight for climate jobs. If this continues it could derail the hope and unity of the climate justice movement. Similarly, if the NDP moves ahead with its plan to campaign provincially in Quebec, against Quebec solidaire, it could undermine its base in Quebec and the lessons from the left alternative Quebec solidaire.

The two votes at the Edmonton convention have demonstrated that the bulk of the NDP are interested in returning to their roots, though this won’t happen automatically. It’s by continuing to build the climate justice and other movements with those inside and outside the NDP that we can push the party back towards the left, or build the basis for a left-alternative in English Canada like Quebec solidaire if it continues its rightward track.

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