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International left movements meet to spark bold change in Canada

Courage to Leap panel
Kevin Taghabon

February 16, 2018

Radical ideas are the life raft of the modern left. A 2016 Harvard University survey published in the Washington Post found that a majority (51%) of American millennials do not support capitalism. In Alberta, the most politically conservative province in the country, the right-wing Manning Centre found that only 16% of millennials identify as conservative. Even in the countries most benefiting from global capitalism, the idea that the system is fundamentally broken is widespread. This provides fertile ground for left-wing movements seeking to channel this discontent into energetic organizing and radical change.

As Leap co-founder Avi Lewis has said, bold, transformational change is not a liability – it is the left’s path to political power. Recognizing this, The Leap and Courage – two broad left coalitions – brought key organizers from the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns to Ottawa to discuss their respective successes in the US and UK. Activists from Vancouver to St. John’s packed the Canadian Museum of Nature to answer the question: “Why not here?”

Learn locally, act nationally

“The most important resource is people,” said Becky Bond, senior adviser and architect of Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic leadership in 2016. One of the most important components was trusting volunteers to do real tasks independently, not just to hold signs outside public spaces. The point of Sanders’ campaign was not to have a celebration of shared values among small groups of activists, but to face outward and speak to as many disengaged people as possible. These were not exercises in self-congratulation, but the steps towards power.

Bond, as well as every single one of the half-dozen panelists throughout the evening, made sure to stress these points. Without face to face conversations with ordinary people in one’s own locality, campaigns implode under outside pressure, insularity, and simple ignorance. The problems faced by our societies are radical, and Bond says that Sanders’ proposals reflected this, as well as organizers’ understandings of the concerns of the people in their communities.

Authentic left-wing content

This reality transplants across borders and oceans. Labour MP Marsha De Cordova spoke about her experience of running in Battersea, a constituency that was previously considered unwinnable. De Cordova, a Black woman with a vision-related disability, was able to massively swing her riding towards a Labour majority using the exact tactics that Courage to Leap speakers advocate. De Cordova is now the Shadow Minister for Disabled People in Labour, a party which is widely seen as a government-in-waiting.

De Cordova spoke about the 2017 UK Labour Manifesto, which she and other Labour activists were quite surprised about in its boldness upon release. The path to power is indeed paved by people, but these people need content. De Cordova explained how she was able to proudly speak about the Manifesto while canvassing in Battersea, adding a layer of authenticity for volunteers and residents alike. “Gangs”, a colloquial term for groups of tough young men in the UK, began approaching her asking for materials so that they too could hit the streets and help spread Labour’s ideas. This in a country with the most vampiric right-wing media in Europe, if not the planet.

Emma Rees (co-founder of Momentum UK, which was integral in Corbyn’s recent campaigns) said that, “at the ripe old age of 30” she is among the oldest people in her Momentum office. She and fellow Momentum co-founder Adam Klug recognized that young people largely drove the Momentum/Corbyn campaigns, with students flooding in to volunteer outside school hours and on summer breaks. This should provide a shot of optimism to the left in Canada. By the next federal election, millennials will surpass baby boomers for the first time to form the largest voting bloc in the country. In aggregate, this is a constituency that sits significantly to the left of the current political establishment.

When asked what the main attracting point was of the Sanders campaign, Bond said she met with the same refrain many times. “Bernie’s been saying the same thing for 30 years.” The same is true of Corbyn, as well as tireless radical politicians such as former Torontonian MPP Cheri DiNovo. At countless points in their careers, these politicians were presented with the same austerity politics nonsense and imperialist logic from the corporate elite. A renewed anti-establishment constituency sees these politicians as reliable, as they refused to sell out their values in the name of power and right-wing projects. Their opponents and most of their party colleagues meanwhile swallowed this snake oil for decades, and are now increasingly seen as untrustworthy. In short, real people smell real bullshit.

Movements, not leaders

The power of political leaders should not be, and was not, overstated. Rather than turning the event into a cultish celebration of two left-wing politicians, all speakers hammered home that organizing is the key to winning. Sanders was an important, credible messenger, but the importance was the message, explained Bond. Americans were not hungry for a democratic socialist septuagenarian with a Brooklyn accent to lead them. They were hungry for his ideas.

The distrust of liberal institutions – from universities, to the justice system, the press, and even elections – was channeled into a rage against Wall Street instead of minorities and the working poor. “We cannot count on our institutions to save us,” Bond said.The corporate media and establishment figures failed to grasp that Sanders and Corbyn were the faces of massive education and outreach campaigns that internalized the values and concerns of the people they spoke to. This is a recipe for growth that cannot be replicated with flavour-of-the-month technological solutions, meaningless “progressive” PR gestures, or endless donation requests in election cycles.

Victory through boldness

There are surely those in the centrist wing of the NDP that recognize all of this, as well as the new political landscape in which radical ideas are fair game. And of course, there are those in the media and other parties whose careers hinge on understanding these realities. In the face of these particular circumstances and our historic moment, it is both confusing and obvious why a similar left-wing politician has not yet emerged on the national stage. Leap co-director Bianca Mugyenyi addressed this best: the political establishment in Canada is afraid that by boldly moving left, the NDP can actually win.

In the US, Bond says that a great number of young people are excited about democratic socialism, and that “it’s probably what would have beaten Trump.” Trump’s election is an omen, and Canadians must heed Bond’s warning. In bringing the talks to a close, the panelists helped organize a Sanders-style “Barnstorming” session, with progressive activists from across the country committing to specific regional organizing sessions. In the age of climate catastrophes and economic chaos, it is imperative that an authentic socialist alternative be offered to the empty rhetoric of the Liberals and the unvarnished bigotry of the Conservatives.

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