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Mulcair: the NDP's Tony Blair

March 28, 2012

In the same week as 200,000 Quebec students marched against tuition and hundreds of Air Canada workers went on a wildcat strike across the country, the NDP elected ex-Liberal Thomas Mulcair as the new party leader. This marks a further rightward shift in the party, in a quest for power that is increasingly detaching itself from the movements upon which change is based.

In 2001 in the context of the anti-globalization movement, activists in the NDP launched the New Politics Initiative in an attempt to better link the party with the social movements. The weight of the mass anti-war movement of 2003 raised these hopes, as Jack Layton spoke out against the war, and a million more people voted NDP in 2004. But in 2005 the NDP supported the Liberal’s budget, which increased military spending by over $12 billion. In 2006 the party base and allied movements pushed the leadership to openly oppose the war in Afghanistan, but in 2008 the latter signed a coalition agreement with the liberals—dropping opposition to tax cuts and the war in Afghanistan.

In 2011 anger at Harper’s austerity and Liberal complicity, and inspiration from the Arab Spring caused a surge left, with 2 million more voting for the NDP. Despite the NDP’s modest platform, this new Parliamentary configuration raised hopes of challenging austerity when the party filibustered the attack on postal workers—providing a megaphone for workers’ struggles.

But during the NDP leadership debate, the party further leaned to the centre: the main candidates were Thomas Mulcair (supporter of Israel), Brian Topp (supporter of Greece’s austerity government), Nathan Cullen (supporter of a coalition with the Liberals) and Peggy Nash (who despite her history with the labour and social movements did not campaign on these issues). With the debate narrowly defined as who could earn more votes than Harper, regardless of the content of their politics or their connection to movements outside Parliament, Mulcair easily won.

Mulcair could be the NDP’s Tony Blair, who’s electoral success was based on purging the party’s principles; his support for war and privatization rivaled Margaret Thatcher, and the disillusionment this produced brought the Tories back to power. Mulcair could also undermine NDP support before the next election, resuscitating the Liberals.

As with the Labour Party under Blair, the activist base in the NDP has not gone away with the election of Mulcair. Some could turn left and see the need for more fundamental change than what the NDP is capable of providing, but some could become disillusioned or even more determined to “reclaim” the NDP. The task in the short-term—faced with Harper’s drive to war and austerity—will be working with activists inside the NDP to build the increasing extra-parliamentary struggles, and to push the party to support them despite its new leader.

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