In advance of our biennial convention in Edmonton, NDP President Rebecca Blaikie has completed her report on the 2015 election. The report certainly contains a number of useful recommendations for our party on internal democracy and election strategy, which will be received and debated by the incoming party executive.
If the NDP is to remain relevant, however, and the disastrous result of 2015 not repeated, a wholesale change in our culture of leadership is necessary. Thus, we add our voices to those New Democrats urging a leadership convention as soon as possible.
The Left internationally is, to use a popular phrase, “having a moment.” The insurgent, empowering, and successful campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States, to name only the most famous two in the anglosphere, have given hope of electoral success to socialists: those who believe in a democratic, egalitarian and socially just alternative to the capitalist order.
Democratic renewal needed
These leaders have shifted the public conversation towards a new and exciting consensus about the role of government in society, and government's responsibility to meet the demands of the 99 per cent instead of the monied classes. Their success rests upon their push for democratic renewal, of which our party is in desperate need.
The internal struggle in a left-wing party ought to be to get the leadership, who say the right things during an election, to actually follow through on them in a concrete way once in government; with the NDP, we feel it is a struggle to get the leadership to say the right things, when it matters, in the first place. In the NDP, as in any political institution, there are necessarily different currents of thought that can coexist while also competing with each other. These currents, however, represent different interests and different visions of a good society.
Members must realize that has been ever thus in our party. We must see ourselves as political actors and moral agents within a party that is far from static, not simply as flag-waving members of the orange team. We must also know our own history, namely that the Left has experienced victory and defeat within the NDP throughout its existence.
It is important to note that there are parallel struggles in trade unions. At the recent Fight for $15 and Fairness conference in Toronto, a Service Employees International Union organizer who had helped initiate the Fight for $15 movement south of the border remarked that between the struggle within the SEIU and the struggle without for a $15 minimum wage, the former has proven most difficult.
The need for analogous struggles within trade unions is evidenced by the recent joint endorsement of Tom Mulcair by the leadership — not the rank-and-file — of several large trade unions, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada's largest union (of which one of us is a member). These union leaders unimaginatively assert that Mulcair is the progressive choice. Jerry Dias, the leader of Unifor — Canada's largest private-sector union — has also come out with an endorsement of Mulcair, with one caveat: that Mulcair be voted out in 2018 if his poll numbers do not improve. This latter endorsement of Mulcair is indicative of an even more disconnected leadership, for the rationale is purely instrumental, which is hardly surprising given Dias' endorsement of strategic voting in the last election.
A Carleton University NDP member recently remarked that they positioned themselves in the centre of the party. How lucky to find oneself at the centre of a party at any given moment, for the centres of our political parties have long been in motion; one cannot expect to be at the centre of any party for long. Within the NDP, the Right and the Left no longer appear to represent paths with similar trajectories, so it is not even clear how one can be centre in such a scenario. As the great U.S. historian Howard Zinn once said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
Party morale low
This also holds for our party. Morale within our party is low, not because of electoral misfortune, but because we have sought the mythical centre for too long. Many of us are eager for the party to return to its raison d'etre, challenging the forces of capital in the cause of economic and social justice.
In a recent discussion, a member of the party’s federal executive spoke candidly to the state of affairs within the NDP's democratic institutions. Lamenting the lack of communication between the party centre and its activist base, they admitted that it sometimes felt like what happened in executive meetings did not matter, and that, although the executive is made up of great activists with the will to create change, the power to do so is lacking. They went on to describe how, in the last decade, power had shifted too far from grassroots mechanisms such as riding associations and committees in the other direction — toward the leader's office.
While not explicitly naming Mulcair or his staff, their comments should give rank-and-file members significant pause; the highest elected body in the party lacks the power to effect change.
We need a leader willing and able to address the serious democratic deficits within our party. Mulcair's record thus far is not encouraging. The insistence on balanced budgets during a technical recession — now recognized by all as a massive blunder that allowed just enough daylight for the Liberals' progressive script to play out — had never been debated at a single convention, nor had his “read my lips” rejection of personal tax increases for Canada's wealthiest. The ludicrous tax shift proposed and passed by the Liberals, benefiting only those with six-figure salaries, was met with little public scrutiny, at least in part because the NDP platform presented no credible alternative.
Worse, the only criticism offered by Mulcair was a right-wing rejection of the policy as a tax that would scare wealthy Canadians out of our country. The policies debated and passed at convention — in the party's official policy book — mysteriously disappeared from party websites early in the campaign, leaving candidates and campaigns in the lurch.
Even if one is purely interested in electability, we believe that maintaining Mulcair makes little sense. His greatest strength — his undeniably outstanding performance in Parliament — is at best requisite, but is certainly not sufficient, for leading a popular and successful challenge to our society’s elite.
Furthermore, Mulcair was supposed to be strategically valuable, because he was seen as someone who could safeguard our gains in Quebec, but Quebec has spoken. Not only did nearly four-fifths of the Quebec caucus disappear — which was obviously not due to Mulcair’s principled stance on the niqab, given the Liberals’ success with the same stance — grassroots NDP members in the province are calling for new leadership, from riding associations to campus clubs.
Now that the election has passed, Mulcair has come to realize that referencing Bernie Sanders and not the “progressive” Hillary Clinton is in vogue. He has even gone so far as to refer to himself as a socialist — a label he was happy to see downplayed in the NDP’s constitution only a few years ago. Yet, Mulcair is “simply not one of those people” who would endorse even the more moderate of Sanders’ reforms, such as tuition-free post-secondary education, let alone one that would identify Canada as an oligarchy.
Even with the somewhat impressive rhetoric about inequality we are hearing from Mulcair now after the election, he has not laid out concrete policies of redistribution. Of course, the promises of a national daycare and pharmacare program during the election could have had redistributive effects if implemented; however, a government must actually be willing to take money from the wealthy before it can redistribute it. It was this that our party seemed largely unwilling to do.
Coupled with a stubborn promise to balance budgets during a recession, this made promises of new social programs seem disingenuous.
During the election, Mulcair defended his flattering description of Margaret Thatcher’s policies as “the winds of liberty and liberalism.” His defence was that he truly believes that the Thatcher government, the progenitor of neo-liberalism and destroyer of social democracy, is an exemplar of good public service provision. Mulcair’s initial pro-Thatcher comments were made when he was a cabinet minister in a Quebec Liberal government that promoted austerity and was led by a former Progressive Conservative, Jean Charest, who viewed Mulcair as a fiscal conservative on the Right side of his cabinet.
People change, of course, but this is not the narrative we get from Mulcair, who claims to always have been a social democrat. There is an unspoken inconsistency here.
It is time to reassess one of the defences of our balanced budget pledge that many of us were forced to employ during the election, namely that social democrats have long believed that balancing the budget makes good sense. Although balanced budgets and social democracy are not at odds with each other, whether we look to Tommy Douglas’ impressive fiscal record, or even to the promises of Corbyn and John McDonnell in the United Kingdom today, it is clear that no socialist believes that balanced budgets are something to be blindly pursued. If they are to be achieved, it will be in no small part due to augmented revenue streams from new and fairer taxes, as well as increased social ownership.
This latter tactic is more than just a strategy for balancing budgets, of course. Indeed, these tactics are in tune with our dream of a more socialist society. This dream has been held by Agnes Macphail, J.S. Woodsworth, M.J. Coldwell, Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, and many more among the ranks of the CCF/NDP throughout the party’s history.
As social democrats, we refuse to believe that incremental change and genuine socialism are mutually exclusive.
In the words of Tommy Douglas, “We should never, never be afraid or ashamed about dreams. The dreams won’t all come true; we won’t always make it; but where there is no vision a people perish. Where people have no dreams and no hopes and aspirations, life becomes dull and a meaningless wilderness.”
Although he campaigned on “Building the Canada of Our Dreams,” Mulcair's aspiration for the party to become “good economic managers” was hardly visionary.
To renew our party in its founding values, the time to act is now. Members should heed the words of Ed Broadbent: “Whatever happens, we must retain our socialist faith and use this to inspire the creation of a better Canada. We believe in equality not because it’s popular. We believe in liberty not because it’s a winner. We believe in social ownership not because of the polls. We believe in these because they are right, we must never forget it.”
Authors' note: The views expressed here are the authors' alone; we do not attempt to speak for the respective organizations of which we are a part.
Geoff Krauter, 30, is the president of the Guelph federal and provincial NDP riding associations, the urban rep for the ONDP’s Southwest Council, a former candidate for Guelph’s federal NDP nomination, a former president of the Oak Ridges-Markham federal and provincial NDP riding associations, and a former president of the Guelph University NDP. He is also a host on Guelph University’s campus radio.
Miles Krauter, 28, was a provincial NDP candidate in the 2014 Ontario election. He is a former president of the Oak Ridges-Markham federal and provincial NDP riding associations, a former executive member of the Ottawa-Vanier federal and provincial NDP riding associations, and former co-chair of the University of Ottawa NDP. He is currently a labour activist in Ottawa and co-vice president of CUPE local 4600, which represents academic workers at Carleton University, as well as their delegate to the Ottawa District Labour Council.