A conventional convention at the start, the New Democratic Party’s gathering in Edmonton had an extraordinary and — many would say — unexpected ending.
This weekend may turn out to be a watershed moment, where a tentative, “pragmatic” approach is set aside in favour of an unapologetic push for a democratic socialist society. On the question of policy, rhetoric, and leadership, the left largely carried the day.
In terms of rhetoric, delegates were, in many ways, offered two oppositional approaches. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley gave a speech that, while fantastic in its delivery, was largely an attack on democratic socialists — the left of the NDP. She implied they were in hostile opposition to party forerunners such as Tommy Douglas and did nothing but feed right-wing opposition, especially in her home province.
Conversely, Indigenous activists and advocates pushed an unflinchingly progressive view based on forging a just Canada. They argued it needs to be 2016 for all those seeking justice, starting with the urgent needs of Indigenous peoples. As Cindy Blackstock said, the push for social equality cannot be incremental.
But most poignant was party stalwart Stephen Lewis. After skewering the Trudeau Liberals on feminism, economic equality, and international affairs, Lewis turned inward, suggesting that the NDP must be unafraid to embrace deep social, ecological, and economic reform. To be loving, hopeful, and optimistic, he argued, is to not shy away from discussions, but to embrace them with a full, open, and respectful dialogue. His defence of traditional party values, and the Leap Manifesto, was extremely powerful.
The Leap puts workers and Indigenous peoples first
On policy, the headline debate surrounded the Leap Manifesto. More than a call to adopt the document — which in essence calls for a green democratic socialism — the successful resolution implored the start of conversations so that Canadians from coast to coast would be able to share their vision of how the Leap might manifest into actionable policy.
I found the pro-Leap side more persuasive. It is reasonable to be concerned that environmental policies might leave workers and communities out, but to paint the Leap in this light is unfair, especially when the vast majority of deindustrialization in this country is due not to environmentalists, but to undemocratic ownership of resources and production facilities. The Leap is centred on ensuring that workers and Indigenous peoples are put first. Principles like community ownership, energy democracy, guaranteed annual incomes, a genuine nation-to-nation dialogue, and the redistribution of wealth all speak to the heart of the NDP’s mission. These sorts of policies will ensure that in the transition to a post-carbon Canada, all voices will matter.
As a discussion piece, the Leap not only adheres to NDP values, but enhances them in a way not seen in a very long time. It’s controversial, and the “pragmatists” will be sure to decry it, but Libby Davies had it right by saying that perhaps the most admirable thing about the NDP is that it takes the right stand, because whatever the political difficulties, it will be vindicated in the court of history. And what has greater historical importance than the survival of humankind on an equitable basis?
Looking to the left
Mulcair’s leadership review dominated the pre-convention debate and analysis. While discontent was expected, almost no one predicted a majority of the delegation affirming a desire for a review. Tom’s defeat was hard to watch, and many of us shed tears, including those who voted for a review. Still, it speaks to a direction that party members wish to take, and how they want that direction led.
Tom was selected for his skills as a parliamentarian, experience in cabinet, support in Quebec, and centrist image. He was selected less as a socialist to fight the good fight, and more as a ringer brought in to win. Mulcair’s defeat was harder to swallow, because it went against the narrative set since his 2012 selection, and the 2013 distancing from social ownership and the abolition of poverty.
In my view, the party is looking to move leftward, and Mulcair — who did not strongly back away from his praise of Margaret Thatcher, nor his characterization of higher income taxes as confiscatory — wasn’t able to position himself as the face of this reorientation, especially given that it would have been in direct opposition to his purpose of leading the party in the first place.
Again, my feeling is that the party’s left has scored a preliminary victory this weekend, with the Leap passing its first hurdle despite opposition from a sitting premier and the ousting of a leader in part for not tapping into and encapsulating the left-leaning desires of the membership and electorate alike.
What comes next is discussion of the Leap Manifesto at the riding association level, along with the debate around the next leader. If the party is fixated wholly on respectability, then it will likely maintain Mulcair’s path. But if the NDP — in Megan Leslie’s words — is prepared to be unapologetic in its desire for a social democracy, then we might be envisioning a new era in the NDP and perhaps a new era in this country.
Christo Aivalis is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is under review with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Canadian Dimension, Our Times Magazine, and Rankandfile.ca. He is a dedicated activist within the NDP, various labour bodies, and municipal governance, while also being a media contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV, and CBC.