Yesterday’s election results have produced a pretty bad version of the best possible outcome in Parliament, while at the same time opening up some genuine space for the left in Canada.
The best possible outcome is the smug Liberals reduced to a minority, with the NDP holding the balance of power, along with the Bloc Québécois. That is a small opening for some genuine climate action, meaningful progressive tax reform, and real reconciliation — or at least puts a limit on the worst ideas of the Liberals.
The reason this is a bad version of the best electoral outcome is that the checks on the Liberals in Parliament are weak: the NDP remains in a weakened state and lost a significant number of MPs. This, however, reflects a dynamic that well predates the election and was in fact partially reversed by the campaign. Several months ago pundits were writing off the NDP, and for good reason — the party was broke, in internal disarray, and politically unfocused. Remember that only four years ago its leader was talking about “confiscatory” taxation. It was not hard to imagine it being reduced to fewer than 10 MPs.
But campaigns and political demands matter.
Jagmeet Singh ran a strong campaign that championed genuinely left policy proposals, connected with social movements, openly challenged racism, and generated political energy. It was enough to essentially maintain the status quo outside Quebec (nearly all the seats and absolute votes the NDP lost were in Quebec) and return a caucus that includes exciting newcomers like Matthew Green and Leah Gazan. More importantly, it was enough to popularize some big demands, sharpen political contrasts, and raise questions about a “progressive” status quo.
In short, the NDP outperformed expectations from August and perhaps underperformed expectations from the Friday before the election. That shouldn’t be surprising. The Liberals cranked up the strategic-voting hard sell in the last week of the campaign, while the NDP’s strong campaign came too little, too late to overcome long-term structural weakness.
Building support for big demands takes time: the campaign for a wealth tax and a Green New Deal should have run for months and years rather than weeks. More importantly, many structural constraints on the NDP’s success remain, not just in terms of the party’s finances but also in how the party politically sees campaigns and its demands.
While the NDP has not deteriorated as much as some other social democratic parties globally, it has been subject to the same pressures: weakened links to workers and their struggles, more bureaucracy and “professionalism,” less radical demands, and accommodation of the needs of big capital, like the fossil fuel sector, when the party has governed provincially.
The last 40 years have seen inequality skyrocket and living standards stagnate. A weak baseline electorally is a reflection of the weak state of the left both within the NDP and outside of it in unions, movements, and broader society. It is a reflection of a low level of social struggle and an inability to respond adequately to our own lived reality.
So this minority government will likely last a while, but will not produce huge gains. The NDP is in no position to run another general election campaign right away, and both they and the Liberals know it. But this election campaign, during which a million-strong climate strike took place across Canada, has helped shift the political terrain.
There is new space open for the left, for social movements, and for unions to build demands that push the NDP and push the limits of the Liberals’ paper progressivism in a minority situation. A relatively pat political situation in the House of Commons can coexist with a very dynamic situation outside of it.
The task now is to build up campaigns, organizations, and movements around demands that open up the left’s newfound breathing space.
A wealth tax? A Green New Deal? Housing for all? Let’s go.