Left politics in Quebec

10th anniversary of Québec Solidaire: Moving beyond marginality

Is the party at a crossroads?
Photo: Quebec Solidaire

Last week Québec Solidaire celebrated 10 years of existence. Given the ambitions of the party when it was founded and the evolution of Quebec’s political landscape, what evaluation can be made of the party's progress? Does the party really find itself “at a crossroads” as some would have us believe?

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In reality, what’s called the “foundation” of Québec Solidaire is only the latest incarnation of Québécois leftist political organizations — a convergence movement started in the 1990s with the foundation of Rassemblement pour une alternative progressiste (Rally for a Progressive Alternative).

This movement matured in a context where the Parti Québécois had essentially abandoned its left flank under the leadership of Lucien Bouchard (though others will say that trend had started in 1981), a “recentring” confirmed by the victory of André Boisclair in the leadership race of 2005. A void was created in the left that needed to be filled. And we know what followed: the election of Amir Khadir in 2008, Françoise David in 2012, and then Manon Massé in 2014 under the banner of Québec Solidaire.

Some observations

These electoral gains were by no means trivial: Québec Solidaire is the only left-wing party to be elected to the national legislature in the history of Quebec. (The one exception is the 1944 election of David Côté for the CCP, the forerunner of the NDP-Québec, which was one of the founders of the Union des forces progressistes [Union of Progressive Forces], the parent party of Québec Solidaire.)

Québec Solidaire has brought a pedagogy of progressivism to Quebec. But pedagogy alone isn’t enough.

But beyond these nominal gains, growth in popular support for the party has been rather modest — up from 3.64 per cent in 2007 to 7.63 per cent in 2014 — and this limited result cannot entirely be attributed to the bipartisan politics favoured by our electoral system. And while Parti Québécois activists (and at times even the establishment) accuse Québec Solidaire — rightly or wrongly — of dividing the vote, the party has without a doubt provided an electoral option to those who didn’t have one until then or didn’t have one anymore.

Gaining strength from this nevertheless constant progression and the unconventional personalities of its elected representatives, the party has found its role in the parliamentary dynamic. Many will recall Amir Khadir’s all-out-attack against Henri-Paul Rousseau, the former president of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which manages several public pension and insurance plans in the province and was responsible for colossal losses during the economic crisis of 2008-09.

That earned Khadir the title of most popular political personality in Quebec at the time, according to Léger Marketing. His devastating oratory became his trademark, for better or worse. With the election of Françoise David in 2012, the party has found its role as conscience of the national assembly, which the NDP played federally until 2011.

In reality, the most substantial victories for Québéc Solidaire weren’t won through parliamentary jousting. Nevertheless, the visibility of the party — certainly owed to its elected members — contributed to the spread of left-wing ideas, and to making certain left-wing ideas appear less radical.

Consider a few examples: Québec Solidaire’s proposal of Pharma-Québec (which would publicly purchase medicines at economies of scale, supervise pharmaceutical research, and manufacture generic medicines), of which certain elements found their way into the next Liberal health reforms; opposition to pipelines (all pipelines), which became the prime rallying cry of the Bloc Québécois in the last election; and free tuition, a crazy and marginal idea 10 years ago, but now under consideration by the Parti Québécois and its leader Pierre-Karl Péladeau.

Perhaps the most important is the historical lack of left-wing political parties in North America.

It’s not a coincidence if, at its foundation, Option nationale (National Option, a sovereigntist political party in Quebec) had taken these ideas for its own program: they have the advantage of showing a concrete form that can make change. Further, we can add the idea of a constituent assembly, charged with drafting a constitution for an independent Quebec. Except for a few details, Quebec Solidare’s position has become the lead voice from 2013 Convergence nationale (National Convergence), a gathering of sovereigntist organizations brought together by the Nouveau Mouvement pour le Québec (New Movement for Quebec, formed in 2011 after the electoral ravaging of the Bloc Québécois). In sum, Québec Solidaire has brought a pedagogy of progressivism to Quebec. But pedagogy alone isn’t enough.

Difficulties and pitfalls

These relative successes, however, should not relegate to the background the failure of solidarists regarding the fundamental objective of all political parties: to win government and implement the party’s program — the Parti Québécois, for example, only had to wait eight years before taking power. Different reasons can explain the party’s difficulty in gaining the electorate’s votes. Some of these involve external causes, which are not relevant to Québec Solidaire, while others have to do with actions and thinking within the party.

In terms of external factors, perhaps the most important is the historical lack of left-wing political parties in North America that could forge a certain leftist tradition as exists in Europe today. Further, in addition to suffering from our electoral system, which disadvantages third parties, Québec Solidaire enjoys little media visibility, out of proportion to its popular support. Finally, the overall decline of participation in political parties — across all political divides — doesn’t help an emerging force.

But with excessive focus on it, the party has taken a miserabilist stance.

But the internal factors are what the party should be paying attention to. For one thing, despite its inclusive positions, the party has trouble getting support from immigrant communities, first and foremost because it hasn’t developed a network. The solidarist program should have an advantage with the part of the population who feel the effects of poverty and oppression acutely, even though this part of the electorate is considered “captive” of the Liberal Party. Certainly the Liberal government’s austerity isn’t going to help those in need.

Québec Solidaire must do the same for the anglophone electorate, which with few exceptions ignores it because of its sovereigntist position. If the party really wants to become the voice of independence among the groups left behind by the Parti Québécois — essentially everyone who isn’t an “old stock” francophone — then it needs to make serious efforts.

Furthermore, there’s a problem with the party’s discourse or, at the very least, its image. The defence of the downtrodden is certainly a noble cause and one that’s hard to disagree with. But with excessive focus on it, the party has taken a miserabilist stance that makes it hard to generate enthusiasm among those who are not convinced (i.e., most of the population). In general, people want to vote for someone who resembles them. Québec Solidaire must find a way to talk about the lived reality of the majority while showing how the party’s program can benefit them as well.

Purity doesn’t win elections.

There’s also a particular inertia among the solidarists, who after 10 years have not yet finished their program. In effect, the ultra-democratic nature of the process makes it slow. It sometimes seems that Québec Solidaire members are more interested in the production of what they see as a perfect political position than the work of creating a political direction that appeals to the majority. To paraphrase Pierre Bourgault, staying true to one’s principles earns respect, but that doesn’t mean every act must have a pure ideology. Purity doesn’t win elections.

Finally, although party has maintained slow growth in popular support, it isn’t an indication of the future. There’s no guarantee that for Québec Solidaire, the best is yet to some, as some people believe. This kind of “wait and see” attitude assumes that maintaining the current course is enough. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Difficult choices?

Many political commentators in Quebec have concluded that Québec Solidaire finds itself at a crossroads, with two mutually exclusive options: “recentre” the party the way the NDP did under Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair, or stick with the marginal role of conscience of the national assembly and remain confined to the opposition.

But these two options are far from the only ones, and their premises are flawed. In reality, Québec Solidaire’s program is further from radical than its image lets on. The problem isn’t so much with principles as it is with the approach to them.

First, polls indicate a clear and stable progression for Québec Solidaire since the election in April 2014. CROP recently showed that 16 per cent of voters would choose the party. If this keeps up in an election, it would mean a 100 per cent increase in four years and bring the party to the threshold of the “paid zone” in terms of delegation. Even more, the PQ’s current setbacks, which clearly fuelled the growing trend of solidarist support, don’t seem ready to subside. Québec Solidaire offers an alternate solution to those disillusioned with the Parti Québécois.

Québec Solidaire must prove more audacious, they must surprise.

Nevertheless, the party must not neglect that an important part of the potential solidarist vote can be found with the centre-right party Coalition avenir Québec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future). In effect, the two parties share the anti-establishment vote, and it’s not uncommon to see people hesitate between the two, as contradictory as that might seem for those who hold onto a strict right-left political analysis. But, before any ideas about right and left, what the electorate wants (for better or for worse) is a clear direction or, at the very least, the impression of a clear direction.

To transform all this potential into reality, the solidarists must choose, not between the mainstream and the marginal, but rather between their current practices and others that require them to leave their comfort zone and connect with the public. In other words, Québec Solidaire must prove more audacious, they must surprise. All too often, the left puts itself in the position of moralist, seeking to impose rules for the good of all (which some incorrectly see as paternalism or mothering). However, it’s possible to bring together socialism and libertarianism, economic solidarity and individual freedoms.

Ultimately, there is every reason to believe there will be a changing of the guard in the upper levels of the party. In the 2014 election, Françoise David implied that the present mandate could be her last and she was preparing for change. But where is it? It’s the eternal vicious Quebec Solidaire circle: lots of people (more or less known) are privately sympathetic (or at best, publicly support certain candidates) but few are ready to put their face on a sign, for fear of defeat. Thus, the vote progresses modestly, which is not enough to give adequate assurance to “new faces” to try their luck next time. However, with the eventual departure of Françoise, a “sure” constituency becomes available: this is an opportunity that could have a snowball effect.

But the left, across and beyond the current organization of Québec Solidaire, must stop being scared of itself and what it can accomplish if it dares to undo its old reflexes.

This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet has been translated.

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