No 681 Posted by fw, February 19, 2013
“As for activists in the social movements, they clearly loath the Tories and greet the NDP’s victories but expectations are few that the party will qualitatively advance their causes. For many, an NDP vote continues to be a way to express opposition to the right-wing direction of Canadian politics. But it contributes little to building the needed culture of class solidarity that alone can point the way beyond capitalist oppression and exploitation.” —Richard Fidler
Richard Fidler describes himself as “a lifelong socialist with a special interest in the Quebec national question and its crucial meaning for progressives in the rest of Canada.” He resides in Ottawa and blogs at Life on the Left.
In his latest article, Fidler highlights the history and nature of Canadian Social Democracy. To read the complete 7,818-word piece click on the following linked title. Alternatively, this greatly abridged 2,573-word post, with added subheadings and text highlighting, focuses exclusively on the present, as reflected in Fidler’s intriguing question: The NDP, poised for power but to what effect?
About the article
In the summer of 2012 I drafted an article on the New Democratic Party for the purpose of introducing a discussion among some comrades seeking information about the party that now forms the Official Opposition in Canada’s House of Commons. While by no means a definitive study, the article draws on a number of books, academic papers and other documents addressed to the history and nature of Canadian Social Democracy, all of which are referenced or linked in the text. A French version of this article, addressed to a Québécois readership, is published in the current issue of the left journal Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme devoted to “La question canadienne,” a critical analysis of the “Harper revolution.”
The federal NDP will be meeting in convention in Montréal April 12-14, and I plan to return to some of the issues raised here in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, here is the article…
NDP’s 2011 historic election breakthrough
Fifty years after its founding, the New Democratic Party swept to Official Opposition status in Ottawa on May 2, 2011, propelled by the “Orange wave” in Quebec where it captured an astounding 43% of the popular vote. Canada-wide, the NDP share of the vote increased from 18% in the previous federal election (2008) to 30.6%.
Winning 103 seats in the House of Commons, and coming second in another hundred or so constituencies, the NDP now became for the first time a “government in waiting” with a credible perspective of replacing the Harper Conservatives in 2015.
This historic breakthrough for the party was achieved despite the near-unanimous opposition of the big-business media: 31 Canadian newspapers editorially supported the Conservatives, while only one (the Toronto Star) gave the NDP a qualified endorsement. Although the Conservative vote had nudged up only slightly, to just short of 40%, Harper had clearly established the Tories as the hegemonic party of Capital.
But this hegemony came at a price. Capital in Canada has traditionally ruled through a system of alternance between Liberals and Conservatives, each ready to replace the other if defeated in Parliament or by the electorate. With the crushing defeat of the Liberals — now reduced to 34 seats, an all-time low for the party — the scenario was radically altered. Although the Tory government’s parliamentary majority is secure for the next four years, the alternance is now up for grabs.
For Canada’s ruling circles, this poses a dilemma. Should they bank on rebuilding the Liberals? Or should they start thinking of the NDP as an acceptable option at the federal level, as they already do in some provinces where the NDP has governed for many years?
Provincial office is one thing. But the central government, with its crucial jurisdiction over banking and finance, foreign affairs, the military, trade and commerce, criminal law and the senior courts and judiciary, etc. — and above all its role in protecting the territorial and institutional integrity of the state and forestalling any challenge by Quebec to that integrity — that’s a somewhat different matter.
The NDP, created at the aegis of the trade unions in English Canada, has historically been viewed by Capital as a workers’ party and for that reason has never enjoyed the unalloyed confidence of big business — despite all the efforts of NDP leaders down through the years to neutralize and overcome that antipathy.
Moreover, under Jack Layton’s leadership the NDP had attempted in recent years to accommodate Quebec’s historic concern for autonomy over matters of language and culture, and had even questioned Ottawa’s claim that it had the unilateral right to determine whether it would accede to a majority yes vote for sovereignty by the Québécois.
Canada’s rulers could find solace, of course, in the apparent fragility of the NDP’s new status. The electoral advance of this “political arm of the labour movement,” as it is generally seen outside Quebec, comes at a time when the NDP’s organic ties to the trade unions are weaker than ever before in its history, and the social movements in English Canada that have traditionally looked to the party as a political outlet are largely fragmented if not demobilized. Furthermore, although its parliamentary caucus is dominated by Quebec MPs, the Quebec NDP is historically one of the weakest sections of the federal party. It would be a major challenge for this federalist party to consolidate these gains and build a strong base in a province where most of the left and progressive forces pursue the objective of an independent Quebec.
The NDP’s 2011 advance might be dismissed as purely conjunctural, the result of a chance confluence of factors — not least, the collapse in popular support for the Bloc Québécois. Post-election opinion polls indicated that voters switching from the BQ to the NDP were motivated by fear at the prospect of a Harper majority and attracted by the NDP as a party with a social program similar to the BQ’s but — unlike the BQ —offering them the prospect of a socially progressive ally in the Rest of Canada that is sympathetic to the “Quebec difference.”
But closer scrutiny reveals some longer-term shifts in the popular vote. Canada-wide, the Conservative vote in 2011 was just a couple of percentage points higher than in 2008, when the party’s vote was no higher than the combined vote in 2000 of the now-merged Conservative, Reform and Alliance parties. But the Liberals were in secular decline, their vote falling steadily from 40.8% in 2000 to 18.9% in 2011. Meanwhile, during the decade the NDP vote had consistently risen: from 8.5% in 2000 (1.8% in Quebec) to 18.2% in 2008 (12.2% in Quebec) followed by the surge to 33.1% in 2011 (42.9% in Quebec). Whatever the explanation, the fact that more than four million voters — about twice as many as in 2008 — had turned, despite the media hostility, to a party of the broad “left” that traditionally ranked third or fourth in the federal Parliament, represented a huge collective protest against the right-wing thrust of politics in Canada.
The NDP is now positioned as the hegemonic opposition in Canada’s parliament and politics to the right-wing agenda of the Harper Tories. But the party’s problematic relationship to its core constituency, the organized working class in English Canada, and its historic difficulty in grappling with the Quebec national question, suggest that it is ill-equipped to contend with the major class and national confrontations that ultimately shape the course of politics in the Canadian state.
NDP shy about its self-identification as “socialist”
Although today’s NDP is shy about its self-identification in its statutes as “socialist,” the party is a member of the Socialist International, a loosely organized alliance of parties that trace their historical antecedents back to the pre-World War I international workers and socialist movement — more specifically, in the NDP’s case, to British Labourism and a similar reformist but minority current in the Marxist SDP in pre-war Germany. This reformist current held that the working class could overcome its subordination without the overthrow of the capitalist state, through working for legislative reform within the state institutions, primarily Parliament.
A new direction?
NDP has not always shown the political savvy to respond quickly and skillfully to inevitable controversies
The NDP appears to have greeted its 2011 electoral breakthrough as proof that its overall course needs little amendment. No policy changes were proposed in either the June 2011 federal convention or in the seven-month long leadership contest following Layton’s untimely death. Some stumbling by MPs on issues of particular concern to Quebec —
“The NDP suffers from a chronic deficit of rank-and-file democracy”
Unfortunately, the NDP has no process by which programmatic issues like these can be debated and decided democratically by the membership as a whole. It publishes no journals, maintains no general media for internal policy debate, and conducts no ongoing education. It is typical for a three-day policy convention to spend less than a day in total on program debate, the rest of the agenda being devoted largely to official speeches, organizational matters and entertainment. At the base, the party is largely an electoral machine, a “party of the ballot box,” the membership mobilized solely for fund-raising and getting out the vote. [fw My observation — In fairness, don’t all parties suffer from a “deficit of rank-and-file democracy?”]
In fact, the NDP suffers from a chronic deficit of rank-and-file democracy. Day-to-day policy, including on issues of major importance, is set by the parliamentary caucus or, where the party forms the government, the cabinet. Both the caucus and the cabinet can ignore decisions by other party leadership bodies; for example, in 2000 the federal caucus supported the Clarity Act despite the Federal Council’s opposition to it.
Federal legislation banning union donations to parties has distanced a strengthened caucus and party leader from traditional power brokers
And in recent years, federal legislation (supported by the NDP) banning union donations to parties and requiring the separation of federal and provincial parties has enhanced the institutional strength and independence of the caucus and the party leader by distancing them from the federal party’s traditional power brokers, the major unions and provincial NDP sections and leaders. The federal NDP, like some provincial sections, has adopted a “one member one vote” (OMOV) system that accords no special status to convention delegates from affiliated unions. At the same time, of course, the party’s new dependency on public funding for political parties makes it less independent of the state.
Under Mulcair, the “NDP will likely continue the shift to the right”
Bay Street, the Alberta oil titans, and Canada’s ruling class as a whole can rest assured. With Thomas Mulcair at the helm, the federal NDP will likely continue the shift to the right that it was taking under Jack Layton. A former minister in Jean Charest’s Liberal government and before that an attorney for Alliance Quebec, he had angered solidarity and union activists prior to his leadership bid by his support of Israel and of NAFTA.
NDP is ready to ally with the Liberals if that will help ease their way into government
In 2008 Mulcair, along with Layton and his runner-up rival for the party leadership Brian Topp, was one of the architects of the coalition agreement with the Liberals led by Stéphane Dion. Although a formal pact with the Liberals is not now in the offing, there is no secret about NDP readiness to ally with Liberals if that will help ease their way into government. The party’s enhanced governmental prospects will no doubt attract a substantial layer of career politicians as resource personnel and potential candidates, bolstering opportunist tendencies within the party.
NDP is under little pressure from a weakened, disorganized left to resist its shift to the centre-right
It must be acknowledged that the Harper government’s right-wing agenda leaves Mulcair and the NDP considerable space to manoeuvre in the centre of the political spectrum. Furthermore, they are under little pressure on the left from social movements or trade unions, especially in English Canada. Meeting just one week after the May 2011 election, the Canadian Labour Congress listed “connecting with the NDP” as just one of the five “strategic” political priorities in its Action Plan: to “maintain our historical … relationship of working with the New Democratic Party as the best choice of working people.” Hardly a ringing endorsement. However, the NDP has spoken out strongly in Parliament against the government’s legislation banning strikes and imposing arbitration on post office, airline and railway workers.
Activists in the social movements have few expectations that the NDP will advance their causes
As for activists in the social movements, they clearly loath the Tories and greet the NDP’s victories but expectations are few that the party will qualitatively advance their causes. For many, an NDP vote continues to be a way to express opposition to the right-wing direction of Canadian politics. But it contributes little to building the needed culture of class solidarity that alone can point the way beyond capitalist oppression and exploitation.
 In April 2011 the Quebec NDP had only 1,700 members. As of mid-February 2012, the Quebec membership was 12,266, still a distant third behind British Columbia and Ontario with more than 35,000 each. Total Canadian membership was 128,351, an increase of more than 40 percent from the previous year as a result of recruitment during the party’s leadership contest.
 May 7, 2012, p. 1.
 Boulerice told me in August 2012 that he and other NDP MPs have dropped any memberships they had in Québec solidaire. Federal leader Thomas Mulcair has indicated more than once his intention to establish a federalist provincial section of the NDP in Quebec that would compete with QS.
 Murray Cooke, “Layton’s Legacy and the NDP Leadership Race,” The Bullet, September 22, 2011, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/546.php, accessed August 1, 2012.