Monday, May 2, 2016
At what cost power -- Whither the NDP & Leap?
With its recent rejection of leader Thomas Mulcair, as well as its (decidedly tepid) willingness to at least entertain the idea of debate on the Leap Manifesto, the NDP has shown itself to be more resilient than previously thought. Much to the shock of those of us on the Left, some New Democrats seem to be considering a real political shift. With elected representatives like Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo calling openly for a return to the socialism on which the party was founded - to say nothing of the activists and citizens who have signed the Leap Manifesto - the NDP may yet resurrect the prospect of a socialist Canada. Predictably, this has been met with fierce resistance from the hero-worshiping, and ever-shrinking, cult of NDP partisans. The battle of principles versus power seems to be in full swing.
When Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis unveiled the Leap Manifesto during last year's federal election campaign, I admit that I was quite skeptical of its possible impact. A strongly social democratic political document, directly calling out the plague of neo-liberalism, was not something I anticipated to catch on with Canadians. Predictably, right-wing blowhards like Rex Murphy and Conrad Black somehow managed to denounce it as both unrealistic and horrifically dangerous (after all, conservatives are not known for their logical abilities)! But I took a second look and, despite my reservations, was very impressed. A principled, progressive document that prioritizes Aboriginal treaty rights? Count me in.
The NDP, true to form, pounced on it as wrong-headed and destructive. No less an authority than Nathan Cullen, who then was poised to become Canada's Finance Minister, dismissed the Manifesto as "not the way to build a sustainable government."
And yet the Leap lives on.
The NDP, in a great act of direct democracy and political goodwill, resolved to debate the Leap in its riding associations for the next two years. Amazing! Party brass -- who are likely to be proven correct -- see this resolution as a happy medium wherein they can appear progressive, and actually accomplish less than nothing. Member resolutions, even when they directly endorse a genuinely progressive position, very rarely come within a hundred miles of official NDP platforms.
Left with this latest betrayal by the NDP, where do we turn in the aforementioned debate between principles and power? A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a Leap Manifesto town hall hosted by Avi Lewis and Cheri DiNovo. I saw Torontonians of all social stripes connect their own experiences and activism to struggles like Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Idle No More and many other progressive - that is to say socialist - movements. I was fortunate enough to meet and speak to an older woman who has worked tirelessly for the NDP since before it even formally existed. She told me that she was exasperated to see the party fall so far as to have a leader who defended Margaret Thatcher. Her heartbreak was palpable.
What kind of progressives are we when we praise proto-fascists like Thatcher? When our only fiscal concern is balanced budgets? When we dismiss organic, democratic movements as "unsustainable"?
The answer is - we're Liberals.
The NDP, as the "conscience of Parliament" that so many professional social democrats sneer at, forced major concessions on issues that affect real people. Socialists, working in and outside the CCF and NDP, created Medicare (as insufficient as it is). They demanded and won union rights, employment insurance and workplace safety. Socialists have been at the front of all movements for women's liberation in this country - including the rights to vote, take maternity leave and access on-demand abortion. The idea that socialism is unrealistic is not just historically inaccurate – it’s absolutely insulting to the millions of ordinary people knocking on doors, signing petitions and being beaten and murdered by police for what they believe in.
The NDP faithful, in their aggressive posturing and historical ignorance, often quote Saint Tommy Douglas. We've all heard the "'tis not too late.."-style quotes a million times at this point. But even I, already bitterly cynical about the NDP, was not prepared for the historical and political betrayal trotted out on the campaign trail. Among many other things, Thomas Mulcair had the gall to compare his balanced-budget pledge to the CCF's fiscal record, noting that under Douglas, the party ran seventeen straight balanced budgets and paid down Saskatchewan’s massive debt. This is certainly true, but it ignores the ideological context in which the party was operating, which prevented it from obtaining any significant financial help (no problem for today's Bay Street-friendly New Democrats). It also ignores the religious motivations (good ol' Christian thrift, etc.) that most CCF voters supported.
Even with these constraints - like the crippling debt incurred by the previous Liberal government - the CCF government managed to bring Medicare to this continent, lift millions out of the poverty of the Dust Bowl, create arts programs, expand unionization rights, and so much more.
What would Tommy have thought about today’s imperialist, reactionary party? In an interview later in his life, Tommy was asked if he regretted never having enjoyed power country-wide. His response was, "I'm not interested in getting power unless you can do something with this power. I have watched politicians, for the last 40 years, drop their principles in order to get power." I defy NDP partisans to find more than a handful of their MPs and MPPs who don’t fit that description!
I’m not so stupid as to believe that the NDP will be reformed. I think it’s still possible – after all, who’d have guessed that Jeremy Corbyn would one day become the leader of the British Labour Party? But I see it as a largely futile attempt, if honourable in some ways.
Let’s build a Left movement and get back to being the “conscience of Parliament.”
Let’s get back to being socialists.
“What is this free enterprise system? It is the law of the jungle applied to economics. It is the law of every man for himself, as the elephant said when he was dancing among the chickens. That is not a bad philosophy if […] you happen to be in the elephant class, but it is likely to be depressing if you are a farmer or worker, and belong in the chicken group. Free enterprise means unrestricted competition; the race to the swift and the battle to the strong; nature red in tooth and claw.” - Tommy Douglas
A.M. is a writer in Toronto
See also: There was no NDP Leap
See also: The NDP and budget deficits: Not the Tommy Douglas vision
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