Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Conundrum: Niki Ashton and the NDP leadership campaign

Given the truly inspiring turn of events within the Labour Party in the UK under Corbyn over the last couple of years it is not at all surprising that leftists in Canada are hoping that perhaps these conditions can be recreated here and within the country's mainstream social democratic party the NDP.

With the examples of Corbyn and also, allegedly, of Sanders in the United States, some have even gone so far as to state, as in the case of Rick Salutin "Forget about starting new left-wing parties. You can actually work within corrupt cadavers like Labour and the Democrats, aspire to take them over, and move on to power. I’d never have believed it but the evidence is there."

Except, of course, the "evidence" is not really there at all, a point to which we will return. This is even setting aside the fact that the "evidence", such as it is, entirely ignores what is occurring in Western European countries outside of the UK as well as ignoring what is happening right here in Quebec, where it has been completely due to the creation and emergence of new parties that we witnessed a revival of a socialist and communist left.

For now, though, what is left of the NDP's left is coalescing around the interesting campaign of Niki Ashton. This includes a variety of formations from the newly minted Momentum to the entryist Fightback. Meanwhile, yet another grouping called 'Courage' has been added to this mix that also comprises the long-standing Socialist Caucus. (While Momentum and Forward have endorsed Ashton, to date Courage and the Socialist Caucus have not.)

Historically formations of this type within the NDP have been anything but effective and there is little to indicate that this is changing.

Ashton did not (unlike Corbyn) come from any dissident activist thread within the party and is not the actual candidate (other than by the endorsement of some) of any of these groups. In fact, initially two of the groups actively tried to recruit a different candidate, Sid Ryan, and did so after Ashton had already announced.

Unlike both Sanders (who was not even a Democrat until his run for the nomination) or Corbyn she was an uncritical member of the caucuses of her leaders Mulcair and Layton as they shifted the party to the right and she went along with any number of Third Way and Blairite positions from the catastrophic Libya intervention to the ludicrously reactionary balanced budget pledge without saying anything about them at the time.

If we are to be told that she had no choice but to do this then really that says a great deal about the undemocratic and insular nature of the NDP none of which is good. Will she have no choice again should she lose?

Her first campaign for the leadership in 2012 showed little of the leftism of this one which does leave one wondering if it is in its own way opportunistic. While she speaks in terms of building a 'movement' now she has not made it at all clear that she would continue to fight for the leftist positions within the party should she lose and has, like Sanders did within the Democrats, essentially promised to get totally on board with the new leader in that self-defeating faux-collegial way New Democrats always do. We also have to take her at her implied word that she will re-democratize a party that has been run completely from the top down.

In must be noted that largely due to a relatively unfair and somewhat rigged system, Sanders did not actually achieve anything like what Corbyn did, the Democrats have not shifted left, Sanders has now integrated himself into the upper leadership of a dreadfully right-wing and stridently Wall St party and by doing so has led his "revolution" to dissipation and defeat. The notion that the Democrats in the US are going to become a vehicle for leftist or socialist change and that the "evidence" -- as cited supposedly by Salutin -- is there that this can or will occur is the purest tilting at windmills and farcically idealistic and not in the good sense of the term. It would seem that Sanders' very attempt to work within the Democratic Party has fatally undermined all that he originally was ostensibly fighting for.

Sanders has squandered the energy and enthusiasm of his campaign that would have been much better spent trying to construct a new political formation with other parties and movements. Sanders' campaign is a lesson to Canadian leftists, but not in the way it is generally represented.

In the case of Labour even during the Third Way era it remained relatively democratic compared to the NDP and, more to the point, had open and overt dissenters within its caucus and Corbyn was one of those. He also built a genuine movement during his leadership run (Momentum) that would have carried on even had he lost initially. His campaign was not simply about him winning-- he was not expected to win by anyone -- even though he ultimately did.

Nothing remotely analogous to this is occurring within Ashton's campaign to date. Unlike either Sanders or Corbyn, Ashton has not generated anything like the mass enthusiasm (as evidenced by huge rallies, a penetration into popular consciousness, etc.) among the broader public that was not simply essential to their respective phenomena but is also crucial to the very basis of a long term anti-capitalist project. In part this has to be because she does not even appear to be really attempting to do this.

All of this means that like Sanders this is less a 'movement' than a social democratic version of what used to be called a cult of personality, only a not terribly effective one outside of the confines of leftist activists. As long as Ashton is running the inorganic "movement" she personifies exists. The second she loses, if she does, it will cease to.

Many of us predicted it would with Sanders. It seems likely to in Ashton's case as well.

I think it is also reasonable to say that leftists outside of the party are being asked to take a "leap of faith" and to rejoin a party that has been more directly harmful to the socialist idea in this country than any other in the last few years as it has directly repudiated its very connection historically with even a cursory anti-capitalist stance.

It can, of course, be argued that it has been so for many years, but by taking such steps as removing the very word from the constitution and running on explicitly Third Way platforms as both Layton and Mulcair did the party has become a liberal party in every meaningful sense of the term. The silly slogans or rantings of some of the NDP's more demented partisans to the contrary, any resemblance between the NDP and a socialist party is purely in their own minds.

This leaves us with a serious conundrum. Given that Ashton is the only candidate to have even rhetorically embraced an anti-capitalist narrative and given the limitations of both this narrative and her campaign to what degree does this represent a serious opportunity and to what degree is this simply another possible detour?

The trouble is the real danger that we are encouraging people to mimic an already existing approach in Canada's case that has failed since the 70s and even more so since the victory of Layton which some at the time foolishly saw as a victory for the party's left (it was quite the opposite). This strategy would have us simply go along with the new leader whoever it is for the foreseeable future should Ashton's bid fall short and pretend that this is somehow part of trying to create a "socialist" movement.

What events in the US, the UK, France and elsewhere have shown us is that the collaborationist 'social democracy' and liberalism of Blair and the French Socialist Party, etc., is collapsing due to its internal contradictions and bankruptcy and that candidates running on left platforms in general elections can win. But they have not at all shown us that the parties that were the vehicles for this Third Way bankruptcy can be vehicles for its overturn in conditions as varied as Canada is from the UK.

As long as Ashton' s campaign exists there is at least something of an argument to temporarily join the NDP to support her and see where it leads.

But when and if it fails this argument is gone and becomes but a new echo of an old and tired refrain that serves as little more than an excuse to not organize something that could be a vehicle that would actually represent an anti-capitalist electoral political path forward.

Update: Since this piece was first published the Socialist Caucus has made a "critical" endorsement of Ashton, while the group Momentum has apparently withdrawn their endorsement of her.

Other Readings: Resolutionary Socialism: Why a leftist agenda within the NDP is futile

See also: Niki Ashton releases strongest Canadian federal social democratic tax platform in a generation

See also: Saskatoon NDP debate sees testy exchanges and a strong outing from Angus


  1. I supported Niki last time and again this time. Not hopeful about the NDP. We agree again. This is getting serious!

  2. What's lacking here is any serious critique of "bourgeois democracy". This is the real problem here not NA or her leadership attempt.

    If NA happens to win it would be a shock to the party bureaucrats and power brokers. In overall terms it would only result in a slight shift in tone of the federal NDP.

    In Ontario from 1990 - 1995 we have observed what happens when an NDP government is confronted by the full force of capital and the state apparatus.