Socialism Today           Socialist Party magazine

‘New Politics’ in Canada

LAST NOVEMBER leaders of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) received a shock when 37% of delegates at the party’s national convention voted in favour of the New Politics Initiative (NPI), a current of NDP lefts and social activists outside the party who are proposing to replace the NDP with a new left-wing formation.

The NDP (Canada’s Labour Party) has reached social democracy’s nadir since it was formed in 1961 and since its predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was founded in Regina in 1933. In its first Canada-wide federal election in 1935 the CCF won 8.9% of the vote. In the last federal election in November 2000, the NDP won 8.5%. At provincial level the NDP is on the verge of losing party status in Ontario (Canada’s largest province), has only two seats in British Columbia’s legislature after squandering two terms in power, clings to government in Saskatchewan (the party’s birthplace) thanks to a rotten coalition with the Liberals, and enjoys relative security only in Manitoba.

Just twelve years ago it looked like the NDP had achieved its greatest breakthrough, winning its first ever majority government in Ontario – Canada’s industrial heartland with one-third of the country’s population. From being largely confined to western Canada, it looked on the verge of taking power nationally.

The meltdown in NDP fortunes can be traced to the party’s abandonment of socialist principles. The Ontario breakthrough came with the party’s election manifesto, Agenda for People, which promised numerous social and political reforms including the nationalisation of auto insurance. Premier Bob Rae quickly turned his back on his party’s pledges, however, and led the NDP into a doomed attempt to run a business-friendly government. In 1993 it adopted the ‘social contract’, arbitrarily reopening collective agreements with public-sector unions and imposing salary claw-backs to the tune of $2 billion. While maintaining formal ties with the labour movement, this betrayal of the workers effectively ended the NDP’s role as a labour party in Ontario. Subsequently, the federal NDP and its Ontario section began a precipitous decline. In the 1993 federal election the NDP lost more than two-thirds of its seats and was reduced to a nine-seat rump in the federal House of Commons in Ottawa. In 1995 the Ontario NDP, having betrayed labour, cut social programmes and prepared public services for privatisation, was booted from power.

After this fiasco the party leaders concluded that the NDP should move to the ‘Third Way’ and the political centre. Its 1999 election campaign in Ontario was virtually indistinguishable from that of the Liberal Party. The result was a second Tory majority, a slightly larger Liberal opposition and an NDP rump.

NDP membership in Ontario has dropped from 30,000 in 1990 to barely 15,000 today. Nationally the party has declined from around 100,000 members in the late 1980s to around 60,000 today. Over the past decade the NDP has lost most of its base of social movement activists and working-class militants to become a party of middle-class intellectuals, professionals and union bureaucrats.

Inspired by rising social militancy – and the anti-globalisation movement in particular – the NPI was formed last summer by a handful of activists, trade unionists and intellectuals around the thesis that a new left party was needed as the NDP was no longer capable of filling that role. Attracting such notables as the chief economist of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), Jim Stanford (and the tacit backing of CAW president, Buzz Hargrove, and the leadership of the CAW, the largest and most left wing of Canada’s unions), author and leading feminist, Judy Rebick, NDP MPs, Svend Robinson and Libby Davies, and several young social movement activists, the NPI signed up 1,000 endorsers, evenly split between NDP members and non-members. Rather than completely break from the NDP, however, it was proposed that the NDP take a leadership role in forming the new party. NPI challenged the NDP to take on this commitment at its November 2001 Winnipeg convention, winning 37% of delegates’ votes.

While the NPI initially described itself as socialist and insisted that the new party would be formed regardless of what happened at Winnipeg, the months leading up to the convention saw a process of moderation and accommodation to the party establishment. The word ‘socialist’ was dropped from the NPI endorsement form. Even the question of whether the NPI is ‘anti-capitalist’ has been controversial, with some fearing that such talk would alienate potential green and left-liberal supporters. Discussions over a ‘basis of unity’ for the NPI have broken down as a result.

A ‘renewal document’ issued by the NDP executive in the fall attempted to co-opt the NPI with vague promises about reaching out to social movements and instituting democratic reforms in the party. The NPI, in turn, extended its timetable for the creation of a new party by several years, becoming increasingly vague about whether it would be launched with or without the NDP. Talk of a new party has been placed on the back burner and the NPI has been granted three seats on the NDP’s 25-member Renewal Committee.

The NPI sees its lack of programme as a strength – an example of ‘participatory democracy’ and the need for a programme to flow out of a democratic process rather than be imposed, pre-formed, in a manifesto. While it is essential for any programme to be attuned to the real needs of society, the idea that a party can be built around a purely structural concept with policies added later (if ever) is erroneous.

Anti-capitalist policies are slowly being developed in practice, however, as NPI activists attempt to build a party on the ground by participating in broader campaigns, such as defending public healthcare in Ontario and the movement in British Columbia against that province’s right-wing Liberal government. Such campaigns provide the NPI with an opportunity to build its organising capacity at a local level and to persuade social movement activists of the need for a party with some sort of strategic vision.

In her book, Imagine Democracy, NPI coordinating committee member, Judy Rebick, promotes participatory democracy and particularly democratising the state as the principle project of the left. There is a strong tendency within the NPI echoing that sentiment. However, this position is devoid of any real understanding of the question of state power. Though Rebick (and most of the NPI founders) have a background as socialist activists the emphasis on structural political reform as an end in itself shows a move towards left-liberalism or radical democracy. Absent from Imagine Democracy and the NPI is the essential concept that in order to take state power and democratise the state, it is necessary to control the means of production, that is, take economic power and that the only force capable of playing such a role, in the name of the vast majority of people, is the working class.

Socialist Alternative, the Canadian Section of the CWI, endorsed the NPI at the outset and participates in the movement’s forums. We agree that a new party of the left is needed and that the NDP is not capable of filling that role. However, we contend that the NPI should campaign to break the unions from the bourgeoisified NDP and build a new party independent of it. We also argue that the NPI must advocate a clear economic programme based on a class analysis and socialist demands. Whether the NPI will be able to progress towards this perspective, instead of being pulled back into the morass of the NDP and its move towards becoming an out-and-out ‘liberal’ capitalist party, remains to be seen. The next test will be the NPI’s first national conference in October which will decide on structure and possibly a ‘vision statement’.

Andrew Messing, Socialist Alternative


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