2015: Beyond “Anything But Conservative”

The feeling that Harper must be stopped is widely shared across the Left. What that means exactly and how it will be achieved is still up in the air. What is the best way to stop Harper? Strategic voting? A new orange wave? Mass mobilization? A new party? These questions also raise another: what does it even mean to stop Harper? Is the goal simply to replace Harper as Prime Minister or is it to defeat Harper’s policies?

Strategic voting

The “Stop Harper!” sentiment, while understandable, can easily slip into discussions of the man himself. Harper’s beady dead eyes and cold demeanor become explanations for all that is wrong in our country. His recent callous dismissal of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women rightly provoked outrage. But to reduce our political analysis to Harper’s meanness leaves the door wide open for his reactionary politics and policies to be picked up, repackaged and pushed by a more affable politician or political brand.

As the 2015 federal election approaches, activists and progressives in social movements and the labour movement will be pulled in different directions.  There will be a strong pull to vote for ABC (Anything but Conservative). Dubbed strategic voting (SV), proponents of this strategy argue that progressive voters should vote for the candidate with the best chance of beating the Conservatives in their riding. The idea is to back incumbent non-Conservative candidates and second place candidates in Conservative-held ridings, which in effect is a call for a Liberal vote in ridings not held by the NDP. Canada’s largest private sector union, Unifor, is backing this strategy (one of the two unions that merged to form Unifor, the CAW, adopted this strategy in the late 1990s).

The problems with SV are twofold. The first is technical: how can anyone advocating for SV actually deliver the votes? SV can only work if voters in certain ridings adopt the strategy en masse. In past elections, the CAW targeted their own membership in key ridings to try to convince them to adopt SV and the results were a wash. SV means unions are backing different parties in different ridings, not necessarily because of each candidate’s stances on particular policies, but rather based on polls and the leadership’s interpretation of who is most likely to win. This convoluted reasoning will always be a tough sell, especially if union members are relatively disengaged from their union.

The second problem with SV is political. SV is focused on parties not policies. For example, the Liberals are to be supported because they are not Conservatives. The logic of the lesser evil whitewashes the terrible record that the Liberals have had in power. When the Liberals were in office from 1993 to 2006 they were responsible for some of the most dramatic cuts ever seen at the federal level. Their cuts to transfer payments and their raiding of EI funds and the public pension surplus to balance the budget created massive hardship for many Canadians and set our public services and institutions on a path towards perennial crisis. While it might be cathartic to get rid of Harper, it means little if the Conservatives are replaced by a party that pursues nearly identical economic policies.

The Liberals and the Conservatives have historically pursued a similar agenda, even if at times their tactics have differed. Both parties consistently work to create the conditions for businesses to make high profits. Both are the historical products of the political and economic elites in Canada.

True, the Liberal Party is far less reactionary on questions of transgender rights, lesbian and gay rights and on some other social policies than the Conservatives. Yet the Liberal record when in power, even on those issues, is quite different from their proclamations when not in government.

Furthermore, people who advocate SV do not usually do so based on these specific differences between the two parties but rather on a sweeping judgment that the Liberals are preferable to the Conservatives. Whether this is true in the areas of war, personal liberties, economic policies, climate change, and indigenous rights is highly debatable.

Many advocates of SV look favourably at the Stop Hudak campaign adopted by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) in 2014 as an example of what can be accomplished. However, the Stop Hudak campaign was much more than a simple call for SV because it aimed to activate a large layer of trade union activists about the issue of Hudak’s regressive anti-union policies. At its core, the OFL campaign was about mobilization, not about a call for SV right before the election. Of course the Stop Hudak campaign did translate into a Liberal victory, but this was less to do with the OFL’s campaign and more to do with how Hudak’s polarizing rhetoric and Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s missteps positioned the Liberals as the most viable alternative to austerity in the public’s eye.

Another major current on the Left is represented by those who reject SV and advocate translating any “Stop Harper!” efforts into votes for the NDP. Those that hold this position generally fall into two camps: blind partisans and critical supporters. The former act as if the party can do no wrong and will follow the NDP through every twist and turn. The latter offer critical support for the party on the basis that it is to the left of the Liberals and that it best represents the political aspirations of the working class.

While there is an ongoing debate about what the NDP is today and about the relationship of the NDP with the working class and the Left, one thing is certain:  the Liberals and the NDP are not the same. The experience in Nova Scotia — where in late 2013 the Liberals replaced the NDP in government and launched a large-scale attack on workers’ rights —  is only the latest example.

In addition, after repeated poor showings at the provincial level right across the country, the federal NDP appears to be moving away from the strategy of trying to “out liberal the Liberals.” The federal party’s adoption of the call for a $15 dollar/hour minimum wage and universal childcare as key policy planks signal this shift. Whether you support the NDP or not, this shift is a positive development for the Left in Canada.

Social movements

The biggest problem with the debate around stopping Harper and SV is that it places elections at the centre of any strategy for social change. It focuses on who to elect rather than on what kinds of policies should be advanced inside and outside the electoral arena.

For most people, elections in our society are an individualizing and isolating experience. They do not represent the pinnacle of political engagement, but rather an alienating aspect of formal democracy. Elections are certainly not pointless or irrelevant (again one need only look at the results in Nova Scotia). However, to avoid contributing to the sense of despair that makes non-voting a virtue, it is imperative that the Left move beyond just debating SV vs voting NDP and instead focus on building social movements. 

The actions of social movements are the true drivers of social change. Popular support for addressing climate change, stopping pipelines, opposing war, stopping cuts to public services, an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and universal childcare does not stem from the good graces of politicians. These issues were put on the agenda by activists fighting to win and demonstrate popular support for these ideas. The focus must be on campaigning to change the hearts and minds of the broader public, for if we can’t win public support for these key policies than we certainly can’t expect politicians to do that heavy lifting for us.     

Building movements also draws more people into political activity beyond simply voting. It is through engaging with social movements that people develop new political skills and confidence and are exposed to new political perspectives about how other struggles and how society works.

A new party

While active social movements are a necessary condition for social change they are hardly sufficient. Social movements are able to mobilize broad layers of people precisely because they focus on specific issues and demands. The diversity of political perspectives found in a genuine social movement makes it nearly impossible for a movement to express a coherent political strategy and program beyond the issue(s) around which the movement developed. 

Ideally, radical political organizations provide a space to learn from social movements and concretely develop socialist ideas. The democratic decisions and political debates that occur in political organizations can produce political theories and strategies based upon both the lived experience of activists and a sober assessment of the actual world. Non-sectarian political organizations can also play an important role in broadening the capacities and political perspectives of people active in social movements. Unfortunately, only a handful of tiny groups exist in Canada today.

2015 and beyond

The NDP, while on the Left, cannot be a political vehicle to replace capitalism, which is at the root of climate change, austerity and social injustice. People like me who argue that we need a socialist alternative to the NDP must remember that declaring this need is not enough; concrete steps on a path towards this objective are needed.. Without a perspective geared towards revitalizing the organizing capacity of the broader working class, any new political organization launched will be doomed to succumb to abstract debates over program and theory.

In the short term, both those that want to see the NDP get elected on a left-wing platform and those that want to build a new left-wing alternative share a common interest. If the NDP were to actually reflect rising social movements through a shift to the left, this would activate and excite broader layers of the public. If social movements win over larger segments of the population to their position and the political parties don’t reflect this shift in their policies, it would make the case for a new political vehicle. Stopping Harper requires us to shift the balance of social forces through strengthening and activating social movements that can raise mass political consciousness and begin to alter the political landscape

At this point, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next election. The polls suggest that the NDP faces a nearly impossible road to victory and the Liberals are currently riding high. However, one cannot discount the ability of the Conservatives to run a tight and effective campaign that mobilizes their base.

If the Left is to come out of the 2015 election less disoriented and stronger it needs to avoid both shallow calls for SV and uncritical support for the NDP. Instead, it must focus on building its capacity to organize around issues that speak to the broader public, while at the same time consciously forging the basis for a new left-wing political organization based on the experience of those campaigns. If we want to stop the Harper agenda, we need to keep organizing.

David Bush is an editor at RankandFile.ca, a Canadian labour news and analysis website.