After the Election 2011: Building our Movements on Shifting Ground

With 39.6% of the vote, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won 167 of 308 seats in Parliament, meaning that they will now rule with all the power that comes with a majority government. The New Democratic Party won 30.6% of the vote and 102 parliamentary seats – nearly 60 more than its previous best result – making the NDP the Official Opposition at the federal level for the first time. Prior to Monday the NDP held one seat in Quebec; it now holds 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats.

As for the once-mighty Liberal Party, it had its worst ever outcome both in terms of seats (34) and popular vote (18.9%). The Bloc Québécois, which has been the dominant force in Quebec parliamentary politics since 1993, was reduced to four seats. Two party leaders resigned within hours of the election (the BQ’s Gilles Duceppe and the Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff), while two others – Harper and the NDP’s Jack Layton – claimed historic victories.

The Harper majority is a kick in the gut for those of us seeking a better world. It has left many of us doubled over and gasping for breath. The Conservatives will now push rapidly to implement their economic and social agenda, including unprecedented attacks on public services and public sector workers, as well as “tough on crime” measures and an even harsher immigration regime. The previous minority Harper governments were somewhat constrained by the need to get votes from MPs of at least one of the opposition parties to pass legislation. Now they have enough seats to pass whatever measures they want.

The Harper victory spoiled any celebration of the NDP breakthrough. And we have a lot of mixed feelings about what the NDP victory actually means. On the one hand, it is the best showing ever for a social democratic party at the federal level, and some really interesting people will sit as NDP MPs, including some with activist backgrounds and connections. But the NDP leadership is likely to use this opportunity to try to position the party as the alternative government in waiting, competent and committed to the responsible administration of capitalism.

As we get over the initial shock to our systems of the Harper majority, we need to begin building for a broad-based, militant fightback, in part by making sense of this drastic change in the political ground. That means discussing the meaning of the NDP breakthrough and its implications for the radical left. At the same time, we need to understand why the Tories won and what they are likely to do with their new majority.

Austerity in Response to the Global Slump

The agenda of the Harper Conservatives is pretty clear at this point. The new government’s priorities are largely economic, cutting taxes to corporations and the rich while controlling the deficit by reducing expenditures. As Harper said in his election-night victory speech, “Our plan is to create jobs and growth without raising your taxes… to eliminate the deficit while growing the transfers to the provinces for health care.”

Implicit in this message is a massive attack on public sector workers and public services, which is the only way to achieve these goals. Already, across Europe, the United States and in much of the Global South we have seen the deep slashing of public services and harsh attacks on the wages, working conditions and collective bargaining rights of public sector workers. Harper is going to bring that austerity agenda here and likely in a big hurry.

We also have a strong sense of the government’s social agenda. The Tories are going to make the legal regime harsher, criminalizing the poverty that their economic program creates. Harper promised in his victory speech “comprehensive measures to reduce crime and make our streets and neighbourhoods safer.” Statistics indicate that in general crime rates are falling. If people are feeling less safe, it is largely because the economic slump combined with the shift from stable full-time jobs towards more contract and part-time work and the erosion of social programs means that life really is much more insecure. The Tories want to redirect feelings of insecurity, suggesting that it is the criminal, the terrorist or the refugee who is the real threat to our well-being rather than the banker, the employer or the Tory cabinet minister.

On military and foreign policy, we can expect to see more of the same from the Conservatives: lots of help for Canadian multinational corporations, close cooperation with the US, opposition to governments in the South that challenge Western power even in minor ways, uncritical backing for Israeli apartheid and involvement in imperialist interventions.

There is also a very strong chance that they will try to use their majority to push through changes that undercut Indigenous rights and commercialize land and housing on First Nations’ reserves. At this point it is less clear where they will go with their anti-queer and anti-abortion politics. So far, Harper has avoided dealing with these issues directly, only letting them out in fairly limited ways (for example, the prohibition on abortion in the mother and child global anti-poverty strategy, or when doing damage control in the wake of an especially bigoted comment from one of his MPs). The Right in Western Europe has generally buried those issues, focusing attention on the core economic strategy and brutal immigrant-bashing. Harper may feel a need to do something in these areas as a nod to his political base, but at this point he is probably too focused on a specific economic agenda to widen the scope of the battle.

Obviously this austerity regime will need to be challenged in the streets. Already this year we have seen amazing fightbacks mobilized in Europe, North Africa, West Asia and Wisconsin among other places. In Quebec, the anti-austerity movement took a huge step forward in the massive demonstration against the Charest government on March 12, 2011. Given Harper’s majority, the only way to stop these attacks over the next four years will be protests, demonstrations, strikes and occupations. Our real power to change the world is in our capacity to mobilize, to act together and demand changes through action in the streets, workplaces, schools and communities.

But the call for activist mobilization does not mean we should simply ignore the major shifts in the terrain of politics in Canada that this election represents. The challenge of the present situation is to find new ways to build a much broader movement against the austerity agenda at every level of government. The existing radical left is much too small to stop these attacks alone, and it will take a variety of new movement-building approaches to develop the capacities to analyse, communicate and act together on a massive scale. It is sobering to remember that even the massive waves of protest in Greece, France or Wisconsin did not force the governments to back off their austerity measures.

The NDP surge presents certain openings for movement-building, even if they are not straightforward.  It is not a case of confidently believing that the NDP will do the job for us, leading the fight from their improved position on Parliament Hill. But there are important possibilities raised by the NDP’s success that the radical left should not ignore.

Assessing the NDP Surge

Understandably, there is considerable debate among activists about how to respond to the increase in support for the NDP in the 2011 election. Some argue that the NDP vote is not particularly meaningful and we should basically carry on with activism in the streets.  These shifts are seen by some as nothing more than a new seating arrangement in the meaningless game of ruling-class musical chairs. Journalist Jesse Rosenfeld has written that “modern politics is not about the division in Parliament but about the division between Parliament and the street.” From this perspective, it follows logically that our organizing should not be influenced by the distractions of the parliamentary circus.

Indeed, it is true that the basic economic and social agenda of government, focusing on austerity and withering attacks on the public sector, would be largely the same whoever won the election. This was clear even from the party platforms, which were very similar on core economic issues. It is even clearer when you look at what happens when people are elected to government office, which generally means that they assume formal control over the state machine that operates in specific ways that are deeply integrated into the broader capitalist system.

Parliamentary politics do tend to serve the interests of privileged groups, and genuine social change will only come through extra-parliamentary struggle. But that does not mean we can or should ignore what is happening in the parliamentary realm, particularly when a party like the NDP gains considerable support.

On the other hand, some on the left see the rising support for the NDP as a clear sign that people reject the status quo and want something different. On the morning after the election, Duncan Cameron, the president of, wrote that “the orange tide that swept Quebec… represents a direct challenge to the neoliberal orientation of the rest of Canada.” According to Gary Engler, a BC trade unionist, “for those of us who believe in economic and social democracy Monday night’s election offers a reason to hope.”

These interpretations presume that we fully understand people’s motivations for voting NDP. However, today’s tiny radical left does not possess the formal and informal social networks to learn from conversations in workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods about why people chose to support the NDP in unprecendented numbers. At different times in the past, richer information about people’s motivations for voting NDP would have flowed through the communication channels within the infrastructures of dissent built up over years of struggle. Today, our local left networks might tell us something about why friends and allies approached the election in a certain way, but we lack the breadth and depth of connections required to paint a fuller picture.

We do, however, know something about the claims the NDP has staked for itself in its own campaign rhetoric. The party criticized the Tory government for focusing “on the priorities of the well-connected, not the priorities of your family.” It announced that “together, we can change Ottawa.” Jack Layton played up his optimistic approach to politics, which he contrasted to the fear-mongering of the other parties. Mainstream political pundits made a big deal out of Layton’s “cheerfulness.” Whether the NDP actually offered something different or not, it certainly represented itself as an alternative.

The words of Liberal and Conservative leaders contributed to the sense that a vote for the NDP was a vote for significant change. As the NDP rose in the polls late in the campaign, Harper announced that the choice facing voters was now clearer than ever. You could vote for the NDP, which was “promising the moon,” or vote for the Conservatives who “make only promises we can afford.” Ignatieff warned that the NDP opposition will try “to move the country to the left.” The president of the Liberal Party attempted to scare voters away from the NDP by reminding them that the preamble to the party’s constitution commits the NDP to socialism.

But at the same time, the NDP has given other indications. In contrast to depictions of the NDP as a genuine political alternative, other people – both within the party and outside it – have emphasized the party’s continuity with politics-as-usual. On election night, Jack Layton talked about change, but also about working with the Harper majority: “I’ve always favoured proposition over opposition – but we will oppose the government when it’s off-track.” The suggestion that the brutal Harper agenda could be in any way “on-track” is startling to anyone who voted for change.

The morning after the election, two former NDP leaders were interviewed on CBC Radio and celebrated the NDP’s ability to fit within the current system. Stephen Lewis, who claimed the results had him “levitating”, explained that the NDP is a “flexible social democratic” party. Similarly, Ed Broadbent argued that Jack Layton’s core virtue is his “practical orientation.” These terms are code for saying that the NDP is not a threat to neo-liberalism. They are ways of signaling that the party can be trusted to cut spending in order to balance budgets, just as the Liberals or Conservatives would.

During the campaign Layton made a virtue out of the records of provincial NDP governments in Manitoba and Nova Scotia, both of which have balanced budgets through government cutbacks. He also committed the party to providing “very stable and predictable conditions for business,” and promised a “step-by-step, affordable and realistic” government, the kind that “businesses are looking for today.” The business pages of the Globe and Mail (which endorsed the Conservatives during the election) quoted financial experts as saying that “international investors view the differences among the various party platforms as ‘somewhat minor,’ which is why any concerns about an NDP-led opposition – or the outside chance of a coalition government led by Mr. Layton – are minimal.”

Although they are dispiriting, the mixed signals about the NDP should not lead radicals to simply shrug their shoulders at the party’s surge and carry on as usual. Of course, we should not generate illusions that the NDP will resist the Harper agenda and change the world for us. We need to mobilize against the coming wave of austerity and for positive changes, but orient somewhat differently to the NDP than we might have otherwise.

Engaging with the NDP, Building Our Movements

The NDP surge started in Quebec, and that is where it reached its heights. That is important in part because protests against the austerity agenda have been larger there.  The March 12 mobilization against the Charest government’s austerity agenda was massive, with over 55 000 marching. The poll results for Quebec Solidaire, the left-wing pro-independence party many of whose active members are community activists, are in the 10% range.

It is reasonable to presume that there is some connection between the NDP support and the anti-austerity protests. The Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois are both broad political formations whose members range from social democrats to conservatives, united by a commitment to Quebec sovereignty. It is likely that part of the draw of an NDP vote was that it seemed more specifically anti-austerity, in part because it was untried and did not have the track-record of disappointments that PQ governments have provided.

The NDP surge in Quebec actually puts the building of a pan-Canadian Left on the agenda in a new way. Such a Left must be committed to defending the right of Quebec to self-determination as well as Indigenous self-determination while uniting against the austerity regime we all face. The NDP is bound to encounter real difficulties around these issues. Former NDP leader Stephen Lewis told “Democracy Now” the day after the election: “They have rejected the separatist, sovereigntist instinct which has prevailed over the last two to three decades. And that is of great significance, because, as it were — and this isn’t metaphorical — it brings Quebec back into Canada.”

The crowing about the end of the Bloc has been massive in Canada outside Quebec, including an e-mail from Conrad Black read out on the CBC on election night. But there is no reason to believe that the national aspirations of the Québécois have simply disappeared, and it is hard to imagine that these issues will not emerge within the NDP caucus, despite the efforts of the leadership. Many of the Quebec NDP MPs are young, and many have roots in unions or activist movements. They are likely to feel pulled between the NDP leadership, with its staunch federalism combined with tepid anti-austerity commitments, and the political milieux they are grounded in, including their voting base.

Pre-election polls showed the NDP did particularly well among women. In Canada and elsewhere, women have tended to be stronger supporters of social programs than men, and to express voting intentions for parties more oriented to the defense of such programs. The NDP’s parliamentary caucus includes a larger number of women than any party in Canadian history (40 of 102 MPs), as well as sizeable group of young people. In fact, the youngest ever candidate elected to Parliament is a 19-year-old NDPer from Quebec, who will be joined by several other caucus-mates who are under the age of 30.

The NDP also has elected some new members with important experiences in Indigenous leadership or activism. Cree leader Roméo Saganash will represent the northern Quebec riding of Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavok-Eeyou from the NDP benches, and Jonathan Genest-Jourdain is now an Innu NDP MP representing the Quebec riding of Manicougan. Many NDP MPs have strong connections to unions, and the party as a whole has official ties to the trade union movement. At a time when public sector workers will be under attack, the NDP will be under some pressure to distinguish itself from the austerity consensus.

All of this is not a case for faith in the NDP, or for an electoralist orientation that would prioritize parliamentary maneuvering over militant activism and reduce protest to an attempt to sway legislators. Rather it is a case for engaging with the NDP as one part of building a broader fightback against the Harper agenda, at least for now, by putting demands on the party where appropriate and insisting that it take up our causes.

The NDP developed in a somewhat different way than the other parties, arising as a political voice for workers and farmers within the capitalist system and parliamentary democracy. As noted above, it continues to have particular links to trade unions and certain groups committed to social justice. At the same time, it has always been a pro-capitalist party, it has become thoroughly neo-liberal and it is now deeply committed to the austerity agenda. It is, in short, a contradictory political formation.

In the next while, there will be some opportunities to engage with the NDP as a way of strengthening movement organizing. Where possible, we need to be meeting with NDP MPs and requesting that they take a stand against anti-union laws, in favour of raising welfare rates, in favour of sanctuary cities, supporting Palestine solidarity (including boycott, divestment and sanctions) and fighting for the rights of Québécois and Indigenous peoples to self-determination. Some of the new MPs, especially in Quebec, have not yet been tamed by the party machine. That might create some openings. In cases where that approach fails (as is likely), where possible we need to be working with people in the NDP and the unions who might be willing to take motions to riding associations, union locals and conventions.

None of this is a replacement for other forms of activism, but it is a specific (and probably time-limited) possibility created by the shift in the political terrain. This election saw a slight increase in the Conservative vote, which, along with changing vote splits, provided that party with a solid parliamentary majority. There is a good chance that some of the more right-wing Liberal supporters opted to vote Tory as their party began to tank in the polls. At the same time, the election saw a dramatic increase in the NDP vote and in their parliamentary representation, which might indicate that those opposed to the Harper agenda have moved a bit closer to an oppositional stance.

Our challenge now is to build a militant and active opposition that is largely focused on mobilization in the streets, schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods. As a result of the outcome of the election, one of the tools of movement building should be a focus on placing demands on the NDP and holding it up to its own claims to represent change. This is one of many different ways the radical left needs to work in order to reach out beyond our relatively thin ranks to mobilize the kind of mass movements that can grind the austerity agenda to a halt.


Alan Sears and James Cairns are members of Toronto New Socialists.