The Conservative Majority and the Left – A Few Notes to Begin the Discussion

1. Now that the Conservatives have won a majority of seats in the House of Commons, we will see just how right-wing they are. This is arguably the most right-wing party elected to federal office since the Tories under RB Bennett were in office (1930-1935), and the context of global slump makes it likely that they will pursue their agenda vigorously.They are fervently ideologically committed to expanding the profits and power of capital (in both its market and state forms) and gutting the public sector through cuts, privatization and the infusion of market forces into public services. They will continue to oppose any meaningful moves to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that drive climate change. They are committed to a racist immigration policy based on increasing the number of people admitted on temporary work visas and decreasing the number accepted as permanent residents, and an aggressive foreign policy for Canadian imperialism in alliance with the US. Their ranks include the most reactionary sexist and heterosexist elements in society, who will press for measures to their liking.

2. The Conservatives won a majority of seats not because they convinced a much larger number of people to support them, but because of how a small increase in support was translated through the peculiarities of the “first-past-the-post” version of capitalist democracy. The Tories won 37.7% of the popular vote in 2008 and 40% in 2011. There hasn’t been a major swing to the right in the population, only in the way seats are distributed in the House of Commons.

3. The record-high 31% vote for the NDP (up from 17.5% in 2008) represents a major change in the voting choices among the very large numbers of people who support minor social reforms and defence of existing social programs within the framework of the neoliberal consensus that defines official politics (whose touchstone is “fiscal responsibility” and deficit elimination), above all in Quebec. It means something that so many people voted for the party seen as most on the left. But the NDP ran on its most moderate platform ever, with the goal of replacing the Liberals as the party perceived as the main and 100% respectable alternative to the Tories in administering Canadian capitalism — not as a party that stands for a social democratic alternative to the business parties. So support for the NDP in 2011 means something different than support for the NDP did in, for example, the 1988 federal election (when the NDP won 20% of the vote, its previous high). Then, faced with pressure from people opposed to the Canada-US free trade deal to campaign only against the deal, NDP leader Ed Broadbent argued the Tories (pro-free trade) were the party of Wall Street and the Liberals (who at the time opposed the deal) were the party of Bay Street. Nothing like that was heard this time. Unfortunately, the NDP vote in 2011 doesn’t represent a significant shift to the left in working people’s views or any growth of radicalism in society.

4. Aggressive Tory moves to take advantage of their long-sought opportunity to implement their full agenda without restraint will likely meet with dismay and outrage. There may well be a deepening political polarization that creates opportunities to mobilize protest and resistance against Tory attacks. But the serious problems within the working-class movement will make it difficult to channel anger and dismay into militant resistance by the working class (unionized and non-unionized).

5. The NDP leadership is thoroughly imbued with parliamentary cretinism, to use an old socialist term, so we can expect to see NDP MPs criticize what the Conservatives are doing but not do anything to mobilize people in the streets or in their workplaces to try to stop Tory attacks. Major strikes against public sector cuts or large-scale protest will probably be treated by federal NDP leaders the same way their provincial counterparts treated the Days of Action in Ontario (1995-1999) and politicized public sector strikes and the handful of “Days of Defiance” in BC (2002-2005): behind-the-scenes opposition to them happening, with NDP loyalists at the top of the union officialdom engaging in outright sabotage.

6. For everyone who wholeheartedly opposes neoliberalism, the main challenge will be to reach out to people who are repulsed by what the Tories are doing and argue that action is needed now to try to block attacks. It will also be crucial to argue for no cuts (rather than smaller cuts) and against racist and anti-immigrant measures that will have some support among some people who oppose other Tory moves. Waiting til 2015 to vote the Tories out of office is a recipe for demoralization and defeat. We need to start mobilizing resolute opposition in the streets, in workplaces, on campuses — not rely on the NDP in the House of Commons with their “leave it to us” stance.

7. To fight the Tories, we need a left that sees collective action in struggle as essential and doesn’t reduce politics to elections. That left — the radical left — is currently at a historic low point in the Canadian state. If there is a new wave of protest, it may create new opportunities for the growth of the radical left (this isn’t guaranteed, as the experience of anti-cuts protests in Ontario and BC show). To take advantage of such opportunities, radicals will need to find ways to overcome our fragmentation, marginalization and political divisions.