It’s not that Harper’s Conservatives are changing their message – it’s still all about balanced budgets, the endless War on Terror overseas (now against Islamic State) and racist “national security” at home, an immigration policy designed to admit more workers who will never be able to become permanent residents, and support for the greenhouse gas-spewing tar sands that have become known around the world as Canada’s distinctive contribution to climate change.
What’s noteworthy is just how much Mulcair’s New Democrats – who feel very little pressure from the weakened labour movement, environmental activists or any other quarter – are agreeing with the Conservatives.
Mulcair’s pledge that the NDP would bring in a balanced budget without significant tax increases reinforces a key piece of neoliberal dogma. Those who defend this stance by claiming that deficits aren’t left-wing completely miss the point: the NDP’s position sends the signal to Bay Street that an NDP government wouldn’t steer a course much different than the Conservatives when it comes to taxes and public services. The no-deficit pledge is a sign of Mulcair’s willingness to impose more austerity on the battered public sector.
With the party apparatus’s rebukes of NDP candidates Linda McQuaig and Matt Henderson for their mild-mannered suggestions that some oil may need to stay in the ground, the NDP leadership joins with the Conservatives in refusing to criticize the tar sands and the rest of the fossil fuel industry.
The NDP brass’s convergence with Harper is just as clear when it comes to Israel/Palestine. In the first two weeks of the campaign, two NDP candidates were forced to withdraw because of past statements critical of the Israeli state’s murderous violence against Palestinians. Other members have been blocked from running to become party candidates because of similar views.
The NDP’s line on trade and investment deals, publically embracing a “pragmatic” approach, has raised eyebrows. This was evident during the last session of parliament in the NDP’s support for deals with South Korea and Jordan, two countries widely known to be consistently violating democratic rights. Avoiding numerous issues with the ways in which such agreements favour corporate profit over democracy, labour rights, the rights of migrants, women, other oppressed groups, and the environment, the NDP says its stance on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and the CETA deal with the European Union will depend on the details of the agreements.
No help at all
With these positions, the NDP’s campaign is restricting the range of ideas considered legitimate in official politics. In spite of this, it’s important to recognize that there are a significant number of people in Quebec and Canada open to political ideas well to the left of the NDP leadership’s ideology. One sign of this is the support for the Leap Manifesto initiated by Naomi Klein and others. It rightly says “Now is the time for boldness” and calls for implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, moving quickly towards a clean energy economy with a just transition for workers in polluting industries, investing in services that improve people’s lives, and other progressive social reforms funded by taxing corporations and the rich. Unfortunately, there’s no way for people to show support for such left-wing politics at the polls in most ridings in this federal election.
The fact remains that the NDP’s campaign is making it harder for those of us who believe that public services should be strengthened, not weakened, who know that drastic action to respond to the climate change emergency is long overdue, who don’t want corporations to have even more power, and who support Palestinian resistance to occupation and repression. What the NDP is doing is no help to all of us who understand that what we’re up against is an ecological crisis and the neoliberal project of making this colonial capitalist society even more geared to profits and corporate power, no matter who is elected to the House of Commons.
Why then do the editors of New Socialist Webzine hope that the outcome of this election is an NDP majority government? It’s obviously not because we share the political program of the NDP. We despise its leaders’ desire to show they can be trusted to administer a society ruled by a tiny class of CEOs and top state bureaucrats without changing the neoliberal framework those rulers currently favour.
We don’t think an NDP government would deliver on more than a handful of the very modest positive reforms the NDP is promising, such as a pan-Canadian childcare program, unless it’s pushed hard to do so by large numbers of people in the streets. And in this age of austerity and low expectations we don’t believe that the disappointments of an NDP government would quickly lead masses of people who’d voted NDP in the hope of real change to suddenly embrace radical politics.
Best of the worst
There are three reasons why an NDP victory would be the best of the miserable possible outcomes of this election.
First, an NDP government would be less difficult than a Conservative or Liberal government to push to implement a few small reforms that would make the lives of working-class people a little bit easier. But we repeat: it will take serious pressure to get them to deliver more than a token handful of measures, as the experience of recent NDP provincial governments shows.
Second, an NDP government would be less likely to stick the knife in deeper. It is unlikely to ramp up the anti-union, anti-ecological assaults we’ve seen from the federal government in recent years, push for even worse changes to immigration policy and take a more aggressive stance on relations with First Nations (all of which we can expect from a Conservative or Liberal government). The new Alberta NDP government has been exemplifying this during its first months in power. Although the NDP is no longer the social democratic reformist party it once was, it hasn’t yet become as deeply neoliberal as the officialdom of the Labour Party in the UK (which is horrified by the unexpected election of left-wing dissident MP Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader).
It’s not that the NDP couldn’t launch fresh reactionary moves on one or more fronts – we’ve seen similar governments in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand do just that, and NDP provincial governments too. Much would depend on what important segments of the capitalist class demand and what an NDP government would calculate it has to do to make them happy while at the same time preserving its ability to get union and community activists to work to reelect them in the next election.
Third, the experience of an NDP federal government would make the limits of the NDP clearer to more people than any NDP provincial government can ever do. Unfortunately, the conclusion that most people would draw from seeing the NDP in office governing much like their predecessors would probably be “there is no alternative.” But some will be open to a different interpretation, that the lesson of a Mulcair government not doing anything that the most powerful sections of the capitalist class deem unacceptable is that we can’t rely on the NDP to make the kinds of changes that are needed.
If the NDP wins, the fragmented radical left will really need to get its act together if we want to connect with that sentiment and encourage people who want more than what Mulcair delivers to put their energy into building movements. As Alan Sears aptly puts it, what’s needed is a politics of “transforming the mainstream.”
It’s movements in the streets, in workplaces and on campuses that can raise expectations and inspire people to fight for real change while relying on no one but themselves. This would make it possible to create a new political force whose vision and approach is entirely different than those of the NDP past or present.
The grassroots movement by indigenous people to determine their own future and campaigns against racism, for the rights of refugees and other migrants, and against climate change give us glimpses of the kind of mass movements that are needed. By working constructively to build movements like these, we can help to force real reforms and new political ideas and initiatives onto the agenda, despite NDP reluctance to rock the boat.