The NDP Convention: A Leap to the Left?

The NDP Convention: A Leap to the Left?

Optimistically, left-wing observers have celebrated the convention as “a solid defeat for the [party] bureaucracy, visited upon them by a rank-and-file revolt,” or more cautiously suggested that “the left largely carried the day” and “scored a preliminary victory.”

So, what is the balance sheet? While there were positive developments, I think it would be easy and misleading to overestimate the degree to which this convention represents any swing to the left. Let’s take a look at the three developments mentioned above.

Mulcair Defeated: Squeezed on all Sides

In the leadership review, Mulcair was soundly defeated. Really, he was crushed. Considering the uninspiring, centrist campaign that he waged in the 2015 election, his defeat should certainly be considered a victory for the left. But was it a victory by the left? Was it a defeat of the party bureaucracy and establishment? Undoubtedly, the left within the party was opposed to Mulcair and voted yes to the leadership review. However, the discontent with Mulcair was widespread within the party.  The party establishment sure didn’t work very hard to defend him.

Middle-of-the-road, mainstream and moderate New Democrats were extremely disappointed with the election campaign and outcome. The party’s own Campaign Review acknowledged that the NDP campaign “failed to represent the kind of change that Canadians desired. Instead, our campaign presented a choice for cautious change.” The frustration with Mulcair and the advisors around him was palpable when speaking to New Democrats from across the country.

At the convention, there was an almost complete absence of positive reasons being offered to support Mulcair. Instead, some argued against a leadership contest due to costs, timing or the lack of clear alternatives.

There is undoubtedly a widespread recognition within the NDP that the party needs a progressive alternative that inspires activists, members and voters. But it should be remembered that the inspiring 2011 campaign led by Jack Layton was based on a very moderate platform. The inspiration was more a case of style than substance. That’s what many New Democrats would like to rekindle.

Mulcair was chosen as leader in 2012 not because he was loved by New Democrats, but because he was seen as the most likely to be able to win the subsequent federal election. He did not win. Instead, he lost more than 50 seats. He didn’t hold up his end of the bargain and he paid the price at convention.

It’s difficult to classify Mulcair’s fall as the defeat of the party establishment when it’s not clear that Mulcair was ever firmly embraced by the party establishment (or anyone else in the party). Brian Topp was more clearly the establishment leadership candidate in 2012.

Leading up to the leadership review, NDP Members of Parliament did not publicly challenge Mulcair, but they weren’t lining up to support him either. Mulcair had very shallow roots in the party and had no well-established base of supporters and loyalists. At the convention, there was little evidence of any concerted party effort to rally support for Mulcair.

He was respected by many, but embraced by few. He was recognized for his intelligence and skills in Question Period, but many lamented his people skills and related weakness in “retail politics” or electioneering (a fact in evidence at the convention). This was not simply a struggle of left versus right or the grassroots versus the establishment.

The forthcoming leadership contest is an opening, but it remains to see if it will be exploited by left forces within and around the party.

The Leap Manifesto: Let’s Talk, Not Endorse

About a dozen NDP riding associations and groups submitted resolutions to convention calling on the party to endorse the Leap Manifesto, a non-partisan statement drawn up by activists and artists and released during the 2015 election campaign. The Manifesto is not particularly radical, it presents a progressive, environmentally-conscious social democratic agenda that importantly forefronts Indigenous issues, but it became the symbolically important central policy question at the convention.

In the lead up to the NDP convention, Manifesto co-author Avi Lewis, former MPs Craig Scott and Libby Davies, and others brokered a compromise plan that would avoid an explicit call for the party to endorse the Manifesto. Instead, the NDP would indicate broad support for the Manifesto and launch a two year period of riding association discussion leading toward the next convention in 2018. The resulting resolution was subject to an intense debate at convention before being passed by a majority of delegates. So, to be clear, the NDP did not endorse the Leap Manifesto.

While some activists were frustrated by the backroom maneuvering that produced a watered down resolution, a call for a straight NDP endorsement of Leap would have faced greater opposition. It is hard to know, but I suspect that such a resolution would have been defeated by delegates if it was allowed to reach the convention floor. And such a defeat would have been very disappointing and discouraging for the left. So, the compromise resolution, while not an explicit endorsement of the Manifesto, was politically and strategically wise.

Even without explicitly endorsing the Leap Manifesto, the resolution generated a fierce backlash from Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP government, the corporate media and right-wing political forces. In fact, the successful passage of the resolution appears to have generated a reaction against Mulcair in the subsequent leadership review vote among Alberta delegates. This reinforces the argument above that Mulcair was squeezed on all sides.

The compromise resolution and the strength of the opposition and backlash within the party should temper any analysis of the leftward shift of the NDP. Furthermore, convention resolutions are routinely ignored by the party leadership. It remains to be see whether this resolution will have any impact on the NDP and its next leader.

The resolution on the Leap Manifesto passed at convention calls for riding association debate. This is not something that generally happens in the NDP, and it is hard to imagine such a debate actually happening within the NDP as it currently exists. By 2018, it would be surprising if there wasn’t an alternative moderate statement that emerges as an alternative to the Leap Manifesto. Or it is likely to be completely overshadowed by the leadership question.

Left Organizing: Building a Force for Renewal?

The most visible face of the left inside the NDP is still the small Socialist Caucus which is led by Barry Weisleder from Socialist Action. Similarly, Fightback is another small Trotskyist group practicing their strategy of “entryism.” Both groups were at convention distributing their magazines and, in the case of Socialist Caucus, running for party positions and speaking at the microphones.

A new addition was Momentum – The NDP’s Left Alternative to Austerity, a group named after the faction in the British Labor Party that supports Jeremy Corbyn. It contributed candidates to a joint slate with the Socialist Caucus for the NDP Executive and Federal Council.

Most promising from my perspective was the emergence of a loosely organized group of activists meeting under the label of NDP Renewal (or the Renewal Caucus or NDP Renew). This group included delegates from the Concordia and McGill NDP campus clubs which issued an open letter stating that “Mulcair Must Go” on March 15.

Renewal activists distributed buttons and leaflets calling for a yes vote in the leadership review and met during the convention to organize and strategize. The future of viability the group is an open question, but members met just after the convention adjourned in Edmonton to discuss ongoing activities to renew the party.

Just before the convention, the New Democratic Youth of Canada also issued an open letter which argued that “it’s time for the NDP to boldly and unapologetically stake our ground as the party of the left.” At the NDP Youth Convention on April 7, a resolution calling for new leadership failed to pass by the narrowest of margins, 48 for and 48 against, with 10 abstentions.

Still, the youth convention did pass resolutions in favour of the NDP endorsing the Leap Manifesto and calling on the party “to apologize for disqualifying candidates in the 2015 federal election for their support of Palestinian human rights” and to defend the freedom of speech for those in the BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. So clearly there is leftist energy in the youth wing of the party.

There hasn’t been an active broad left current in the NDP since the New Politics Initiative (NPI) inexplicably dissolved itself after Jack Layton became leader of the party (a series of reflections on the NPI experience was published at in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the coalition’s founding).

Considering the fact that many activists and members in the NDP consider themselves socialists and to the left of the party leadership, it is surprising that there isn’t some sort of broader left caucus or network within the party. The ferment in the party leading up to the convention suggests that the potential for the development of such a current within the NDP exists, although there is the danger of it being swamped by the leadership question.

The Balance Sheet: An Opening Rather Than a Shift

It should be recognized that in the elections for NDP Officers, Executive and Federal Council, the establishment easily carried the day. Toronto District School Board Trustee Marit Stiles was easily elected party president. The Renewal group had supported Élaine Michaud, the former MP for Portneuf – Jacques-Cartier, for president.

Michaud was one of three former Quebec MPs who signed an open letter, along with over 30 other Quebec-based New Democrats, critical of the direction of the party under Mulcair. Michaud received 30 percent of the vote compared to 65 percent for Stiles and 5 percent for Weisleder from the Socialist Caucus.

Both Michaud and Stiles refused to state their positon on the leadership review, but it’s a safe assumption that both had serious concerns about Mulcair’s leadership. Michaud signed the open letter, and Stiles is the former riding association president for Davenport in Toronto where NDP MP Andrew Cash was defeated in the 2015 election.

Toronto delegates to convention were, as a group, highly critical of the NDP campaign that saw them get wiped out by the Liberals. So the establishment still controls the party machine. And members of the establishment shared concerns about Mulcair’s leadership.

Where was the labour movement in all of this? The union leadership was a mixed bag. Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff and Public Service Alliance of Canada President Robyn Benson called for new leadership, but the leaders of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, UFCW Canada, National Union of Public and General Employees, IAMAW Canada and USW Canada declared their support for Mulcair pre-convention. Jerry Dias of Unifor took the odd position of suggesting that the leadership issue should be put off until 2018.

At the convention, the support of six major union leaders did little to shore up support for Mulcair. Clearly, union delegates were divided on the leadership question and the outcome offered some solace to Yussuff who experienced pushback from some affiliates for his anti-Mulcair position. Moving forward, there is little hope for the labour movement, especially at the leadership level, playing a role in pushing the NDP significantly to the left.

The NDP was humbled in the 2015 election and now will be faced with the challenge of choosing a new leader sometime within the next two years. The future is unclear. The NDP is faced with the challenge of a popular Liberal government with a progressive veneer.

The problems with the NDP are not limited to the leadership question. The NDP is faced with the challenge of confronting the long standing ideological and organizational crisis of social democratic politics. A leftward shift in policy alone will not address the inherent weakness of the party’s complete focus on electoral politics and absence of grassroots organizing, educational activities and membership capacity-building.

The NDP’s riding (or electoral district) associations barely exist between elections and don’t serve as avenues of political discussion and constituency mobilization. The NDP is disconnected from the working class base that it purports to speak for. As out-going party president Rebecca Blaikie admits, the NDP is “too white.” This is reflected in the emerging lists of likely candidates for the leadership.

Still, the NDP does have 44 seats and, compared to the period of 1993-2004 when the party struggled to survive, the party is relatively healthy. For now at least, the NDP has remnants of the gains from the Layton era. The party retains a small base in Quebec, including 16 MPs and a good number of activists. The party retains at least some of the young Layton generation that was drawn into the party and these active young delegates were an obvious and impressive presence at the convention.

Whether the NDP actually shifts to the left or merely selects a new salesperson for the same old message will depend on organizing and mobilization inside and outside of the party.

Murray Cooke is a member of CUPE 3903 and the New Democratic Party. He was a delegate at the NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton. He has previously contributed several articles on the NDP to New Socialist Webzine, including analyses of Tom Mulcair’s NDP and the 2013 NDP Convention

This is the first in a series of reflections on the aftermath of the April NDP Convention. For an alternate view, see Todd Gordon’s article “The Impossible Dream.”