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Progressive Canadians are looking forward to the defeat of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives on election day, October 19. Polls are placing the Liberal Party within majority government territory in Canada’s first-past-the-poll electoral system.
In desperation, with their polling numbers in decline and an election victory apparently slipping away, the Conservatives have turned to openly racist as well as fear-mongering national security themes in the concluding weeks of the campaign. Their campaign has welcomed very public support from disgraced former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and it has promised that if re-elected, a Conservative government would create a new law and related policing agency directed at people of Muslim faith, particularly women, banning what the party calls “barbaric cultural practices”.
But there is a wrinkle to the good news of a likely departure of the Conservatives. The polling numbers for Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party have declined markedly since the outset of the campaign in early August. The numbers now sit in the low 20 per cent range, good only for third place. That means the Liberals will be back in power after a ten-year absence. Until ten years ago, they were Canada’s “natural governing party”. Now they would settle for “governing party”.
If the NDP finishes third, the ranks of the party and the political left more broadly will have some serious soul-searching to do. For one writer, that has already begun.
NDP in the ‘mushy middle’
A young journalist at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper, has written a perceptive view of the election race. Desmond Cole writes a weekly commentary in the Star and his column for October 15 is titled ‘The NDP’s disastrous move to the mushy middle’.
Cole examines the decline in polling numbers for the NDP. He argues that the reason for the decline is the failure of the party to present bold, progressive ideas in this election.
He writes, “Sadly, the greatest selling point of both the NDP and Liberals in this campaign is that they are not the Conservatives. Between the two, the NDP has most consistently opposed Harper’s policies. But New Democrats have utterly failed to present a fresh vision for Canada, one that transcends not only Harper’s apparent mistakes and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s apparent shortcomings, but the ideological chokehold of neo-liberalism on the Canadian imagination.”
He examines the NDP election platform and concludes, “It would be refreshing for a major political party to tell Canadians we do not control our economic destiny, and that we must challenge the neo-liberal status quo that is leaving so many Canadians behind. Liberals and Conservatives have proven they can win without rocking the boat. New Democrats probably can’t and should stop trying…”
Prospects for left-wing surges
It is difficult to prove that a more left wing program for the NDP (or Green Party) would immediately translate to higher electoral support. For one, as we see in this present election, the Liberal Party is capable of feints to the left in response to surges in NDP support, particularly when it’s been ten years since the party governed the country and memories of its right-wing governance have faded. But political trends in Canada and internationally suggest strongly that the claim is true.
Left-wing platforms have become more popular as the capitalist order drags the world deeper into the scourges of poverty, war and ecological vandalism. This has been true in Latin America for several decades and is the case in some important parts of Europe.
There is also proof by negative example. The Labour Party in Britain has been greatly weakened and discredited by the right-wing policies it applied in government under prime ministers Tony Blair (1997-2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-10). The party has lost the last two elections to the highly unpopular Conservatives under David Cameron. The right-wing Labour policies of the Blair,/Brown era, however polished up in new forum, do not appeal anymore. Labour was shockingly shut out from Scotland in the national election earlier this year. Now party ranks have chosen a solid left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn, as their new leader. His campaign for leadership has induced a surge of new and young members into the party.
In last year’s election on June 5 in the province of Ontario, the NDP chose to run to the right of the incumbent Liberal Party, going so far as to court Conservative voters with promises of ‘balanced budgets’, no significant new spending on social programs, and so on. The party lost badly. (I wrote three articles on that election, including one on the outcome. Find all those articles by searching ‘Ontario election’ on my website.)
This federal NDP campaign is a less-crude version of the 2014 NDP campaign in Ontario, but still in the same vein. As in Ontario, ‘balanced budget’ dogma is at the center of the campaign. Party leader Tom Mulcair has acknowledged that he was and remains an admirer of Margaret Thatcher’s economic record. And so on.
Left-wing platforms will inevitably become more popular as the capitalist order drags the world deeper into poverty, war and ecological vandalism. Whether these win elections is a more complicated matter. In any event, the purpose of left-wing politics is not to win elections per se. It is to fight for governments that advance the social and economic interests of the majority of society. The world needs governments that are pro-peace and social justice, anti-militarist and pro-Mother Earth.
A key number to watch in the election result will be voter turnout. It has been in steady decline in Canada over the past three decades. The previous election in 2011 scored the lowest turnout in Canadian history. Well below 50 per cent of adult-age Canadians voted in that election. A high turnout this time would auger well for a defeat of the Conservatives.
Many progressive Canadians are engaging in the unproven and politically disarming strategy of ‘strategic voting’. That strategy argues to vote for the candidate of the party most likely to defeat the Conservatives in each of Canada’s 338 electoral districts. It is the official position of Canada’s largest trade union, UNIFOR. Large electoral networks of environmental and social rights activists, notably Lead Now, are deeply engaged in such campaigning.
‘Strategic voting’ is motivated by progressive impulses. But among its faults is that it overlooks the single largest failure of the present capitalist electoral system—the massive disaffection of voters. Fifty per cent of adult Canadians, give or take some percentage points, do not go to the polls. These voters are disproportionately young, poor, working class or First Nations people, or all of the above. They don’t vote because they correctly perceive that no matter which party they vote for, the performance in government will disappoint.
Reaching out to disaffected voters is a very important responsibility of left-wing movements and activists. But doing so with a message to vote Liberal is a highly dubious proposition on many fronts, not least because what is needed is to inspire the disaffected with something new and forward looking, not to offer more of the same.
On the plus side, an important point argued by strategic voting campaigns is the need for a proportional electoral system.
There is some similarity between the lineup of the parties in Canada and the two-party electoral system in the United States. The Liberals in Canada and the Democrats in the United States are each posited as a “lesser evil” or even “progressive” alternatives in circumstances where a trade-union based party such as the NDP or other forms of progressive parties (such as the Green Party in the United States) seemingly have no chance of winning an election. The task of building a progressive party is postponed to the hereafter in favour of the “more realistic” goal of electing the lesser evil. This is the historic position of the Communist Parties in both countries. A variant of this concerning the present Canadian election is recently argued by a Toronto writer for the online journal The Bullet.
But there is a marked difference between the two countries which makes strategic voting in Canada rather less disempowering than the Democratic Party option in the U.S. Lesser evilism in the United States weakens progressive social and political movements because means entrapment in the web of the Democratic Party. In Canada, a very important break with such entrapment was begun during the 1930s with the founding of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a precursor to the NDP, and then carried forward with the formal founding of the NDP in 1961. The founding of the NDP was a merger, more or less, of the CCF and the country’s trade unions.
The trap of the Liberal Party
The Liberal Party in Canada is one of the two historic parties of the Canadian capitalist class. It led the country through World War Two and then the neo-colonial war on the Korean peninsula from 1950-53. The Liberals led a modernization of the Canadian imperialist state for 30 years beginning in the 1960s. That successfully staved off the movement for Quebec independence as well as countrywide social discontent and rebellion. Then in the 1990s, Liberal governments led by Jean Chrétien undertook the austerity and security-state measures since brought to full fruition by the Harper Conservatives. As well, it was a Liberal government which took Canada into the disastrous, U.S. led war against the people of Afghanistan beginning in 2001.
On May 6, of this year, the Liberals voted in favour of Bill C-51, the latest piece of national security legislation in Canada attacking civil liberties. The bill is extremely regressive, a sort-of Patriot Act for Canada.
Five weeks earlier, the Liberals and NDP voted against a Harper government proposal to join the U.S.-led aerial bombardments of Syria being waged under the guise of opposing ISIS. Those were good decisions by the two parties, but a shameful fact of this federal election campaign is that the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP share very common views on foreign policy. In particular, they are united in supporting the NATO military buildup in eastern Europe against Russia and the related, neo-colonizing project for eastern and southern Europe (Greece and Ukraine) by the large, northern countries of the European Union.
All three parties support the right-wing, extremist government in Ukraine and they support economic sanctions against Russia. In this election campaign, Tom Mulcair has criticized the Harper government for not being tougher on sanctions against Russia!
All three parties back Israel in its ongoing war against the Palestinian people, to the point where the Liberals and the NDP now routinely yank any candidate of their parties who may have expressed past sympathy with the Palestinian cause.
A reminder of the Liberals ties to big business has been delivered in the closing days of the election campaign in the form of a national co-chair of the party’s election campaign, Daniel Gagnier. He resigned from that post on October 14 after communications to his friends in the oil industry became public. Gagnier is a lobbyist for Big Oil in Canada, specifically for the proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline that would carry bitumen across 4,000 km of Canadian territory to an Atlantic Ocean export terminus in Saint John, New Brunswick. Gagnier jumped the gun of an expected Liberal election victory when he sent a three-page memo to his industry contacts advising how they could prepare to lobby and pressure an expected Liberal government.
A left wing party
Concerning ecology and the environment, I have already written that considering the acceleration of global warming and the dire warnings of scientists of the need to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental platforms of all four of the federal parties constitute climate change denial. (The right-wing, pro-sovereignty Bloc québécois party, expected to win a handful of seats in Quebec, has distinct environmental policies based on the fact that the province of Quebec can easily meet all of its high energy needs from hydro-electric generation.)
I see no reason in this election to change the view I expressed last year following the outcome of the 2014 Ontario election, namely, that a new, left-wing party is needed in Canada in order to challenge capitalist capitalist rule. I have always believed that present members of the NDP will play an important part of in such a process. Indeed, the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in winning the leadership of the Labour Party is a reminder of the important role that members and supporters of the NDP and its affiliated unions will play a very important role in reconstituting a left-wing voice and movement. Here is what I wrote 15 months ago:
“So a new, left wing and anti-capitalist political direction and party are needed. That’s a key lesson to draw from the Ontario election and from the experiences in other provinces. It is needed for evident social and environmental reasons. It’s also a way to sharpen a fight for political accountability in the present political alignment.
“Extra-Parliamentary protests are vital in fighting for reforms and creating a political alternative. But it’s a big weakness when there are no anti-capitalist voices in the electoral arena. That leaves the pro-capitalist NDP holding a political monopoly on the left. (A similar argument, on a smaller scale, applies in the environmental arena with respect to the pro-private enterprise Green Party.)”