by Sean Cain
More than 600 delegates converged on Hamilton, Canada’s steel town 45 minutes west of Toronto, for the Ontario New Democratic Party’s (ONDP) 22nd convention, held Nov. 19-21.
North America’s only major labour-based political party was founded in 1961 as a successor to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Although the NDP has rebounded from decades of decline over the past five years, it holds only 19 seats in the federal Parliament and eight in the Ontario legislature.
Ontario party leader Howard Hampton ran on a platform of “public power” during the fall 2003 Ontario election, centred on preserving the public hydro corporation. He urged re-investment in health care, education, and housing but called for only a small rise in the minimum wage and a modest hike in taxation on the wealthy.
Federal NDP leader Jack Layton has taken a strong stance against the U.S. war in Iraq, but has yet to connect with many working Canadians due to the lack of an economic program that seriously challenges the neoliberal agenda, let alone the rule of capital.
This brings us to the NDP’s Socialist Caucus (SC), a left-wing, anti-capitalist tendency inside the party, formed in 1998 to turn the party to the left and a return to its socialist roots. Although relatively small in active members, the SC has played an important role at conventions in submitting resolutions, fighting for greater internal democracy, and challenging the party establishment at executive elections. This convention was no different.
The party’s Constitution Committee brought forth amendments that would seriously hinder grassroots participation and leadership accountability within the ONDP. The Committee favours appointment of the NDP provincial secretary by the Executive, instead of by election at convention. They want to decrease the number of Provincial Council meetings each year (from four to two), and permit the Ontario leader to send a designate to Executive meetings, thus further reducing accountability and contact.
The most egregious amendment called for altering the system whereby convention delegates elect the party leader to a process where big money and the corporate media would play a much larger role in recruiting uneducated voters to participate in a ‘one member, one vote’ election exercise.
SC delegates argued forcefully and helped to galvanize opposition to the amendments. The proposed reduction in the number of party council meetings was strongly rejected by delegates. But the amendments creating a new method for electing the leader, and for having the provincial secretary appointed instead of being elected, did pass.
However, due to enormous pressure mounted during floor debate—in which SC supporters played an important role—the party establishment, fearing defeat, altered their original motion to make the appointment of secretary subject to ratification by the Provincial Council.
The SC also brought to the convention 21 resolutions on a variety of topics, including calls for social ownership and workers’ control of key industries, greater leadership accountability within the party, fair and democratic international trade, solidarity with Cuba, major re-investment in housing and health care, and the elimination of university tuition fees. Only two of the SC resolutions actually made it to the convention floor for discussion, but they were adopted: one demanding greater food security, the other for government construction of social housing and the re-establishment of rent control in Ontario. Scandalously, less than 35 percent of convention time was allocated for debate on resolutions, and the Resolutions Committee (selected by the party’s establishment) prevented most of the SC resolutions from even being placed on the resolutions priority list. It is unclear how these motions would have been dealt with by the party if debated and passed by convention.
The SC also ran nine candidates for ONDP Executive, offering delegates a left-wing choice in contrast to the “official” slate fielded by the party establishment. SC contenders won between 5 percent and 31 percent of votes cast.
Only one SC supporter, Bonnie Briggs, made it to Executive as a representative of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans-gender Committee of the ONDP.
Twenty-year-old Hamiltonian Kim Crawley, attending her first NDP convention, came closest to winning an Executive spot when she attained almost a third of the total vote in the Member-at-Large election.
If not for the SC slate, several executive positions, including those of president, vice-presidents, and secretary, would have been acclaimed—a rather embarrassing situation for a party that prides itself on democracy and participation.
The SC distributed more than 600 copies of its eight-page tabloid, Turn Left. Featuring articles on the present Liberal government of Ontario, on the issue of homelessness, Middle East policy, and the origins and future plans of the SC, Turn Left was well received. Delegates and friends contributed over $600, at SC meetings held during convention breaks, towards the paper and other expenses.
Three SC open forums, which attracted 35 to 75 people each, featured guest speakers: John Clarke, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) organizer who spoke about homelessness and poverty in Liberal Ontario, as well as tactics and strategy for anti-poverty activists; Tarek Fatah, co-founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and popular cable TV show host who spoke about Palestinian self-determination and the NDP’s retreat on Middle East policy; and Peter Kormos, left-wing NDP member of the Ontario legislature, who spoke about the need for militant opposition to the neoliberal policies of the current government of Ontario.
Over 40 party members signed up to join the Socialist Caucus at convention, including four new members added to the SC Ontario steering committee.
These positive developments were a contrast to the setbacks to party democracy and the iron grip exercised by the establishment’s “official slate”. As SC Steering Committee Member Barry Weisleder stated after convention, “It was a classic case of one step forward, one step back.”
Still, the actions of the Socialist Caucus illustrated that gains can be made, and losses contained. The SC is committed to the year-round struggle for justice—from antiwar actions, to squats for the homeless, to rallies against cutbacks and struggles for union democracy.
Neoliberals take note: The fight for a Workers’ Agenda, and for a more democratic and socialist New Democratic Party in Ontario and across the country, has just begun.
*This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.