by Barry Weisleder
TORONTO—Voters in Canada made history on May 2 when they catapulted the labour-based New Democratic Party into Official Opposition status. Relegated to distant third place is the former main party of business rule, the Liberal Party. Its leader, Michael Ignatieff, lost his own Toronto seat and resigned as party leader. And despite a mere 1.8 per cent increase in its share of the vote, the autocratic right-wing Stephen Harper Conservatives gained a majority of seats.
The election produced a fundamental re-alignment of forces that dashed any thoughts of parliamentary coalition. Voters tossed aside class-collaborationist “strategic voting” schemes. The new left-right polarization makes the NDP a government in waiting, with the onus on the party to show that it represents real change for working people.
Perennially in fourth place, New Democrats soar into the new Parliament in second spot with 102 seats, backed by 31 per cent of the votes cast. The Conservatives captured 167 seats and 39.5 per cent of the votes. (In the 308 seat House of Commons, 155 is a majority.)
The Liberals suffered a crushing defeat, winning only 34 seats (down from 77 MP s in 2008, and 103 in 2006) and 23 per cent of the votes. The bourgeois nationalist Bloc Quebecois nearly disappeared. It held onto four seats (a steep nose dive from 49). Its leader Gilles Duceppe, lost in his riding too and promptly resigned.
The capitalist Green Party won its first and only seat, for Leader Elizabeth May in British Columbia, despite attracting over 4 per cent of the ballots across the country. Such distortions argue forcefully again for replacement of the archaic, Westminster-style, first-past-the-post system by a system of direct proportional representation in Parliament.
This result, flawed as it is, still expresses a seismic shift. Stunning gains achieved by the labour-based NDP, nearly doubling its share of the vote, more than tripling its seat total to an historic high, gives the federal NDP Official Opposition status for the first time in history. It comes 50 years after the birth of the party, resulting from a merger of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress.
In terms of class politics, the NDP electoral breakthrough places an obstacle in the path of the capitalist austerity drive. The “orange wave” raises working-class expectations for better times in a situation of growing economic polarization amidst crumbling physical and social infrastructures. But the realization of those expectations depends, especially given the Tory majority, on class struggles outside Parliament, with which the NDP can and should be totally identified and involved.
Conservative pundits hail the Tory pick-up of 24 seats, aided by a small bump up in the polls and the collapse of the Liberals and the BQ, as a major advance that landed a majority government on their third try in five years. On this basis, Harper’s party (an amalgam of the former hard-right-wing Reform Party and the reactionary remnants of the destroyed Progressive Conservative Party) claims a strong mandate for more jails, jets, and austerity. The claim, however, is entirely overblown, and can be smashed if challenged on the streets and in the work places.
So, why the sudden shift? After a sleepy start, the campaign ignited around the TV leaders’ debates, one in English and one in French. Popular revulsion over the status quo, combined with broad discontent over Tory bullying and Liberal re-cycled promises, passed the breaking point. Cynical attempts to target “ethnic” voters, demonize the opposition, and obscure critical issues produced uneven effects. Months of vicious political attack ads by the two main capitalist parties frayed loyalties in both camps, while annoying many non-partisans.
“Vote mobs” organized by social media-savvy youths set out to stimulate participation. They rallied thousands of youths to the idea of political change, injecting an element of excitement into the process. Turnout for the election was 61.4 per cent, up from a dismal 58.8 per cent in 2008.
But the biggest change factor, arguably, was popular disgust with frozen wages, shrinking pensions, shrivelling social benefits, and the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of full-time jobs. While the rich got richer from tax cuts and obscene CEO bonuses, and by pillaging the treasures of nature, the rest of us did a slow burn, watching as our living standards sank.
At the same time, the NDP should be credited for positive moves. Leader Jack Layton, unlike his predecessors, campaigned openly to form a government, not just to win “a few more seats.” He fought to reverse gigantic Tory and Liberal give-ways to big business. He promised that greater revenues from the rich would pay for better health care, pension improvements, and post-secondary education access. The NDP tax plank (despite its limitations) resonated so well with the population that the Liberals, under Leader Michael Ignatieff, nearly copied it.
But Layton’s most adept move was to tap the leftist sentiments of the Quebec electorate. French-speaking Quebecois, particularly workers, have a collective consciousness shaped by national oppression and a keen aversion to the strictures of the Canadian state. For once, the English-Canada-based NDP took this into account.
After years of dithering and policy reversals, Layton asserted that he would repeal the undemocratic Clarity Act, recognize a declaration of Quebec independence after a sovereignty referendum win, and support asymmetrical federalism. That means Quebec will be treated as a nation, and not just another province in Confederation. It includes a guarantee that Quebec will have no less than a quarter of the seats in Parliament after re-distribution.
The NDP Leader committed to ensure that French would be the working language in federally-regulated industries in Quebec, such as railways and banks. Layton pledged to fight for rules that would require future judges appointed to the Supreme Court to be fluent in French. He promised to support efforts to plug the loophole that allows English private school students in Quebec to skirt Language Law 101 and, after a couple of years, transfer to an English-language publicly funded school.
While it is wrong to read massive NDP gains in Quebec as signaling the end of the sovereignty movement, they do reflect a disconnection by pro-independence Quebecois from the strategy and economic policies of the capitalist Parti Quebecois and the Bloc. The shift may presage big gains by the leftist, pro-sovereignty Quebec Solidaire at the next provincial vote.
In the meantime, a majority of the NDP Parliamentary Caucus, 59 of 102 MP s, consist of francophone Quebecois. One is 19 years old, another is a former communist candidate, and the vast majority are strong Quebec nationalists completely new to the federal party. Jack Layton may, or may not succeed in taming this corral of tigers.
As is often the case, in the commercial media personalities trump political content. Media fixation on the alleged assets and foibles of politicians usually benefits the bourgeois parties. This time it backfired.
Many comedians make a good living ridiculing Stephen Harper as a heartless, humourless martinet, and by portraying Michael Ignatieff as a vampiric opportunist on temporary leave from a teaching gig at Harvard U. Jack Layton, a colon cancer survivor who walks through the election campaign with a cane due to recent hip surgery, emerged as a sincere, honest, likeable guy who “won’t give up until the job is done.” Nonetheless, this superficial approach to politics can bite, as well as feed proponents of social progress.
Equally dangerous is the tendency to exaggerate the evils of the Conservatives to try to justify a “strategic” vote for the Liberals, or to favour the formation of a bourgeois coalition government, which ultimately failed. Still, the NDP brass is its own worst enemy in this regard.
When Jack Layton told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge that the main difference between the NDP and the Liberal Party is that the Liberals didn’t keep their promises and the NDP is more trustworthy, he was wrong. The difference is actually profound. The corporate elite simply do not back the NDP. It’s no accident. For them the issue is class, embodied in the NDP connection to the labour movement in English Canada.
Layton’s comment was a sad admission of the illusions harboured by the current leadership of the party. Moreover, it underscores the task we face as workers, poor people, students, seniors, and youth. That task is to replace the Liberal-look-alike policies of the NDP with socialist policies to meet the needs of the vast majority.
In the dying days of the campaign the NDP Leader began to issue excuses to forestall the implementation of NDP policies. Investment in rapid transit, social housing, and urban infrastructure would be contingent on anticipated revenue from a new cap-and-trade carbon tax (a bad environmental policy in any case). The proposed doubling of Canada Pension Plan benefits, and the much-touted promise to train new doctors would be dependent on the cooperation of the provinces.
Instead, Layton should insist on taxing the rich, cutting the military, and transforming eco-harmful private monopolies into publicly-owned, green industries run democratically under workers’ and community control. Start with Big Oil, auto, mining and the banks. Use their billions to meet the needs of millions.
Clearly, the right has made gains by moving to the right. The left, to make gains, must move to the left. Not just in words, but in deeds. That means challenging the pro-capitalist direction of the labour and NDP leadership. It means opposing any talk of NDP merger with the Liberal Party, or any coalition for government with a capitalist party.
In a bourgeois coalition the NDP would have to carry the can for war abroad and austerity at home. Instead we need an NDP government committed to socialist policies. That’s what many of the thousands of new members who will stream into the newly buoyant labour party will seek.
Historic gains for the NDP make it time now to step up the fight for a Workers’ Agenda and a Workers’ Government. On the crest of rising hopes and expectations, the socialist left can organize to gain a bigger-than-ever hearing for a class-struggle programme inside the unions and the NDP.
Don’t make excuses. Make waves. Join the NDP Socialist Caucus and fight for socialist policies at the NDP federal convention in Vancouver, June 17-19.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.