Whither Mulcair and the NDP?

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Some are already calling it the New Liberal Democratic Party.  That’s clearly premature. The New Democratic Party of Canada remains a working-class, labour-based, mass electoral party. One glance at the 4000-plus delegates at its March 23-24 convention in Toronto confirmed it. The insignia of labour unions, progressive causes, and social justice movements permeated the crowd.

But the election of Thomas Mulcair as NDP federal Leader, via a delay-plagued electronic poll, raises many white (not red) flags. Did the majority of those 60,000 “instant” and other New Democrats who e-voted for Leader surrender the party to the capitalist establishment, or did they just unwittingly grease the skids that way in a hasty bid for government in 2015?
(On May 2, 2011, the NDP made an historic breakthrough to capture 103 seats and become the Official Opposition, the second largest contingent in Parliament. The death of Leader Jack Layton last August necessitated the race to replace him.)
Mulcair, the Montreal MP who won the top post with 57.2 per cent of the votes cast, urged the party to move “to the center,” but has ruled out an alliance with the big business Liberal Party—so far. Brian Topp, the veteran party strategist, placed second with 42.8 per cent on the final tally. Nathan Cullen, the British Columbia MP who promotes an electoral pact with the Liberals and Greens, disturbingly came third with 24.6 per cent on the third ballot.
So, if the consensus was to move more rapidly to the right, why did the election go four rounds? Because there is no such consensus. Because the party and labour bureaucracies were divided, chiefly between Topp, and the former CAW negotiator and current Toronto area MP Peggy Nash who garnered 16.8 per cent on the second ballot. The inability of the top brass to settle early on one candidate fragmented the old-line social democratic faction, much to the chagrin of party icon Ed Broadbent who publicly questioned Mulcair’s commitment to “NDP values.”
The fluently bilingual Mulcair tried to shore up his labour credentials by having UFCW National President Wayne Hanley nominate him. But the ex-Liberal Quebec cabinet minister harvested support extensively from a wider pool of veterans and neophytes who see Mulcair as the political pro who can take on Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and win.
That proposition hinges, of course, on retaining most of the NDP’s 58 seats in Quebec. Yet Mulcair’s tenuous grip on the French-speaking nation relies on the Quebecois’ latest gamble on Canadian federalism. It is a spontaneous version of the electoral “beau risque” of 1984, which temporarily benefited the Conservatives under Brian Mulroney. The moment there is a swing in Quebec towards national liberation and sovereignty, the staunchly federalist Mulcair, who is considerably to the right of the (resurging) Bloc Quebecois on foreign policy (especially on Israeli apartheid), will sink with the NDP like a stone.
An early signal of Mulcair’s inclination to follow a Tony Blair-like path was his stated intent to remove “democratic socialism” from the preamble to the party constitution. The federal NDP executive, over which Nash presided, and then included Topp, failed to excise the term at the June 2011 federal convention in Vancouver. Mulcair also made it clear that his cap-and-trade carbon emissions policy will not impinge on the Alberta tar sands.
For the first five of the six months leadership campaign it was a race of the resumes. Most of the candidates made no mention of the Occupy movement or antiwar public opinion. They downplayed labour resistance to attacks on jobs, services, and pensions (like the wildcat strike by Air Canada baggage handlers) and barely mentioned 300,000 Quebecois students and other opponents of major university fee hikes marching in the streets of Montreal.
The exception, and the only candidate not aligned with any faction of the NDP or the labour establishment, was Niki Ashton. The 29-year old Manitoba MP (who speaks French, English, Spanish and Greek) raised the banner of “new politics”—an appeal to youth, immigrants, workers, and victims of increasingly mobile, exploitative, transnational capital.
In contrast to the other candidates, Niki campaigned for closer NDP identification with the working class. She rejects any electoral pact with the parties of big business. She denounces the imperialist war drive, insisting that Canadian troops “be brought home now.”
Although Ashton did not demand “Canada Out of NATO,” at the March 1 Socialist Caucus-sponsored leadership debate in Toronto she denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Ottawa, and defended freedom of speech for advocates of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions aimed at the Zionist apartheid state. While Ashton does not advocate public ownership, she praised the successful effort of the Socialist Caucus to keep “socialism” in the party’s constitution. She advocates the creation of a public corporation to provide generic medical drugs. She cited Manitoba’s practice of no public funding for Catholic or any religious schools as a model for Canada.
Ashton has been willing to rock the boat. She challenged an NDP incumbent MP in 2005 who opposed equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Niki won the nomination, and was elected MP in 2008, and again in 2011. The NDP Socialist Caucus endorsement of her can be seen at www.ndpsocialists.ca.
Sadly, Niki Ashton received only 5.7 per cent of the votes on the first ballot. How much better would she have done, indeed what impact would a properly funded Socialist Caucus candidate for Leader have had, if more of the radical left outside the party joined the struggle?
On the convention floor, where for the first time in CCF-NDP history there was no policy debate or discussion, it took a cyber attack that disrupted voting for hours to highlight a serious flaw in the One Member One Vote mechanism. It isolates voters and it invites e-mischief on a grand scale. Still, there is an even more compelling reason to dump OMOV. It is the need to raise the level of political discourse, and to give some substance to party membership and to meaningful participation in policy direction. That’s why the Socialist Caucus campaigns for a return to delegated conventions, where delegates elected by active NDP members at riding association, youth club, or affiliated union meetings gather to debate resolutions proposed by grassroots organizations.
Less than 50 per cent of the current 131,000 members voted for a new Leader, and one can only guess at how many were more influenced by the commercial media in making their choice, rather than by any knowledge of, or commitment to working-class principles.
Undemocratic obstacles proliferated in the period preceding the vote. To run for Leader a candidate had to pay $15,000 to register, plus turn over 40 per cent of all campaign contributions to party headquarters. No serious campaign could get off the ground for less than $100,000. No group in the NDP could have a display booth at the convention without paying $1500 for the privilege.
Any member who paid up to $400 for a delegate’s badge could attend the convention in Toronto—where there was no microphone, no policy debate, and no voting on issues on the floor. Not counting travel, housing and food, that’s a rather pricey admission just to be able to wave a sign or bang a drum.
So, what is really needed, instead? Keep in mind that this is the fourth year of the global Great Recession. Crippling austerity measures, rising environmental havoc, and the growing threat of a widening war in the Middle East loom on the horizon. The NDP’s current course, packed with band-aid solutions, is a prescription for disaster.
The need for a socialist alternative inside the NDP and the labour movement has never been more urgent. It will come, not with slick parliamentary maneuvers, but by winning more working people, youths, women, Quebecois, Acadians, aboriginal peoples, immigrants, LGBT folks, the poor, and the dispossessed to the party, and to socialist policies and action. 
Solidarity knows no borders. So our fight for socialism must go beyond the polling booth, into the streets and workplaces. Socialists demand: Stop the capitalist austerity drive. No labour concessions. Organize the unorganized. For a massive public-works programme to provide jobs for all at union wages. Make big business pay for the crisis of their system. Nationalize the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ and community control.
The NDP/NPD is still a labour party rooted in the working class. But it is under siege from the right. Its mass social base, anxious to get rid of Harper, is open to fighting capitalist austerity, and to considering a socialist alternative. To advance that alternative, class-struggle leadership is required.
Support for the Socialist Caucus at the NDP federal convention shows that a sharp turn to the left is possible. Even without the aid of a display table or a meeting room, SC activists distributed nearly 1600 copies of the SC magazine Turn Left to wide acclaim. They collected close to $500 in donations to it. E-visits to the SC website increased ten-fold in the week leading up to the convention—so much so that the electronic band width of the site had to be increased. Scores of NDPers joined the SC via the internet and at the convention. News media covered and carried the SC message to millions. Additionally, supporters of Socialist Action received nearly $200 in sales of SA newspapers and buttons.
Without winning a majority of the 4.5 million who voted NDP/NPD on May 2, 2011, there will be no socialism, and all the past labour, social, and environmental gains of the past may be lost. Winning that majority is the goal to which the NDP Socialist Caucus is dedicated.
With the accelerated shift to the right at its summit, the battle for the future of the NDP and its allied unions is ever more pressing. Mulcair will enjoy a grace period, but it won’t last forever.
The last time New Democrats elected a liberal as party leader, it was Bob Rae in Ontario in 1982. The 1990-95 Rae government nearly gutted the Ontario NDP. Today, there’s more at stake, and the rulers have less room for maneuver given the depth of the global capitalist crisis. The size and strength of the NDP socialist left will be critical in preventing a similar outcome at the federal level.
The struggle for a Workers’ Agenda in the unions and the NDP, where it matters most, continues. If you want to win, sooner than later, join us now.
> The article above was written by Barry Weisleder, and is reprinted from the April 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.