NDP snatches Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” – Anatole France

As this leadership race draws to a close, it is far too glib to claim that Canada’s New Democrats have, once again, failed or will fail working people and their families. That has been the mantra of so many, “right” and “left” that we have come to believe it ourselves. We are, as long time New Democrat Gerry Caplan put it fiercely in the Globe & Mail not long ago, in the midst of a world-wide class war. And our principal left(ish) electoral party seems weak, disorganized, and devoid of fresh thinking. Are we letting the 1% define us? Perhaps. As all about us, the world seems to be going mad, the Canadian left has one of the great opportunities before it. The selection of a new leader for the New Democrats is important, but perhaps who is chosen to lead is incidental to the process of building on our gains if there is not a strategic approach. Quebec is, of course, essential. But no one person can solidify and build on the Quebec gains any more than one person “delivered” them.

After forty years, there has at last been a rapprochement among the social-democratic forces in Québec and the Rest of Canada. One of the heart-stopping moments in the 2 May, 2011 election was the whisker- thin win for New Democrats in Montmagny—L’Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup. A win in the home turf of Parti Québécois founder René Lévesque, Pierre Trudeau’s working –class counterweight, and the Rest of Canada’s favourite whipping boy? How?

Jack Layton’s considerable charm and enthusiasm, though he probably worked himself to death, wasn’t solely responsible for making the Rest of Canada’s social democratic party the official opposition in a time of class war. But he did help people see that electoral politics, national politics can matter.

The heart of Lévesque’s PQ was always social democracy, though its voice was interpreted by the Rest of Canada as one-note sovereignty, with perhaps a dash of pure laine protest. The PQ had a unity of purpose between intellectual workers and worker intellectuals. Strong unions in both public and private sectors intervened directly in the daily life of the party. Outside the borders of Quebec, those who understood the PQiste vision marveled as Quebeckers built a nearly European social democratic community under our elite’s English noses. Hydro. Investment funds. Co-operatives. Culture. $5 per day (now $7) child-care. In a blink of history-time, Quebec dismantled the church-state based in English national dominance. As the rest of us now flip over the roboscandal, Quebeckers had enough of corruption and vote packing among the Liberal and Tory parties and were exhausted with the non-social democratic Bloc arrangement. Quebeckers realized that the economic and social gains extracted from the centre could disappear in an economy crazed with Alberta-based cowboy capitalism. So, in the Quebec world of nuanced, up-front politics, people saw what an economic mess we are in, and figuratively reached across boundaries and grasped for the last threads of social democracy in a national election. This so-called new relationship is as old as the dirt under the fingernails of farmers, factory workers, and students the world over.

We New Democrats have had little time for reflection. And we must elect a new leader. Our party has not been explicitly social-democratic for a long time, asDimension has often noted. Though we are the inheritors of a deep legacy of social-democracy, reaching back at least to the Chartists, we are also one issue campaigners and the generally discontented. We are limousine liberals, the workers who once built the limousine, and the homeless person cleaning the limosine’s windshield. We shuffle papers and teach children, and we are seeing the end of the post-WWII agenda for society, as Mr. Drummond so gleefully stated the obvious when announcing his Ontario report.

Few New Democrats claim to be democratic-socialists, even in the descriptive sense. Some even want to strike the nod-to-the-past language from our documents, hoping to save themselves from the inevitable far right attacks. Therefore, we shouldn’t castigate any candidate for failing to declare herself the very model of a socialist Major General. We aren’t going to “fix” ideological emptiness in one leadership race. We can’t replace years of nearly agendaless electoralism with an agenda to challenge the state of the world if we haven’t one, and no one leadership candidate should be expected to do so alone.

Ideology is not dead. Nor is it “kippin’.” The Harper government is wide awake. The ideology of capital has taken over across the world and even in our own mouths. Many people, including New Democrats, are left speechless at the swift demise of our economy and the collapse of our vision of society. Even we use the language of capital, the language of our oppressors, to describe the economy. Or, we wistfully harken back to welfare-state and post-WWII truce-tripartism with reverence. After all, it was the CCF “Make This Your Canada” pamphlet, distributed to returning veterans waiting in holding camps and mostly authored by raised-in-Montreal David Lewis, with help from Frank Scott, that pretty much set the agenda of the CCF/NDP for the post-war era. Yes, it was very white and male and rooted in an industrial growth and commodity based economy. And it was, for a national approach, backward. Their plan was a province-by-province for organizing, rooted in CCF/New Democrat structure. The plan first stalled on the rocks of a Liberal/Labour alliance, got engine damage during anti-socialist (and anti-Semitic) scares from corporate welfare bums, and promptly sank as Quebeckers decided they would be best served by their own social-democratic party. Meanwhile, the push to make the party more inclusive meant that some of the socially conservative base was destined to drop away and economic goals, in a burgeoning economy, were set to the sideboard. Election laws broke apart the labour movement relationship with the party, even if battles over strategy and tactics didn’t. Despite best efforts by many, a national breakthrough seemed all but impossible – until canny Quebeckers, enthused by someone who could match wits and charm with them, reached across the great Canadian Divide.

The back-room thinkers are, for the most part gone, except for those who crunch election numbers and type lists. Policy wonks are worn out with arguing over the Death of a Thousand Cuts to the welfare state, here, there, and everywhere and are playing dead in the world of “non-partisanship” to survive. MPs grapple for face and twitter time and operate constituencies as mini-fiefdoms.

It’s no surprise that even our leadership candidates present themselves as marketing commodities, ensuring the public speeches are sanitized and yawn-worthy and the campaign gossip is reduced to nasty-spirited exceptionalism or character assassination.

So we must think strategically.

The Occupy Movement is a cry from the heart of Canada. It is, however, purposefully inchoate in both form and function, and claims to be relentlessly non-ideologicaI, non-partisan, and is non-trusting of the smallest hint of “politics as usual.” It does teach us much, though. Right now, we can learn about talking and listening and inviting in those who do not regard politics as a professional blood sport to assist us in re-forming our agenda.

This is war, and the strategy to take Parliament Hill is of grave importance. The democratic institutions people have created do matter, despite their limitations. Strangely, we will have to justify to thousands of disillusioned people why our Parliament is important, and a place in which to engage effort.

Saving the welfare state does matter even as we must challenge capital in ways that haven’t been done since 1945 and figure out how to save our bleeding earth, too.

There is false equality only in law if the only persons making it are of the 1%. How do we organize the 99%? What will unite us? What will bring together all we inherit and all we can organize? We must run up Parliament Hill for a purpose greater than our own winning. Those who argue that electoral politics and our tired party no longer matters have to see otherwise, and quickly.

I have not made up my mind who to vote for — then again, I don’t have to. With a ranked ballot, mail in or computer, New Democrats can, theoretically, vote for everyone who is running. More or less, each one represents a worn thread of our past. I do know that to make an alliance with the corrupt and clapped-out Liberal party, either overtly or covertly, is not high on my agenda, but I can see why some argue for it and some fall for it, because if it weren’t for those thin threads of social-democracy remaining that caused Quebeckers to reach out, we’d probably be in the shape we’ve always been.

What I want to know is: who is going to do as Tommy Douglas did in Regina, and René Lévesque did in Quebec City? By that I mean tossing open the doors and welcoming the thinkers as well as the doers from across the country — and maybe even some from “away” — in a great discussion of our future (in both official languages, and maybe a few more) and take the opportunity to build a nation-wide party that has a democratic agenda for people? That re-invents itself as it charges up The Hill? Who is going to lay the ground for the incorporation of the best parts of the Occupy movement, rather than viewing it as a voter pool? Who is going to dig deeply into fat books without pictures in them (or ensure that others do so) at the same time as trying to run the country? Who is going to help make it interesting and fun and purposeful again, rather than an endless, tooth-grinding rear guard action against the bad guys? So far, I’ve seen little. I’m hoping the convention will help. Otherwise, I fear no matter who wins, we all snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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