Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Time to put the Waffle Manifesto back on the NDP's table

By Kevin Logan
December 21, 2010

When I was a toddler I recall my parents discussing something called the Waffle. It caught my interest not just because I was raised in a politically charged environment but because it was my favourite breakfast food.

Back then towering intellects of the left tired with the direction of the NDP took it upon themselves to write a manifesto. When I heard that the Waffle was a manifesto I quickly lost interest, but for those who cared it was an attempt to write out the aims of the NDP as a socialist party.

Folks of the day were just coming down from the rhetoric of a "commie on every corner working to sabotage our freedoms" that dominated the political discourse of North America and when the "pinkos" in Canada started writing another Manifesto the Karl Marx fear mongers when into overdrive.

I was born shortly after the Waffle as the "Manifesto" graced the pages of the Globe and Mail in 1969. I cannot imagine a similar doctrine of any sort capturing similar attention and ink today, not for lack of want or need but because our media no longer subscribes to equal exposure to ideas.

The Waffle was eaten alive after intellects such as the Laxer brothers, who were instrumental in its creation, oversaw its evolution from ideas on paper to riveting debate, through NDP conventions starting in Winnipeg and to its ultimate demise in a leadership contest that pitted giants of the left Lewis and Laxer in a fight to the death.

The effort fell prey within the NDP to the corporate, union-driven status-quo that lined up behind David Lewis, and was forced to find a new home along with Laxer, the losing candidate in that battle.

Ultimately the initiative and its manifesto had died by the time I was five. A great division in the nation's party of democratic socialists was the end result but a creature known as the "social democrat" lived on and is still at the very core of division and debate in the continent's only constitutionally defined socialist party.

These warring factions within the NDP have engaged in a vitriolic tug-of-war ever since.

The so-called purists or democratic socialists interested in the "nationalizing" of industry have suffered the same recurrent demise time and time again. The debate has evolved considerably and the ideas were not about the communist takeover of the capitalist system but instead embodied talk of rationalizing industries versus nationalizing them. However, the shift in nomenclature never proved to be successful as the old corporate driven vision of the "social democrats" repeatedly won the day, albeit never with an alternative vision that was better than that old Waffle Manifesto, but always with the language of fear and retribution for even daring to challenge the notion of "progress" embodied in corporate unionism and the "third way."

It was, is and always has been a sort of might-is-right type of politics that abandoned the development of ideas for a more cut and thrust type of group think that prevailed at all levels in the party from coast to coast to coast.

Fast forward to recent times when the NDP formed provincial governments as a result of the failed policies of business parties and with lesser personalities than giants like David Lewis and Tommy Douglas. As well, what we experienced were "social democratic" governments that consistently outperformed the governments of business on every front. Balanced budgets, growing economies, social liberalism and the maintenance of outstanding health-and-education programming won out over any workers' desire to collectively share the means of production. Wobblied workers of the world were free to unite and write underground newspapers but never were they allowed near the levers of power.

Once again, however, the old divide reared its head within this last decade and came to the fore as the " New Politics Initiative" invigorated young people and engaged them in the political process. An openly corrupt corporate culture and all its trimmings of injustice and environmental degradation gave rise to a desire to dust of the manifestos of old and entertain a new kind of socialism.

At the time great gains were being realized in South America. Long and brutally victimized by the corporateers, the people in those lands truly had enough and started taking back governments by electing leaders espousing a modern day socialism, void of crusty old Marxism and vitalized with a new found appreciation of the fundamentals of collectivism and equality.

A different NDP convention in Winnipeg pitted the views of modern socialists against social democrats in the party and despite the efforts of the Rebicks, Stanfords, Davies and Robinsons of the NDP universe, the New Politics Initiative suffered a death blow and fell to "NDProgress," the strong arm of the social democrats more interested in embracing technological advances in social networking than any sort of new kind of politics that reeked of that old kind of socialism.

Once again as in 1969, the party left Winnipeg divided and the young folks disillusioned, the corporate unions more entrenched and the party an irrelevant force in terms of ever gaining access to the federal levers of power.

I write this long protracted view of the history of the divide in Canada's NDP to provide a backdrop to today's upheaval in the BC NDP.

The insiders in B.C. have long played a major role in the party, both in B.C. and at the Federal level, and they are players who strategically used the resources of a decade in provincial government to solidify the notion that social democrats are the mainstay of the party and their ideas, or lack thereof, are what the party is all about.

If not for them the party would be extinct and any talk of "socialism" whatsoever would occur only in underground activist newspapers and certainly not in the halls of power that they have come to occupy. The social democrats dominated the internal hierarchy of the party for decades and steered the NDP onto a "third way" route that defined socialism in Canada as corporatism with a smile.

Any other way or the pursuit of any other model of society was not even open for debate. If you were a working man or woman not part of Canada's long established corporate elite you were content with sitting down, shutting up and sending your money to the social democrats who represented you and managed the issues you were too busy to understand let alone able to influence.

The reason why this division has never gone away in the NDP is not because the party is dysfunctional nor is it due to a rump of unruly wild eyed socialists. It is because the lack of inspiration, ideas, policies and results that "social democrats" deliver leaves anyone not related to the ruling class wanting. It has been decades of real thin gruel as working people's wages remain stagnant and families are slipping through the cracks. No longer can one good union job carry a family through the financial challenges of a lifetime and "gains" are simply unheard of. More and more we see a lot less carrot and a much bigger stick. The velvet glove has come off the iron fist and Canada's majority is seeing and living through the brutal realities of capitalism as the hierarchy is externalized and corruption laid bare for all to see.

What we are experiencing in B.C. is in many ways a result of this decades-old debate. It has been simmering for years and with the economic crashes reverberating around the world resulting in a stagnating quality of life and standard of living, Canadians are looking for real alternatives. This is perfectly clear in British Columbia after 10 years of no holds barred liquidation and capitulation to the global agenda.

We are losing patience with policymaking designed to enrich others at our expense and no party anywhere has risen to the challenge. Which is why caucuses of the traditional parties are faltering and leaders are falling. It is reflected in low voter turnout and apathy especially among the youth who see the road we are on and are appalled with what they see as their inheritance of a ruined smoking mess of an environment and economy.

Which brings us to the coming weeks in B.C. politics. Are we going to let a pig with lipstick (aka The BC Liberals) reinvent itself and continue with the carnage? I think not. We need an alternative, hence the turmoil in the BC NDP. The decade old liberal agenda with a smile that Carole James and her social democrats offered was proving to be nowhere near enough to quench the long standing thirst for change.

What is required is nothing short a "new kind of politics." A waffle of the 21-century, a new manifesto with a real vision that is not encumbered by the old divide of left and right politics. A kind of politics that rises above petty partisan debate about meaningless details and instead tackles the hard issues of the day. The issues relevant to us all young and old alike. An exercise that is positive and inclusive versus negative and marginalizing. No more divide and conquer instead unite and overcome.

We are at a crossroads in B.C. and the state of the NDP well reflects that. Are we going to once again fall to the dominant corporate culture or are we going to revitalize democracy with direct participation? Are we going to watch a horse race of political personalities or are we going to roll up our sleeves and talk policies that are going to really deliver for British Columbians? Are we going to let overblown rhetoric work to continue the liquidation of our province or are we going to engage people in every community in a real dialogue about our future resulting in policies that work for us and our children? Are we going to begin to prioritize the environment as the ultimate concern as without her there is no home, economy or future or are we going to continue to lay her to waste while paying mere lip service to her vital needs? Are we able to shut off their TV and radio and put down their newspapers and focus on new media and its capacity to build community ties and communicate the alternatives or are we going to let mainstream messaging continue dumbing down dialogue and perverting public discourse while burying all ideas but their own self-perpetuating paradigms?

These are just some of the challenges before us and the first steps have been taken by dismantling the power paradigm in the BC NDP and opening it up to the people by providing them a vote for new leadership. It is unprecedented in B.C.'s political history that a grandma from Skookumchuk has equal say in who will next lead as the current leader of the BC NDP. Each is one person and each has one vote. Never before has this happened and it presents to us the most exciting democratic reform in our history.

But right now it is most important for us to focus on a new manifesto. We need policies and ideas that deliver for the majority of British Columbians. Right now the majority can come together under that manifesto and instead of focusing on personalities we can write the policies those personalities must implement. That is the challenge before us in the coming days. Clearly defining and establishing a manifesto of ideas that the NDP's new democratically established leadership can win an election with and implement.

Are we up to the challenge? Or will it be a case of "the more things change the more they remain the same?"

Kevin Logan is a former ministerial assistant to B.C.'s interim NDP Premier Dan Miller (1999/2000) and held the same position for the ministers of Forests, Aboriginal Affairs, Energy Mines and Northern Development.

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