Saturday, May 7, 2011

Will the NDP become the new Liberal Party?

Murray Dobbin's Blog
May 7, 2011

Almost since he was elected NDP leader in 2003, Jack Layton has mused about replacing the Liberal Party as the official opposition. He was roundly ridiculed for this fantasy and can now, if he chooses, tell us all that he told us so. But for the NDP and the country it could turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Just what does it mean for Canadian politics for the NDP to replace the Liberals?

It could be easily argued that to replace the Liberals you have to, more or less, become the Liberals. That is, if the NDP ever has a hope of governing – and even with the perverse first-past-the-post system that means 40% of the popular vote – they will have to moderate their policies to get that extra 15%. Indeed, it is more like an extra 20% outside Quebec. The NDP, after years of moderating its policies under Layton, was still, going into the election, hovering between 16 and 19%.
If the NDP wants to govern – or share governing power – as a social democratic party then its current situation presents a dilemma. Given the media in this country and the perception of the NDP that it relentlessly creates and recreates, it has two choices. It can either hope to build on Jack Layton’s evident popularity over the next four years and tie trust in him to trust in social democratic policies. Or it can take the easy road and gradually moderate its policies, acquiescing to the inevitable media onslaught against any policies that Bay Street finds offensive – a very long list.

The prospects for a centre-left government are not encouraging as we look out at the current configuration. A divided “left” with a severely weakened Liberal Party could well mean a very long dominance of the Conservative Party with Stephen Harper governing for as long as chooses to.

The prospect for a merger between the Liberals and the NDP is virtually zero. Neither party will ever put the country ahead of their own narrow interests. This is simply the perverse nature of party politics. Their entire reason for being is to get as many seats as possible: full stop. They are constitutionally and culturally incapable of any other goal. Efforts before the 2008 election to get the Greens and the NDP to co-operate by strategically withdrawing from some ridings to help defeat Conservatives got absolutely nowhere. Layton’s triumphalism, on election night – speaking to a country (not only his own party) facing the most destructive government in its history – just reinforced the point.

The Liberals and the NDP will do what parties do – they will keep trying to score the most points, oblivious to what it means for the country. We can moan and complain all we like, as presently constituted that is what they will do.

That being the case, what do progressive Canadians, labour, social movements and civil society groups do? We have no control whatever over what the Liberal Party does – it is dominated by business Liberals and they will decide its future course.

Extra-parliamentary groups are at their weakest state in twenty years and rebuilding them will be a long term project. Should progressives individually join the NDP and try to keep it on the straight and narrow social democratic path? If the party remains an electoral machine with no presence in communities there seems little point. It would not change the political culture and the parliamentary caucus is, in any case, not bound by resolutions passed at party conventions.

Should those outside the party focus on keeping the pressure on the NDP to be true to its philosophy and Canadian values – doing what we can to counter the inevitable fire-storm of criticism the party as the official opposition, will face from the media? This is not really an option – it is a necessity. When Bob Rae won unexpectedly in Ontario, the left there – inexperienced with NDP governments – decided to implement a sort of honeymoon period during which time they did not criticize the government.

It was a fatal mistake. The media and business groups launched a merciless attack. What Bob Rae needed was thousands of unionists, anti-poverty activists, women and youth in the streets demanding progressive change – a force he could point to, to justify keeping his promises. But there was no one. While not wishing to give Rae a pass on his policy failures (backing away from public auto insurance being the biggest), the left helped drive him to the right by failing to demand he keep to the left. The honeymoon ended in divorce.

Before Jack Layton was elected leader there was a unique political effort that suggests a third direction for social and environmental activists. It was called the New Politics Initiative (NPI) and its aim was to bridge the gap between civil society movements and the NDP. Founded by activist Judy Rebick and NDP MP Svend Robinson, it was also intended to recreate the NDP in the image of its predecessor, the CCF – a party/movement that would transform the NDP from an electoral machine dominated by its parliamentary caucus, into a party as movement. That is, the NDP would be active between elections in communities across the country, wherever it could, building on Canadians’ progressive values to create a progressive political culture – working on an equal basis with civil society groups of all kinds.

The NPI was disbanded after the 2003 NDP leadership convention where its proposal for radical changes in the party received (if memory serves) the support of about 40% of the delegates. It was felt that Jack Layton was sympathetic to the notion of bridging the gap between party politics and social movement politics. He was and he made genuine efforts in that direction. But it turned out, in hindsight, that disbanding the NPI was probably a mistake. The forces perpetuating the NDP’s machine culture needed a powerful and permanent counterpoint if there was to be any hope of it changing.

Conditions have changed in ten years, but maybe we should consider reconstituting the NPI. Its role might be even more important now.

1 comment:

  1. Overall I agree with one major thrust of this--the need to push both the NDP and the national discourse left through ongoing grassroots pressure.

    But there's a lot I disagree with, and at least one bit that seems a product of fear more than thought.
    You say that the NDP plus a weakened Liberal party will inevitably lead to Conservative majorities. And yet, the NDP has existed for some time, getting percentages of the popular vote not so far off what the Liberals got this time, and the Conservatives have not been in majority government for that whole time. I know you're a leftist, so why are you letting yourself be stampeded into the idea that the NDP strong and Liberals weak is a worse strategic situation than the NDP weak and the Liberals strong? I'm seeing a fair amount of this and near as I can figure, the Harper win is stampeding people into buying somebody's talking points without examining them.

    I do take the point about political parties being focussed on their own particular point of view and victory for that. But you take it a bit far--criticizing Layton for "triumphalism" on election night; again, something I've seen a number of people do who should know better. Come on. You're the leader of a political party on election night. Something really good has happened, and something very bad has happened. Which do you talk about in your election night speech about how the election went? Get real. It would have been utterly inappropriate and foolish on a host of levels for Layton to get up on his hind legs on election night and say "It's terrible, the evil Harper Conservatives won a majority, so everybody wear sackcloth and ashes!" He'd have de-energized the party faithful and the workers, he'd have looked like an ungracious jerk, he'd have been pilloried in the press.

    I also find it weird that you are criticizing parties for refusing to merge so they could win an election, on the basis that they are too focussed on winning elections. I sort of get what you mean, the contradiction is not as complete as it seems at first glance, but I do think that your backing for the merger idea is causing you to present the reasons it does not happen in a negative way that doesn't adequately describe them. I mean, if it were actually a question of pure electoralism one would expect more support for a merger--but the real issue is that the two parties both believe in their own ideology and disagree with the other's; so they want their own ideology to win elections, not to have something win elections which is no longer the ideology they support.

    It also seems weird to me that you are worrying about the NDP turning into the Liberals due to their success, but seem unworried about the NDP turning into the Liberals due to a merger with a Liberal party "dominated by business Liberals".

    Finally, there's the question of the NPI. I joined the NPI at the time, and spent a long time on an email discussion list related to it. By the end I was quite disillusioned. The problem with the NPI is that it wasn't. New, that is. It talked about ideas of decentralization, grassroots participation and democracy, and so forth. But the NPI itself was solely run by the people that started it. It was set up to allow the grassroots to talk about politics, but not to influence, much less determine, the NPI's structure or policies. The NPI didn't even have any ways for members to elect leadership, much less make decisions for themselves. It ignored the structural issues that it, itself, existed to raise. I would have no objection to a new, new politics initiative--but it would have to put its money where its mouth was, and really grapple with how to structure itself for member participation and power.