Monday, August 1, 2011

Making Sense of the Federal Election in Canada

By Herman Rosenfeld
Socialist Project Bullet
August 1, 2011

Making sense of the surprising outcome of the May 2nd federal election in Canada is a major challenge for everyone on the Left, especially among those who are engaged in efforts to create a political space to the left of social democracy.

The Left now confronts a Stephen Harper Conservative Party majority and the unavoidable need to carve out a working relationship with the New Democratic Party (NDP) implanted for the first time as the parliamentary opposition, while continuing to struggle to renew the organizational capacities of the Left independent of the NDP. The new parliamentary balance of electoral forces compel us all to raise the level and sharpness of our understanding of Canadian politics and how we might move forward.

The election of a Conservative majority in itself should not come as a surprise. It takes place in a world context of defeat for the working-class and the Left. The incredible offensive of the neoliberal inspired ruling classes in Europe and North America is gaining ground even through the battles over austerity. In 2008, this was not expected, as the crisis created huge holes in neoliberal capitalism's ideological veneer and ability to deliver the goods and suggested that seeking alternative ways of organizing society and the economy might gain broad appeal. But the Right quickly recovered its political bearings and has continued to use the crisis as a way to strengthen its domination of the political landscape. On the electoral terrain, the Right – in spite of its aggressive campaign for austerity and further rollbacks of welfare state protections – continues to hold more than its own and is even managing to make gains. In this context, Harper's majority is not an exception.

Ruling Class Gains: Harper wins a majority

The key result of the election to account for is the Harper majority. It signals an important victory for the most market-oriented and conservative sections of the Canadian ruling class, a victory that has been a quarter of century in the making since the formation of the Reform Party in 1987.

Although the first-past-the post electoral system and the vote splitting between the NDP and Liberals accentuated the seat total taken by the Tories, the overall number of votes going to the Conservatives went up by almost 2% and over 620,000 additional votes. These votes reflect a major base of support for the Tory platform, particularly on economic issues, and across all regions and ethnic groups, that no other party comes close to matching. They will use this base to impose an ‘austerity-plus’ strategy of, steady transformation of Canadian political and economic institutions.

Harper's win reflected a number of elements: the two-percentage point increase in the popular vote; the dramatic decline in the Liberal vote; the increase in the NDP vote and the vagaries of the outdated electoral system. Harper also crafted that win by targeting key ridings across the country and applying a cynical but effective appeal to selective constituencies in those ridings (one of the means is the cynical use of targeted tax cuts to purchase favour). While emphasizing social conservative themes to some voters, he touted his ‘moderation’ to others. Overall, his principal theme was tax cuts, fiscal austerity and business confidence. While only 40% of the 61.4% who voted, this gave Harper a new majority, with which they continue to establish their political hegemony in Canada for the foreseeable future.

Even without any significant electoral move to the Right amongst the electorate, Harper is now free to deepen radically neoliberalism in Canada. Already, the government used the threat of back-to-work legislation to end the CAW Air Canada strike; they followed this up by undermining and then ending the CUPW strike through the Canada Post lockout and then the back-to-work law. The latter conflict included a legislated settlement on CUPW members which were more draconian than the final offer of the employer. The Conservatives have clearly signaled their intent to pursue austerity and roll-back public sector collective bargaining rights in the process.

Tony Clement, the new Treasury Board President, has since called for the elimination of entire programs funded by the federal government, and has already begun by cutting the public service. They will continue to extend the cuts in a number of ways: reductions in social transfers to the provinces; restructuring of the Canadian state to further expand private sector provision of public services; attacks on public sector workers, native peoples, and the poor. Alongside the cuts, the Tories can be expected to further ‘harden’ the coercive dimensions of the Canadian state: intensifying the criminalization of poverty; changes to the criminal justice system to increase and broaden prison sentencing; a massive expansion of the prison system; and further developing Canadian military capacities for overseas deployment and support for U.S. and NATO ‘security’ operations around the world.

Challenging Harper will not be simple. The Conservatives are masters at crafting an appeal to people across the social spectrum, including sections of the working-class. Harper has had an ability to push the appropriate buttons and appeal to different constituencies. In raising the threat of back-to-work legislation at Air Canada, where there was little threat to the economy, Harper raised concerns about summer travel plans, consolidating his political base, while sending a message to both the capitalist class and the labour movement that the government supported the undermining of defined benefit pension plans.

Harper appeals lie with right-wing populism: blaming government bureaucracy for the failure of healthy job creation; targeting tax cuts as the only way of increasing the disposable incomes of people who haven't had wage increases in decades; disorganizing and discouraging working-class loyalties and common identities; and forming a new militaristic patriotism as the symbol of national unity as the appeals of a common social citizenship through the welfare state is undermined. The electoral success of the Conservatives is rooted in some of the discourses and divisions that the Republicans in the U.S. have used, and the hard Right in Europe has been gaining ground with.

The Harper victory inspires confidence in the various elements of the ruling class: reinforcing and consolidating neoliberalism in the Canadian state; creating conditions for attacks on the public sector in the provinces; deepening neoliberal market conditions which, at the very least will result in more pressure on working-class job quality, availability and incomes and working conditions; attacks on unions; undermining efforts to move toward renewable energy; intensifying the economic dependency on resource extraction and exports and the domination of the financial sector. Across society, it is hard not to conclude that the hegemony of neoliberalism in Canada has never been stronger.

NDP Surge: Mixed Meanings and Left Dilemmas


The NDP electoral ‘surge’ is less a fundamental shift in the ideological or political terrain in Canada and more of a game ‘modifier.’ It certainly reflects an alteration in electoral forces. The gains are unprecedented for the NDP on the federal level, with the highest level of seats in the party's history. Most of that happened in Quebec, where the party gained 58 seats, as well as more modest gains elsewhere: 2 in the West and North, 2 in Atlantic Canada and 6 in Toronto. The Liberal Party – the premier instrument of the dominant fractions of Canada's ruling classes for most of the 20th century – suffered an historic and possible fatal decline. It is the first electoral breakthrough for an avowedly social democratic party in Quebec; and it is the most significant national electoral results for a party in North America with its ideological roots in traditional social democracy and even elements of socialism (in this case the formation of the CCF in the 1930s). While these results cannot be ignored, they need to be put into perspective.

The dramatic increase of seats in Quebec and the swapping of electoral position with the Bloc Quebecois reflects, among others, frustration with the impotence of the Bloc in defending Quebec, continued opposition to neoliberalism in the Federal state, and electoral interest in the persona of Jack Layton. Richard Fidler and Roger Rashi have made incisive analyses about the tenuousness of the striking electoral victory in Quebec, pointing out the fluidity of the Quebec electoral political scene and the ongoing tensions around sovereignty in that national community and province. Outside of Quebec, the increase in NDP votes came at the expense of the hapless Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, and the continued infighting and bleeding of the electoral vote over the last two decades. It would be mistaken to argue – as have many commentators – that the electoral results necessarily reflect a tectonic shift to the ‘Left’ of the electoral scene in Canada.

Layton's campaign was based in the centre-left ‘Third Way’ politics he (along with the core political and bureaucratic leaders that set the party's agenda) has consistently shifted the NDP over his tenure. It hugged the centre, appealing to ‘middle class or average families’ (and sometime just ‘families’). There was no systematic reference or criticism of the role of corporations or capitalism, except vague calls to make banks and others more accountable. The electoral campaign played down the party's programmatic opposition to the Afghan war (in favour of state-building efforts there), and called for a modest program of cancelling planned and recent tax cuts, endorsing the labour movement's call to double the Canada Pension Plan, and increasing employment especially through aid to ‘small business.’

Numerous analysts have said that NDP votes reflected peoples' ‘desire’ for more Left policies; that NDP votes signalled a rejection of ‘corporate’ parties; and the like. The NDP certainly is the most progressive of the major parties, and the increase in the votes for the party reflected a rejection of Harper. But it is difficult to categorically translate the NDP's votes as a dramatic move of the electorate to the Left.

Given the impossibility of identifying NDP electoral success with a rupture with neoliberal policies, what might unfold in the wake of the federal election? The NDP gains in Quebec might create openings for a more progressive political voice than the Bloc. But this is unstable, with a still-untested political orientation. How it will articulate the larger policies of the party with the national aspirations of its constituencies is not clear. As others have noted, there is a contradiction between efforts to represent the demands for national self-determination and the political requirements for protecting the needs of the Quebec Nation, on the one hand; and the need to placate the utter lack of understanding in the rest of Canada (even within the organized working-class) of the Quebec national reality, on the other. As the NDP looks to solidify the party's official opposition status and move toward vying for power in the future – as was the clear mandate of their Vancouver Convention – this contradiction will be increasingly difficult to handle. And with the sudden illness of Layton and his withdrawal from the position of leader, the capacity to bridge the regional components of the NDP has been seriously compromised.

The electoral growth of the NDP in the rest of Canada cannot be counted as a surge. It was modest, with seats lost in core constituencies in Western Canada, and the political orientation of this wing of the party hardly clear. While the larger progressive community can see the increase in seats in the Toronto area as a move away from the Liberals, and some of the political strengths of the newly elected MPs are notable. But there is little reason to think that this is a blow against the fundamental building blocks of Harper's agenda. The results were not accompanied by a fundamental shift in ideology, or the development of a large anti-neoliberal movement within the Canadian working-class.

In a context where the party clearly is looking to package itself as an alternative to the Liberals as the government in waiting, it would make sense (within the terms of its own ideological space) for the NDP to increasingly package itself as being ‘responsible’ and fully able to govern in ways which accommodate the needs and concerns of capital. That has numerous and obvious implications.

The party will also need to accommodate its current electoral base, and that currently includes the labour movement, reform-oriented NGOs and large sections of other social movements. The NDP's relationship with the labour movement is complex. As Murray Cooke has written, the NDP always reflected more conservative elements in labour, concerned about winning over middle class and moderate voters. And one only has to think back to the election of the Bob Rae government in Ontario in 1990, to remember how most labour leaders and many activists fully justified the supposed need of the new Premier to govern ‘in the name of all the people of Ontario,’ which was a not-so-subtle way of saying publicly at the beginning of the mandate that ‘we have no intention of making any fundamental changes.’

The entire neoliberal experience – from the Social Contract in Ontario, NDP provincial governments in BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and now Nova Scotia – has made most trade unionists wary of the role of the party, even when they support it. Apart from the strongest social democratic ideologues in the labour movement, the relationship with the NDP is not what is was in the 1970s and 1980s, as the party apparatus has sought to lessen the role of the labour movement and labour has been splitting politically both to the right and left in its electoral tactics. What remains of labour movement support is now more thin and guarded than in the past: it is more instrumental and less organic.

The relationship between the labour movement and the NDP reflects a real dilemma facing the labour movement in the neoliberal era: with social democratic parties like the NDP incapable of challenging capital, and moving ever more toward accommodation to neoliberal ideas, how should the labour movement approach electoral politics? With the regional and other divisions in the Canadian political terrain, this became even more challenging to a labour movement looking for some way of fighting the Tories, all the while seeking electoral successes that would defeat the hard right.

In its political discourse and organizing strategies, the NDP, rather than helping to build a class identity within Canadian workers, actively contributes to its disorganization. The NDP reinforces working-class identification as consumers, citizens, individuals or ‘families,’ individual taxpayers (via the anti-HST campaigns) and members of particular communities. The party de-emphasizes efforts to challenge capital as a class, by ignoring any challenges to capital and especially, the financial sector. The forms of political engagement it initiates fully accept the impossibility of applying ongoing demands for democracy to the economy. When they get into government – at least on a provincial level – they don't reorganize the state or civil service to enhance the democratic capacities or collective identities of working people.

Having a party to the Left of the Liberals as Official Opposition in Ottawa will provide some openings for labour and other social movements. NDP MPs featured in the media and regularly in Question Period defending postal workers' right to strike, questioning military adventures and the like can help to legitimate progressive points of view in the eyes of many Canadians. This is important and can create certain political openings for the labour and other social movements, and for more radical critiques. As well, labour and left activists can develop ongoing working relationships with the caucus and individual MPs, such as Peggy Nash, Libby Davies and others, who play important roles in supporting and building the labour and social movements.

The NDP and the Left

The increase in the NDP's electoral support does not resolve either the immediate need to construct an anti-neoliberal bloc against Harper or forming a socialist movement for the 21st century in Canada. Many social movement activists and political columnists use the term ‘progressive’; to define the Left. The reality is that there are a number of different Lefts in Canada. Across the developed capitalist world, there is a broad division between those who identify with the Right – combining various degrees of social conservatism and more traditional forms of political conservatism with supporting the deepening of neoliberal restructuring and the identification of the interests of the business community with that of the country – and a progressive opinion base, who tend to support collective rights, human rights, social programs, the rights of labour and harbour a hostility to the neoliberal universe of economic and political life. These divisions are significant and enduring, and vary in the balances depending on the country and the context.

In Canada, the progressive part of that divide includes the general opposition to integration with the U.S., an anti-war sensibility and roughly corresponds to those who opposed the neoliberal and globalization projects dating from the early days of opposition to the Free Trade Agreement of 1989.

The progressive/conservative divide tells us a lot about who might be on our side in a larger defence of values and interests such as Medicare, what remains of universal social programs and the like. It will, no doubt, help to explain some of the battle lines that will be built in fighting Harper.

However, there is much that this general division doesn't tell us. In Canada, as in most other countries, many of those who tend to dominate the thinking of the progressives exhibit a kind of nostalgia for the pre-neoliberal era and are steeped in social democratic or liberal-reformist political orientations. The informal basis of unity for progressivism leaves the economy to operate along the rules of the neoliberal capitalism that it claims to abhor. As Ed Broadbent recently noted in a series of interviews regarding his plans for an NDP-oriented think-tank, the challenge, for many of these people is to find ways to balance a market economy, with social justice and equality (recalling the reform project of J.S. Mill that Broadbent adheres to). This ‘balance’ is false to begin with, as the state and market are not enclosed entities but are equally parts of the power structures of capitalism; in any case, some idealized ‘reform balance’ of ‘just state’ has been impossible to sustain in the era of neoliberalism. The most that we might get from this are calls for increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations, moderate regulation of financial institutions and investments in urban infrastructure. Important and positive but limited policy reforms.

As well, there is no class base or orientation that comes from such ‘balance’ approach, other than resting on vague appeals to the middle classes – the average Canadians, and working families of NDP electoral discourse. The very idea of creating a working-class movement, identity and collective capacity really is not what this kind of a political project or identity is really about. It does not have an anti-capitalist or socialist orientation. That is its greatest weakness and helps to explain why its ability to act as a political force for the Left, organizing and mobilizing the union and social movements, is so limited. When it acts politically, it does so as an adjunct to political parties that are tied to the system and argue from within the boundaries of capitalism and neoliberalism. In Canada, it works with the NDP and continues to have ties to elements in the Liberal party. Absorbing the description of the Left into a vague progressive movement is short sighted analytically, and it misses the important features and needs in building Canadian oppositional politics.

Challenges for Socialists

The socialist left in Canada is small and still looking to re-define itself. But it still has a particular set of responsibilities, openings, but also difficult struggles ahead. They include above all the need to address some critical challenges: to find ways to resist Harper's agenda and the austerity attacks it will entail (in an environment disappointingly free of mass collective struggles at this time). But there are others as well: working with and through different working-class organizations and movements as well as larger social movements; developing some strategic clarity about who to unite with; seeking ways to counter the appeals of right-wing populist ideas and the current state of working-class consciousness and thinking, all the while contributing to the rebuilding of a larger class identification across the highly divided and segmented components of the working-class; continuing the process of working together with other anti-capitalist activists; and figuring out how to develop working relations with the NDP, all the while not getting enmeshed in the seductive promises of social democratic politics, power and the organizational nexus of the party.

The necessity of responding to Harper's agenda is the number one challenge the Left faces. This will require a combination of extra parliamentary resistance, building new alliances between different segments of the working-class and social movements, engagement with the larger ‘progressive’ community and the development of an alternative politics that rejects both Harper as well as efforts to create a kinder and gentler capitalism.

The NDP can be an ally in numerous struggles (although it may be the opposite as well in certain instances). We need to develop a way of using some of the space that has been created by the party's new parliamentary role to further our struggles, without relying on their political leadership, orientation or larger ambitions. Using the recent experience of the CUPW and Air Canada strikes, the key is for us to build mass struggles and political campaigns that compel them to defend in the mainstream political institutions that they inhabit.
We can also use our relations with some of the more Left-wing and activist members of their caucus and party to argue for some of our concerns.

None of this necessarily compromises the project of building a socialist political alternative, or a class-oriented movement on which it must be based. That process will go on independent of the NDP as it is a fundamentally different project, and all efforts to work inside have been dismal failures and largely misleading efforts.
We need to introduce environmental sensibilities and a socialist orientation to efforts to rebuild an alternative vision of Canada. Such an eco-socialist approach would argue for transforming production, investment, consumption and how our cities are organized, and how we create jobs. It is interesting how almost all of the commentators on the election and the recent NDP convention dismissed out of hand the potential for an alternative, socialist vision to have any resonance with Canadian working people. Even in the reporting on the debate about dropping references to socialism, there are no programmatic references to any kind of fundamental transformation project.
There is a need to create, build and nurture a Left movement, rooted in the working-class, that challenges the fundamental rules of neoliberalism, and operates well to the left of the NDP and the increasing influence it will surely wield as it looks toward the potential of power.
There is a need to create, build and nurture a Left movement, rooted in the working-class, that challenges the fundamental rules of neoliberalism, and operates well to the left of the NDP and the increasing influence it will surely wield as it looks toward the potential of power. But even posing this as a needed orientation is not without controversy. There are many of us on the socialist left who disagree about where our emphasis and priorities should be.

There are signs of new forms of resistance and organization – both within the labour movement and the social movement left. Federal and provincial workers' unions are developing campaigns against cuts to public spending and privatization. The struggle of CUPW was an important beginning in exposing and opposing Harper's agenda. There are resistance activities here in Ontario: organizations with deep roots in many communities, such as the Ontario Health Coalition is organizing fights against health care cuts; there are new and creative projects in mixed, marginalized and poor neighbourhoods against the cutbacks by the Toronto municipal Ford administration; educational campaigns and new forms of resistance in the labour movement in the Toronto civic workers unions, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 416 and the larger Toronto Labour Council and a number of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) affiliates; efforts to build support and general understanding of the struggle of workers against employer and state attacks at Air Canada and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) (also seeking to deepen and raise the level of the fightback by the unions involved across the country).

The willingness and ability to actually educate and mobilize members around opposition to the neoliberal agenda and the current attacks by governments is extremely uneven inside the labour movement and shouldn't be overestimated. In many ways, building a challenge to the Harper agenda and its provincial counterparts will require a wholesale transformation of the internal political cultures of the unions involved.

There are, of course, Left political movements with fundamentally different visions and projects (even though they often work with components of and under the larger umbrella of the constellation of groupings that make up the progressive left). The socialist Left argues for the creation of a working class-based movement to challenge the logic and ultimately the power of the private market system. It is small and exists in the form of organizations with bases in several large cities and is loosely associated. Quebec Solidaire, the Left political party in Quebec, is a larger activist and electoral project that includes many elements of the socialist left, as well as social democrats, within it. Its larger political orientation remains an object of contention and debate, as is its capacity to mix both mass, extra-parliamentary struggle, with electoral activities. There are also anarchist-influenced militant social movement Lefts that are also rooted in different cities across the country, including those with syndicalist tendencies, as well as others rooted in marginalized communities.

In Toronto, the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly (GTWA) includes different components of these anti-capitalist left orientations. Working through individual groups, or as members of initiatives such as the GTWA, the socialist and anti-capitalist left has to consider the ways it wants to engage with and push forward the above initiatives and, in particular, ask ourselves how can we build a larger, class-based political movement, linking an understanding and criticism of the underlying economic and political system, with a call to work toward an alternative. That might include initiatives such as developing new ways of fighting to create jobs, raising issues such as dramatically expanding social service provision, public ownership of the financial sector and demanding that the state take over redundant manufacturing facilities, and use them to produce environmentally sustainable forms of transportation equipment or infrastructure.

There is no movement, party or organization which serves as a reference point to the Left of social democracy – operating both through struggles, but as a political entity. This needs to change.

Herman Rosenfeld teaches Labour Studies at McMaster University.

No comments:

Post a Comment