By John W. Warnock
Act Up in Sask.
25 September 2011
In a recent piece in Prairie Dog/Planet S, John Conway argued that the NDP still has a chance to remain as the official opposition and perhaps build an alliance with the Liberals to defeat Stephen Harper in the next election. But to do so the party must allow the Quebec wing to play a leading role in this process. This will not be easy, given the historic hostility of the NDP to the Quebec sovereignty movement.
Murray Cooke has also concluded that the main impact that Layton had on the NDP was moving it more to the centre of Canadian politics, embracing the political agenda of neoliberalism. In this respect Layton followed the pattern set by the social democratic and labour parties in all of the advanced capitalist states. Layton’s political goal, of course, was to replace the Liberal Party as the formal opposition to Harper’s right wing government. As both Conway and Cooke point out, on the major issues of the day, the NDP platform in the May 2011 election was hardly different from that of the Liberal Party.
Has the NDP reached its peak?
So what happens now? There is a good chance that the NDP has reached its peak and will now begin to fall apart. That is what happened in 1989 after Ed Broadbent stepped down as leader. So far the only candidates for leadership of the NDP with any public profile are Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair. People in Saskatchewan know Brian Topp, a key party insider and adviser to Premier Roy Romanow in the 1990s.
That was when the Saskatchewan NDP government took the party far to the political right, repudiating almost all of the progressive policies of the NDP government of Allan Blakeney (1971-82). The logic of choosing Topp as the new leader would suggest a merger with the Liberal Party. Topp, seen widely as the establishment candidate, has never been elected to any public office.
The other major contender is Thomas Mulcair, a Deputy Leader of the party in the House of Commons. He is from the upper class riding of Outremount in Montreal and was formerly Minister of the Environment in a Quebec Liberal government. He is certainly not in the left wing of the party. But Mulcair is seen as a key figure in the astonishing NDP victory in Quebec last May.
The Quebec-Rest of Canada Divide
So the NDP now faces a no win political situation. The 59 members of the NDP caucus from Quebec represent the majority of the 102 NDP Members of Parliament. But as the press notes, the NDP has only 1900 actual members in that province. British Columbia has 30,000. The NDP has chosen a One-Member-One-Vote protocol for selecting a new leaders. Mulcair has pointed out that this system results in a gross discrimination against Quebec and its key role in the party. The party leadership rejected his call for a fall 2012 leadership convention, which would have allowed the Quebec wing of the party time to recruit new members. Brian Topp opposed Mulcair’s proposals. His supporters are already publicly stating that Mulcair, as leader of the NDP, will not be able to win additional seats for the party in English Canada.
Is there a progressive alternative?
Is there no other choice? More than anything else, the 60% majority of Canadians want to see Stephen Harper back in the opposition. They appear to be open to a political alliance with the Liberals or even a merger of the two parties, if necessary.
There was, and perhaps still is, another alternative. But it would mean turning back from the neoliberal path chosen by Jack Layton and the provincial NDP parties. Instead of running on personalities, and who speaks the best French, the progressive wing of the NDP could come together and run on an actual social democratic and peace platform. That would unite the party between Quebec and English Canada. This would require a grass roots movement similar to the New Politics Initiative that developed in 2001.
Many party members and others were hoping that Libby Davies, currently a Deputy Leader of the NDP caucus, would take the initiative to form such a movement. However, she has announced that she will not seek the party’s leadership. The excuse she gave was that she believes that the NDP leader should be bilingual and that she does not speak French. But now is the perfect time for the NDP to open the door to a new approach to the Quebec issue. Davies, should she reconsider her position, could choose a partner from the Quebec caucus to represent her in that province. What’s wrong with that? Even the NDP now recognizes that Canada has two founding nations.
A key part of such an alternative should be a proposal to form an alliance with the Liberal Party in the next election and to run only one candidate in many ridings, especially those in Ontario. This would allow the 60% majority of voters to the left of the Harperites to form a government. I would argue that support for this alternative strategy should also include a pledge to introduce proportional representation when a new government is formed in 2015.
John W. Warnock is retired from teaching sociology and political economy at the University of Regina. He is a long time political activist and a former member of the NDP and the New Green Alliance.