From the moment I first arrived in Canada in 1954, I have had a rather equivocal attitude towards, and relationship with, the New Democratic Party (at that time called the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.)
I have, of course, supported it, since you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that the Party’s very existence is has been a bulwark against the Americanization of Canada, if only because the NDP has kept alive in the Canadian political discourse ideas of social democracy that are held to be anathema in the United States.
I have joined it, from time to time, quit it just as often, and have generally found that it suffers from the dilemma of social democratic parties in other countries in that by the time it gets to power, if it ever does, it proves to have been hardly worth the effort, so many compromises have they desperately made in the struggle to get elected.
I have joined and quit, at various times, the Labour parties in New Zealand and Britain, and my doubts were precisely described recently by Gary Younge, of The Guardian. He was critical of those who keep talking about Jeremy Corbyn personally, as if, could they only get rid of the king all would be well, and then “Labour would resuscitate its programme of milquetoast managerialism, whereby it was indifferent to its members, ambivalent about austerity at home, and hawkish about wars abroad.”
In Canada, the situation has been even worse: the NDP has had this tendency to trust leaders whose hearts are obviously elsewhere. The only Canadian election that my side ever won was in Ontario, and the leader Bob Rae messed up so totally that he eventually joined the Liberal party, where he should have been from the first, and where he has since become a sort of grandee-manqué, undertaking heavily significant foreign missions of one kind or another. More recently, because of Tom Mulcair’s rhetorical brilliance in the House of Commons, the party ignored his Liberal Party past, only to find that he led them into the last election with a Liberal party program even further to the right than the Liberal’s own platform, having meantime stage-managed the disappearance of the dreaded word “socialism” from the party’s constitution. Needless to say, although they had been the Official Opposition, they came in third, shattering all hopes of an electoral breakthrough.
Even more alarming has been the NDP tendency towards dynastic politics. Before the recent leadership campaign I was dismayed to learn from one young enthusiast of the extreme left that their candidate for leader was Avi Lewis, the son of one-time Ontario provincial leader Stephen Lewis, and grandson of the second federal NDP leader David Lewis. Both of these forebears were men of brilliant talents, but the prospect of the party being seized by a family dynasty is one that caused the heart of a progressive --- certainly of this one, at any rate --- to seize up. In the event, wiser heads prevailed, for that would have been something new even in the checkered history of social democracy in the English-speaking world.
Avi Lewis, a documentary film-maker, and his wife Naomi Klein were the brains behind the so-called Leap Manifesto, a bold outline of the way they believe Canada should develop. They presented their Manifesto at an NDP conference two years ago, and were shrugged off: as I implied above, the NDP is a tightly-controlled party with a tendency towards “milquetoast managerialism,” to quote Gary Younge again. But Ms. Klein has won a global audience with her superb books, especially The Shock Doctrine in which she relentlessly exposes the capitalist method by which corporations and the governments they control seize on any sort of seismic shock --- a hurricane, an earthquake, a failed revolution for example --- to move in, seize control of the tottering infra-structure of a vulnerable country, and impose American-approved measures that leave the local economy helpless before the depredations of big money. Not only did Ms. Klein explain this with persuasive examples, but she established that it was a method that has been dreamed up by the leading economists emanating for the most part from the University of Chicago, whose guru was economist Milton Friedman. (The outstanding example of this method was in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union, the resultant chaos and catastrophic decline of the economy being almost entirely caused by the ministrations of American economists called in to set the country on the path to capitalism.)
So now, with last weekend’s NDP policy convention all set, along come three people purporting to have been key figures in the rise of Bernie Sanders in the U.S and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, to announce that they believe, the Leap Manifesto in hand, that the time is ripe for a renewal of the NDP. My own feeling is that they must be underestimating the grip held on the party by milquetoast managerialism, so, either to prove me right or wrong, I lined up before my TV over the weekend to see which way the Party would jump.
One thing that became immediately clear was that whoever the party grandees are, they have a firm grip on what they are doing. As the resolutions ground on, Saturday morning, time was obviously of the essence. I waited for signs of the Leap Manifesto, but none came. All I could discover were the usual signs that the party was avoiding any confrontation with major issues. Evidently, the biggest issue on the table for the NDP right now is the question of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, over which NDP provincial governments in BC and Alberta are in disagreement. It might be recalled that Justin Trudeau’s support for building the pipeline through Vancouver and allowing Tar Sands bitumen to be exported to the Far East, with all its attendant risks to the glorious B.C. coastline, was the decision that prompted famed environmentalist Bill McKibben to denounce the Canadian Prime Minister and his Environment Minister Catherine McKenna for “stunning hypocrisy”, for talking out of both sides of their mouths, as it were, pretending to be concerned about climate change while approving expansion of the most polluting single source of emissions anywhere in the world. (Their weasel language was even more disgusting, the tar sands emission being referred to by McKenna only as “getting our resources to market.”) Here, surely, is an issue for the NDP, if they are such staunch environmentalists as they have always claimed to be, a perfect opportunity to slam the Prime Minister. But no, here when they have a chance to make a decision, the backroom boys made good and sure that no such motion would ever come to the floor.
Time is always of the essence at these annual meetings, and so it was at this moment. The disposal of resolutions ground on its merry way, until one middle-aged delegate who had obviously learned his politics in the union, stood up and shouted “right to strike, right to strike, how much time do we have and are we going to get to that resolution?” He was told it was fifth on the list, they had half an hour and maybe they would reach it. He retired, and “right to strike” was never heard of again, unless it came up while the convention was off-air, which I don’t believe.
Later in the day there was dissatisfaction expressed at the work of the committee that surveyed the huge list of proposed resolutions and “prioritised” them, that is to say, shuffling off any resolutions that might be embarrassing to the party hierarchy for later (which is to say, no) consideration. This is a well-worn annual-conference technique, of course, but what was interesting were the subjects that were shuffled off-stage. Prominent among them were the huge number of resolutions expressing support for the Palestinian struggle: here, for God’s sake, was an item that deserved the support of the NDP, supporting the struggle of an oppressed people: and yet…. .the grip of the foreign affairs spokeswoman, Helene Laverdiere, a supporter of Jagmeet Singh in the leadership race, appears to be invulnerable: a stout supporter of the entire American foreign affairs package --- on Israel, Venezuela, Ukraine, Syria --- striking positions that are obviously at odds with NDP traditions, if not policies, she apparently was able to ensure that no support for the Palestinians would be expressed at this policy convention.
The following day, as anguished delegates tried to force through a new method of prioritizing resolutions, came a short but impassioned intervention from Niki Ashton, who ran so good a race for the leadership but fell before the better organizing talents of Jagmeet Singh: If we do not change this system we will be confronted, she said, with repeating “the debacle we saw yesterday when 37 party resolutions wanting justice for the Palestinians were ignored, and the only one opposing that managed to get the issue sidelined.”
Talk about milquetoast managerialism: it’s not just a good phrase from an English journalist, it is something that was demonstrated on Saturday to be alive and well in the NDP in Canada.
I’m not sure if I am a member at the moment. If not, I won’t be hurrying to rejoin, rather awaiting some sign that the party has broken with the neoliberal economic and social agenda that is the dominant narrative of Western world politics, and opposition to which was the motive for its original formation by the union movement.
As for the Leap Manifesto: I can understand why it might have appealed to Becky Bond, the Sanders supporter, who is anxious to pretend that Sanders has started a revolution, rather than just hearkened back to the New Deal. As I read it, it is nothing more than a radical wish-list of things we would like Canadian governments to do to meet the immense challenges that lie ahead in face of the development of oligarchy, the onrush of technology, and the degeneration of our life-support systems here on earth.
Of more relevance to the Leapers in Canada might be the support of Adam King and Emma Rees, the two activists from Britain’s Momentum movement, an extra-Parliamentary movement of support that stands behind Corbyn and the Labour left. The NDP has its Socialist Caucus (ndpsocialists.ca), which, to judge by the weekend convention, could use some advice from Momentum as to how to pressure the Party to restore its basic purpose in life.