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At a crossroads: Will it be Mulcair or the Maple Spring?

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Among other things, it was a great piece of timing by Quebec's students. Yesterday, on the eve of the convention where a new leader of Canada's Official Opposition will be selected, they poured into the streets of Montreal in huge numbers.

Most estimates put the crowd somewhere upwards of 200,000, at least the largest mass protest in the country since Montreal's 2003 mobilizations against the Iraq War.

Back then, the NDP was also in the midst of a leadership race. At the time, frontrunner Jack Layton used the all candidates debates and other television appearances to urge people to join the anti-war movement in the streets. With this, Jack was putting into action the hopes of the New Politics Initiative (NPI), which sought to reimagine the NDP as a party closely linked to social movements. Of course, the NPI had been defeated at a convention a couple of years earlier, and during Layton's tenure that perspective was gradually but steadily de-emphasized.

Despite this disappointing trajectory, I believe that part of the reason for the widespread public grieving that followed Layton’s death was the sense that he was an authentic product of activist campaigns and movements, especially in the City of Toronto. Jack was someone you saw at a protest, or at a tent city, or just out and about on his bike. He came from the left; for him, Toronto's social movements were formative, and they remained part of his essence however much he cooled to them as he embraced parliamentary tactics and the Ottawa electoral machine.

In stark contrast, this year's presumed frontrunner Thomas Mulcair has few if any connections to anything like grassroots activism -- other than as an adversary to movements for social justice. Mulcair has maintained a near total silence on the massive student movement that is shaking up Quebec politics and, arguably, providing the most substantial challenge to neo-liberalism anywhere on the continent.

Mulcair's silence on the student strike is no surprise. After all, just a few short years ago he was a cabinet minister in the same Charest Liberal government. When students rebelled and pushed back against Charest's attacks in 2005, Mulcair toed the government line. In fact, close observers recall that Mulcair, during his years in the provincial cabinet, did not object to the rightward transformation of the Quebec Liberals.

This very recent history lends credence to the fears that a Mulcair-led NDP would become a different and worse party. To state this is not to "be negative" or to deny that the NDP has for some time campaigned on a tepid version of social democracy; it is, rather, only to state the obvious. During this campaign Mulcair has made no secret of his desire to "modernize" the party. As anyone who has ever listened to or read Tony Blair knows, the mantra of modernization is code for denuding social democracy of its remaining features that threaten establishment interests.

The federal NDP still, at some level, threatens or at least annoys this country's ruling class. Nobody saw last year's Orange Wave coming, and it certainly irritated the punditocracy. Although Layton's NDP was campaigning on an extremely limited program of reforms, the very fact that voters were abandoning one of the country's historic establishment parties unnerved Canada's 1 per cent.

Following the NDP's rise and Jack Layton's tragic, untimely death, the establishment worked to stabilize their hegemony. Commentators who had never predicted anything like the NDP surge in Quebec (yes, I'm thinking of uber-cynic Chantal Hébert) quickly set about asserting that this was just a one-time anomaly that had died with Layton. To help fulfill their prophesy, they disparaged interim leader Nycole Turmel. This doom and gloom line proved largely false, as NDP poll numbers remained pretty steady. So now pundits like Hébert have switched from negative predictions to ominous injunctions: the NDP must select Mulcair as their new leader or they will lose Quebec forever, etc…

It's a familiar script for the powers-that-be in dealing with ascendant third parties or reform movements: if you can't beat them, get them to join you. And judging by the number of prominent New Democrats who have thrown in with Mulcair, this strategy just might work.

The main arguments given by Mulcair's supporters are not really political per se. Faced with evidence of his backing by major Bay Street executives, or questions about his well-known one-sided support for Israel in the Middle East, a typical response is something along the lines of "yes, but he's the best suited to take on and beat Harper."

I would argue that this facile comeback both misses the point of politics and misunderstands the political moment.

Politics -- or at least progressive, left politics -- should be about taking and transforming power in order to make positive change. It should not be about merely taking power to administer an unjust economic system. Blairism was all about evacuating British social democracy of any political content that would seek to reverse the legacy of Thatcherism.

It's not enough just to defeat Harper in the next election if it's only to administer Harperism and to manage the capitalist crisis. The road is longer, and the job much harder, but nevertheless the whole point of left politics in Canada must be to figure out a way to defeat and reverse Harper's agenda.

This is no time for the NDP to elect its Tony Blair, a leader who will get the party to 24 Sussex Drive only to consolidate Harper's (and Martin/Chretien/Mulroney's) regressive neo-liberal changes.

Everywhere in the world, there are better examples for the left to follow. In France, the Socialist Party, facing pressure from its left, is making a new 75 per cent income tax bracket for the rich a centerpiece of its election campaign against Sarkozy. Throughout Latin America, left and centre-left governments (though still full of contradictions and disappointments) have nationalized key industries, lifted millions from poverty through redistributive measures, ditched corporate "free trade" deals in favour of regional integration and fair trade, and experimented with democratic and constitutional changes that encourage participation and defend indigenous rights.

Most importantly, the mass popular movements of the past year show us the means to get out of the neo-liberal impasse, towards overcoming the ecological, social and economic crises convulsing our world. The Arab Spring. Spain's Indignados. Occupy Wall Street. The Greek people's stubborn and courageous resistance to austerity. And, here at home, the magnificent Quebec student uprising, which is now being dubbed le printemps érable (the Maple Spring).

The candidates with the best chance of defeating Mulcair this weekend have shown signs that they understand which way the winds of change are blowing. Brian Topp, virtually alone, has made an increase in taxes on the rich and a more general emphasis on tax fairness a centrepiece of his campaign. Peggy Nash has made repeated references to the Occupy movement and to working with social movements in general, and her personal history lends sincerity to these words of solidarity.

Some friends on the left have expressed variations on the sentiment that a Mulcair win would actually be the best result, because it could open up space for a new political formation on the left, or dispel "illusions" in the NDP's version of social democracy. This strikes me at best as too academic and, at worst, as fatalism or even nihilism. The record of hoping things get worse so that they can then get better is pretty dismal.

I think it's more sober to say that the outcome of this weekend's convention does matter. Will the new leader's acceptance speech salute le printemps érable and the Quebec students, or signal hostility through silence and omission?

The outcome will have an impact on how we go about our work. But no matter who wins, the left in English Canada will need to figure out ways to connect up with and emulate the Maple Spring. This is our most important task, whether the new leader of the NDP is with us or against us.

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