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From Orange Wave to Third Way: Speech delivered at Marxism 2013 in Toronto

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As a populist party that has seemingly abandoned its base in the drive for Liberal and even Conservative supporters, it’s hard to imagine the NDP fulfilling the roles that most activists or progressives believe it should fulfill.

I was never an activist for the NDP but I learned a lot working from the outside of the party through the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, where we hoped our policies would be adopted to become policies of the provincial party. Because, as the left-wing party that is meant to amplify the demands of social movements, we believed that that was the role that they held: in addition to their own policy-making structures, the NDP should be taking its lead from the activists on the ground and in those social movements. These groups have the research. We had the expertise.

But, of course, this rarely happens. Instead, social movements, including the labour movement, have to operate more like lobby organizations, even if the majority of the leadership from these movements are members of the party. It is in these interactions that it’s clear that the NDP has broken the drug dealers’ cardinal rule: it has gotten high on its own supply.

Yes, the NDP, both federally and provincially, has forgotten that it is not actually the Liberal or the Conservative parties and must fight its brand of politics out on a different terrain. This omission will prove to be the party’s most critical error. Like a game of chess played against a master, where you move every one of your pieces to mirror your opponent, you’ll do well enough until you eventually lose.

When I moved to Québec City, possibly the only city in Canada where I had zero political contacts, we literally stumbled across the office for QS at the start of the Québec election. The language barrier had made me more shy than I had been my entire life. Luckily, I was half drunk and I walked into that office (my partner walking into a window) and became involved immediately.

QS is new. As I wasn’t around for the glory days of the CCF, it’s hard to compare the two parties as they’re at different stages of their existences. But my involvement in QS has made a few things extremely obvious. First, that for a party to be able to call itself progressive and not get laughed at, it needs to be rooted in social movements. This remains a struggle for QS and much of our political organizing starts with the question of who are the groups leading the charge and how can we help them? Second, keeping any party firmly on the left takes a core group of people who will unwaveringly challenge the party and its members to reject electoralism, even when a motion comes forward with the laudable goal of increasing our number of seats to 5. Third, and on the left this is sometimes ignored or not held up as being important, the leadership of QS, that is the spokespeople, are charismatic, intelligent and popular. Both the former leaders and now the new one have histories in community organizing that helped to produce impressive faces for our party: so impressive that one of our spokespeople was voted the most popular politician in 2011 and the other was voted most popular in 2012.

I could talk more about QS. I could also go on with identifying all the problems that I can see with the NDP and its provincial wings. But I only have 15 minutes and I think what’s important here is to have a discussion on what’s possible, what’s desirable and what is to be done with the NDP?

To start, socialists need to ask ourselves is the NDP even capable of shifting far enough to the left to be able to undertake the changes that we believe are necessary to manage (not even stop) the ravaging effects of capitalism?

If the answer to this question is yes, then activists must look toward working through the party apparatus to try and force change from the inside. I have no doubt that the current strategic decisions, the drift to the right and the abandonment of the party’s core issues to offer Geico-stolen promises off car insurance are the result of the collective organizing capacity of folks in the party. Change the people, it’s undoubtedly possible to change some of the policies.

And, if we agree that the current democratic model is itself the problem, then we might be satisfied with making such minor changes, while we push for more radical changes outside of the party. Indeed, I have many, many friends who have chosen this route.

However, I cannot ignore the conservatizing influence that this has on activists. While what I have just stated is true, that moderate change is likely possible with a regime change of the players, it is also more true that in the relationship between who changes, the party will undoubtedly change less than the person being involved. To pretend this isn’t the case is total naïveté. While I know that some people are comfortable with this trade off, it’s important to be honest that it is a trade off and, in my opinion, just isn’t worth the time and effort that has to be put in.

This leaves us with the only other answer to my question: no, it’s not possible for the NDP to shift enough to the left to undertake the changes that we believe are necessary to manage the ravaging effects of capitalism.

Unfortunately, in a government role, the NDP has proven that this answer is most likely to be the correct one. The NDP has never delivered what it claims to be able to deliver. Instead, NDP governments have broadly inflicted neo liberal policies while offering some modest social reforms, in some cases.

This reality means that the option that will likely have the greatest impact for socialists is to abandon the NDP altogether and co-ordinate a process of broad and fundamental regroupment. If we believe that socialists should be fighting it out in mainstream electoral politics, then regroupment is our only hope. Whether this takes the form of a new political party or just a provincial or federal network that’s main job is to force change on the NDP from the outside is determined by several realities that we must face.

First, regroupment cannot be reorganization. It must include groups who have not normally worked together, organize on new terms and around the core of what the NDP should be fighting for.

Regroupment also has to include labour. Despite the problems that exist within the Labour movement, unions are still comprised of people and offer Canadians the best vehicle to organize broadly. Labour activists must make links with social movement activists and find ways to advance their politics within their communities and externally. This means that labour bureaucracy, the ones who have decided that the NDP should be elected at all costs, has to be challenged. It is not good enough to simply want to keep Hudak out or to kick out Wall: people need to be organized around issues, not simple against people.

Finally, and obviously, regroupment needs to be focused on a core set of demands that will once again inspire people to be involved in politics.  Maybe this should start with demanding a corruption inquiry at the federal level, radical but entirely possible education and health reforms at the provincial levels and transportation and energy alternatives. If we cannot expect the NDP to lead on these issues, activists themselves must build networks centred on these values to the force the party into action.

Or, if action isn’t possible, to lay the groundwork to start a new political party.

QS is remarkable for many reasons, but it’s most important for activists outside of Québec because it shows what’s possible. With just two deputies, QS has been able to respond, almost daily, to the debates that are happening at the Ass Nat. And, not just respond but offer criticism and alternatives. They drew on the strength of the student movement and ensured that the discussion about free education wasn’t relegated to just student demands, but in fact, the desires of progressive Québecers who were both inspired and who stood in solidarity with the student strikers.

The only way to test the NDP is to provide strong, parallel movements than can challenge the austerity policies of the federal and provincial governments. If our movements are strong enough, broad-based and not limited to regions, we can actually put the NDP to a test: either the party will join our movements, take its lead from our demands and advance our demands, or they’ll pull a Party Québecois: get elected on a left-of-centre platform, made possible by the activist work undertaken in Québec, and then betray Québecers by backing down on nearly every promise.

It will be at that moment that the next steps become clear: either they’re with social movements or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, the organzing that had been done up until that point will form the perfect basis for a new party.

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