Beyond Politics? The origins (and future) of the NDP's Orange Wave

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Has the Orange Wave collapsed? Are we now in thrall of Trudeaumania 2.0? Can the Harper Conservatives be defeated in 2015? After the NDP's recent implosion in Nova Scotia, disappointment in British Columbia, and stalled hopes in federal byelections, these are the questions many progressives are posing.

To those seeking perspective, Brad Lavigne offers a page-turning account of the federal NDP's rise to prominence in Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP and documents the party's transformations en route to becoming Canada's Official Opposition. 

The book affirms those who think the federal NDP should follow its provincial cousins and urgently seek the mantle of government. Related strategies typically involve "professionalizing" the party apparatus, appearing "reasonable," "practical," or "credible" in the mainstream media and appealing to an amorphous "middle class." 

Lavigne's credentials are impressive. He was a top advisor to Jack Layton during his leadership bid in 2003, and crucial strategist in the federal NDP's historic breakthrough in 2011.

But years before that, I knew Lavigne from his work in the student movement in the mid to late 1990s. Given his work there, I wasn’t surprised to learn -- often from disgruntled union leaders -- that youthful energy was transforming the NDP’s federal structure. Building the Orange Wave documents that process in close detail. 

Unfortunately absent from the book is a serious assessment of the NDP's relationship with established and emerging social movements. Historically, many -- including Layton himself -- have urged the NDP to build strong movement ties, even on controversial issues, and seek elected office with that strength intact. The New Politics Initiative (NPI), the last broad appeal for this goal, was supported by 40 per cent of the federal NDP's convention delegates in 2001.

Layton's NDP: A Shift 'Beyond Politics?'

For Lavigne, Jack Layton’s tenure as federal NDP leader was an attempt to transcend internal political divisions. This is a key point Lavigne makes in outlining the strategy guiding Layton's federal leadership bid in 2003:

Historically, NDP leadership contests have been proxies for ideological debates within the party. The 1971 Waffle initiative, the Audrey McLaughlin versus Dave Barrett debate in 1989 and the Alexa McDonough versus Svend Robinson faceoff in 1995 were all battles over which direction, philosophically, the party should take. 

This race would be different, we agreed. With the party struggling for relevancy, it didn’t make sense to frame a leadership race around where candidates stood on the political spectrum. Jack’s progressive credentials were well known in Toronto, and during the 2001 party convention, he’d shown NPI supporters...that he embraced the issues that mattered to them... 

...As we crafted Jack’s campaign message, we decided he would speak to a much more pressing need, built around our desired ballot box question: Which candidate can bring attention to the issues that progressives care about?  

And so, in 2003, Layton’s team went "beyond politics" by doing two things: first, by claiming Layton, an accomplished city councillor widely-known elsewhere, could unite the party, and second, by emphasizing Layton’s respect for, and contributions to, social movements. 

Layton would win the leadership despite receiving the support of only two NDP MPs, and announce solid opposition to a looming war in Iraq. He was hailed as the "NPI candidate" who would ensure the party remained true to its activist roots. He stood triumphant beside NDP stalwarts -- like Ed Broadbent -- and pledged to change the Canadian electoral landscape. 

It was, without question, an artful campaign guided by cunning strategy. And yet, the choice to move "beyond politics" would soon clash with Layton’s own judgement. At times, as Lavigne notes, the activist Layton infuriated the party’s moderate voices. 

In 2004, when Layton said the federal Clarity Act should to be scrapped, some caucus colleagues waged an open revolt in the press. In 2005, when he blamed Prime Minister Paul Martin for federal cutbacks that led to the deaths of homeless people, he was chastised once again. In 2006, when he called for Canadian troops to leave a failed war in Afghanistan, he faced the wrath of a truculent media and grumblings from party critics. 

In each of these cases, Lavigne describes how Layton’s advisors gradually convinced him to support moderate positions and seek consensus with disgruntled colleagues. He was urged to listen to those with "governing experience" and avoid "divisive" positions. He was trundled to professional media consultants who shaped his populist messages. 

Svend Robinson, Layton’s long-time ally, was denied his request to continue as the NDP’s Foreign Affairs Critic given his "vocal position on the Middle East" -- words Lavigne uses, we presume, to disparage Robinson’s outspoken support for Palestinian human rights.  

Narrowcasting: The shift to the middle

As this process unfolded, the federal NDP encroached on the Liberal Party’s political space. Layton was no working class hero, but a dignified "fighter for families." The party became less about big ideas, and opted for centrist platforms to mirror issues set by larger parties. 

In Lavigne’s strategic vision, this meant "narrowcasting our commitment to reach our target voters and not give our opponents much to shoot at." He recalls a moment when he clarified this approach during internal policy discussions: 

"What’s our response to a Conservative corporate tax cut?," I’d put to our talented policy team in a bear-pit session during platform development.   

"A corporate tax increase?" answered one. 

"No," I responded. "Our response to a corporate tax cut is a small business tax cut." 

"What’s our response to the Conservatives’ purchase of a multi-billion-dollar F-35 fighter jets for the air force?" I asked them. 

"Canceling the contract and opening it up for tender?" someone suggested. 

"Wrong. Our response is to invest in replacing our aging naval fleet," I said. "Their military priority is planes; ours is ships," I said. 

This, as some have said, wasn’t the NDP our grandparents built. Gone were any pretensions to socialism in the party’s constitution. Absent were genuine efforts to row against the tide of established thinking.

Present instead was "social-ism," an approach Tony Blair championed (using the ideas of Anthony Giddens) to move the British Labour Party "beyond left and right." Layton’s adoption of this mantra involved repeated claims to make "Parliament work for people." 

Lavigne claims the party did this at several crucial moments: during budget wrangles with Liberals in 2004 and 2005, and the parliamentary dispute of 2008-2009. I’ll leave it to others to debate the merits of those claims.

My issue is with Lavigne's view that the NDP’s rise came from a shift "beyond politics," and embrace of populist messaging, neither of which rings true for me. Lavigne’s focus on high-level strategy undermines his assessment of Layton’s strengths, and why many activists and movements held him in such high regard. 

For me, the Orange Wave started with Layton’s courting of Quebec voters and reputation as an activist politician.

Unlike most NDP leaders, he didn’t antagonize Quebec on constitutional questions, was proudly green and opposed to war in Afghanistan. This made the NDP, as Lavigne explains, a magnet for public animosity in Quebec against Harper, and a rallying point for those seeking to oust him.

Layton’s public battle with cancer also drew wide sympathy and support, creating the persona of le bon Jack.

Sadly, the party’s current leadership  -- in Ottawa and elsewhere -- is charting a different course, one often in tension with social movements who admired Layton.

Adrift without a movement rudder: Cautionary NDP tales 

We saw this happen recently in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, where milquetoast NDP election campaigns fell short. Vague gestures were made at opposing tar sands pipelines, or improving the lives of "working families."

But these parties didn't seek out grassroots movement activists, serious movement alliances or have Layton's credentials to supercharge a "narrowcasted" campaign. That meant their populist gambit, this time, fell short. 

Even worse, in several instances, today's NDP seems hostile when movements challenge the boundaries of established politics. Many raised this point when Thomas Mulcair, the current federal leader, was silent during the Quebec student uprising of 2012, and upstart of the Idle No More movement that came after. 

But the worst example now lies in New Brunswick, where Dominic Cardy, the provincial NDP leader, is waging an open feud with Mi’kmaq warriors from Elsipogtog First Nation. The contentious issue is hyrdaulic fracturing -- fracking -- a drilling practice proven unsafe and recently banned in Newfoundland and Labrador.

UNIFOR, the newest union on our political landscape, has also called for a moratorium on fracking given concerns for the environment and human health. For similar reasons, the Elsipogtog folks have refused to allow exploratory fracking in their ancestral lands, and drawn a line in the sand reminiscent of Idle No More’s example. 

In response Cardy, a close Mulcair ally, has urged blockades* to come down, mouthing thin platitudes about the "rule of law." He laments violence, and accepts the elite narrative in this case, where people were set upon by commandos and attack dogs.

The situation there continues to worsen

What had the federal NDP achieved and where is it going?

Without question, the federal NDP Lavigne describes has undergone a profound shift in orientation. It has built an infrastructure capable of competing in mainstream politics and delivering on Layton’s pledge to reshape our electoral landscape. 

But the ideas informing the NDP, it appears, are confined to strategic discussions, where experts craft replies to mainstream narratives. A similar trend repeats itself at the helm of many established social justice organizations.

And that’s the real problem. There’s a real difference between strategy to seek a political vision, and strategy as a political vision -- we need more of the former and less of the latter.

As Lavigne notes, the Conservatives have built a solid infrastructure to communicate their ideas and mobilize grassroots supporters. A recent study insists that the left needs a similar infrastructure to challenge corporate power and its dissemination of fend-for-yourself, neoliberal ideas. Strategists like Lavigne have an important role to play in that process, but not without the energy, and commitment, of social movements. 

And for readers less enamoured with such things, Lavigne’s book is still worth reading, if only to debate the prospects for the NDP’s Orange Wave.

Let’s hope the party faithful demands a re-centering of movement values in the NDP’s future decisions. That, for me, is the legacy Layton would have wanted.

Joel Harden teaches in Carleton University’s Department of Law and Legal Studies, and is an Advisory Board member for Our Times MagazineHe is also active in Making Waves, a grassroots process calling for social change and system change. His recently-released book on grassroots activism, Quiet No More,was published by Lorimer.

*This piece has been edited because of quoted words, quoted for emphasis, possibly being mis-construed for quotes by Dominic Cardy. rabble apologizes for this copyediting oversight.

Joel Harden, author of Beyond Politics: The Origins and Future of the NDP's Orange Wave, would like to note two inaccuracies in his book review.
At no point has Mr. Dominic Cardy made reference to "native blockades" or "native violence." Readers must not attribute these words to Mr. Cardy, who has never used them. Harden was citing those terms to reflect debate in the public arena, but should have used single quotation marks for this purpose. The typographical error in using double-quotation marks here was a mistake, for which he apologizes. 

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