Murray Dobbin
Progressives' post-election task: Organizing for change

| October 16, 2015
Photo: Sally T. Buck/flickr

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Stephen Harper, the most anti-democratic prime minister in our history, may have done democracy a favour by mandating the longest election in Canadian history. One-month elections only exposed the idiocy of our so-called democratic system for a relatively short period. It didn't last long enough for us to really sicken of the spectacle, and then we focused on the lies, manipulations and corporate sell-outs of those newly elected to run the country. But this time we have experienced what amounts to full-immersion baptism in our truly absurd and pathologically unresponsive system of "representative democracy."

Of course part of that absurdity is rooted in the anachronistic first-past-the-post system, which regularly produces executive dictatorships with less than 40 per cent of the vote (and just 24 per cent of the eligible voters). It finally seems that we might now get a change to some form of proportional representation for the next election. But promises (especially Liberal ones) are as easy to break as they are to make and a post-election mobilization of the disillusioned multitudes will be required to seal the deal.

But at the risk of being cynical about such a change before it even happens let's not be too sanguine about the overall impact of a change in the voting system. Even the best election rules are not going to solve our democratic deficit unless we dramatically increase the level of civic literacy and citizen engagement. 

The desperate need for proportional representation has to some extent distracted us from just how inadequate and unresponsive the rest of the system is. It has taken the likes of Harper to actually push the other parties to suddenly call for change when they have for decades supported first-past-the-post because executive dictatorship is an attractive form of governance to those who run political parties. 

Given this history, it is hard not to conclude that political parties themselves are the biggest barrier to genuine, participatory democracy. Parties have, with rare and short-lived exceptions, always acted in their own interests whenever faced with a choice between that goal and working for the country. That has always been true of the two Bay Street parties and now that the NDP has drunk the we-can-win Kool-aid, they join their ranks, adopting a strategy that replaces principle with opportunism.

There is still a chance however slim that the party can recover from its new and catastrophic direction established by Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair. That new direction entailed accepting the rules made by the big business parties -- rules that suited their style, their access to money, their privileged position in the media, their control of the bureaucracy and their deep connections to elite influence and power. It is painfully obvious that the more the NDP adopts the machine politics invented by and for the Liberals and Conservatives the more it becomes like them in terms of policies, ethics and political strategy.

Changing the rules of the game

If the current election-machine NDP wants to win an election it will have to do so as a liberal party that has reached an accommodation with globalization and finance capital. Little by little the adoption of Liberal and Conservative political strategy has corrupted what remained of a social democratic party. By the time they win an election on this basis they will be completely indistinguishable from the Liberals they are determined to replace.

But if they want to win as a renewed and principled social democratic party then they can only do so through a commitment to a long-term redefinition of the rules of the political game, rules designed to benefit a genuinely democratic party that engages the population in a program of civic literacy -- equipping people to deal with modern communications techniques that are used to manipulate them. By doing so and actually mobilizing the tremendous appetite for progressive change in a majority of the population, the NDP could actually begin to force other parties to play by its rules. When they did that in the 1960s the rewards were considerable and included medicare, still the principle legacy of the progressive Canadian state.

The Liberal/Conservative mode of doing politics doesn't suit a political party that wants to change the political culture. Such a party cannot achieve change unless it becomes an integral part of the community whose values it claims to share. This is why the NDP consistently underestimates the desire for change in its support base and miscalculates its response to the politics of opportunism. If the NDP is confused about whether it’s a party of change or just another competitor on the field, it’s no wonder its potential supporters are confused.

But when it comes to promoting civic literacy and building value-based communities, civil society groups are not much better. To date, they focus on two political themes but pay scant attention to the question that ultimately matters most. The first focus (this is the one I am most guilty of) is to pile up the list of political crimes and misdemeanors of the Harper government. Close to a dozen books have now raised the alarm. The trouble is the same alarm has been ringing for 10 years. Harper is a still a threat.

The second theme -- and at least this breaks from the left's almost pathological attachment to the negative -- is to describe what is possible. Imagine (as the Leap Manifesto has done) what we could have in this country if we hadn't experienced 15 years of massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations -- somewhere between $40 and 60 billion a year has been pilfered from our collective, community coffers to feed the greed of the powerful.

But listing all the good things we "could" have "if only" things weren't as they are is just an exercise. It isn't politics, it isn't organizing and it doesn't address the reality that prevents people from going into the street and demanding the change we claim is doable: they see nothing on the horizon that suggests any of these things that they want will ever come to pass.

The really important theme that the left devotes virtually no time to intellectually or strategically is the question of agency. That is the term given by political theorists to the process by which change is actually made: if you truly want change, who will be the agent of that change? In other words, it is not so much what is to be done (make your own list) but what model of organizing can begin to accomplish it. Change doesn't just happen because millions of people say they want it. Post-election, this will be the critical task of all progressives -- take what we know is possible and use it to rebuild community, reclaim the commons and build a broad-based social movement with the power to challenge the status quo.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee.

Photo: Sally T. Buck/flickr

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