Election 2011: The Conservative honeymoon, if there is one, will be short

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The results of the 2011 federal election have sparked a flurry of responses, most of them marked by mixed emotion. Many of us on the left are celebrating the dramatic surge of the NDP and its historic win of 102 seats. But the NDP's success has been tempered, even overshadowed, by the election of a majority Conservative government.

So what does that mean for the left? Are we doomed for the next four years?

Far from it.

In fact, the prospects for the left are quite good, although not without many dangers. But it all depends on what we do in the days and weeks ahead. If the left can tap into the progressive sentiment that propelled the NDP from fourth place to Official Opposition, it has the potential to build deeper, stronger and more confident movements -- even under a Harper majority.

But first: let's look at the Tories' victory

Conservative support increased by less than two per cent -- about 633,000 votes, most of which came from the Liberals. Over 60 per cent of the popular vote was against the Tories. Voter turnout was only slightly up at 61.4 per cent. This means that Harper won a majority with just 24 per cent of the electorate -- hardly a shift to the right.

Harper's success comes at the expense of the Liberals, who have lost roughly 850,000 votes in each of the last two elections. Their collapse is part of a broader trend. In the last five elections, the total combined vote for the Conservatives and the Liberals -- both corporate parties -- has steadily declined: from 78 per cent in 2000 to 58.5 per cent in 2011, a drop of almost 30 points.

These figures contradict the mainstream consensus that Canadians have become "more conservative." The opposite is true: more people than ever are rejecting the corporate parties.

That represents an opening for the left, not a setback -- despite the outcome of the election. Without a doubt, the Conservatives will govern as if they have a massive mandate, but their majority is not without contradictions. The left can take advantage of these.

For example, the incoming government is not a new one: just a slightly bigger version of the last one. That means it won't escape the scandals of the previous Parliament, the way a freshly elected government would. As more information becomes available, as it surely will after the election, Harper will face criticism over the Auditor General's report on G-20 spending, declassified documents on Afghan detainees, funding cuts to Planned Parenthood and the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF's case is still before the Federal Court) and skyrocketing costs for new F-35 fighter jets -- to name just a few.

It's true that the Conservatives have so far managed to deflect much of this criticism, but they no longer have the opposition parties and the minority Parliament to blame. As a majority government, the Tories should now prepare for the criticism to stick. The honeymoon, if there is one, will be short.

Who's on what base?

The Conservatives face another problem: holding on to their broader -- and less conservative -- base of support. Harper tried to pass himself off as a moderate throughout the election, in order to attract Liberal voters. He also generally succeeded in keeping a lid on the most extreme social conservatives in caucus during the last Parliament. They won't be as willing to stay silent, now that Harper has a majority. In fact, they're already telling him it's payback time.

As anti-choice and anti-gay Tories become more vocal, Harper's recently enlarged base will likely split again.

The timing of Harper's victory poses another problem for the Conservatives. The Canadian economy is now, not surprisingly, beginning to sputter. Canada's GDP contracted by 0.2 per cent in February, after a measly 0.5 per cent expansion in January. The American and European economies are in worse shape, threatening double-dip slumps that would affect the global economy, including Canada's.

Harper's boasting about "sound economic management," coupled with his promise to create jobs, will likely ring hollow as the economy worsens. After taking credit during the election for the economy's performance, Harper will have difficulty deflecting responsibility if it tanks.

None of this is to suggest that the Conservatives won't be even more vicious and mean spirited than last time. They surely will be. We need a sober reading of what the Tories have in store for workers, First Nations communities, women, immigrants and refugees, and the social movements. But it's equally important for the left to recognize the weaknesses and contradictions of Harper's victory -- mainly to avoid the sense of demoralization and helplessness that, in some quarters, the Conservative majority seems to have inspired.


Next, let's look at the rise of the NDP. Its growth in the polls is far more significant than the Tories': an increase of over 12 per cent, or about two million more votes. It nearly tripled its number of seats, going from 36 to 102. For a party that started the campaign in fourth place, this is a dramatic shift.

Not everyone on the left is impressed by the NDP's gains. Some lament the party's relatively moderate platform, saying there is nothing "radical" about it. Others argue that elections are meaningless because real change can never come through Parliament.

There's some truth to these arguments, but they miss the point. What matters more than what's actually in the NDP platform is the much wider perception of what the party stands for. This is what inspired so many ordinary people to vote NDP. They wanted real change and believed the NDP could bring it.

For example, I didn't hear anyone cite the NDP's promise to maintain Tory levels of military spending or to keep corporate taxes lower than the U.S. as a reason to vote NDP (both are in the platform, if you didn't know). Instead, people cited the party's opposition to the war in Afghanistan and its commitment to cancel billions of dollars in corporate tax cuts.

These differences matter. The left needs to take seriously why so many people voted NDP, especially if it wants to involve them in the struggles that continue in between elections.

Similarly, the left must recognize that most people who vote in elections do so because they believe it will make a difference. Again, what matters more here is the desire for change, not how people attempt to make it. Likewise, we shouldn't interpret the act of voting as opposition to making change by other means -- like getting involved in the social movements. Voting and activism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can complement each other.

This is an important point for the NDP, especially if it wants to build on its current electoral success. The backdrop of its surge -- and of the steady decline of the overall corporate vote in federal politics -- is a decade of rising social movements. The mobilization against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2001 laid the foundation for an unprecedented anti-war movement that followed years later, keeping the Chrétien Liberals from supporting the Iraq War.

The anti-war movement may be smaller today, but it nevertheless played a role in pushing the NDP to adopt a "troops out" policy on Afghanistan during its convention in Quebec City in 2006 -- a position that has helped distinguish the NDP from the Liberals, especially in Quebec. In turn, the NDP's official anti-war stance has helped the anti-war movement, legitimizing its demand to withdraw troops and helping to consolidate anti-war sentiment among the wider public, which is now well over 60 per cent.

While the social movements still have a long way to go -- especially organized labour -- they continue to mobilize in ways that express a growing desire for change. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and the Arab world are examples of this. So too are the mass demonstrations against austerity in Greece, Spain, Ireland and the U.K. Even the Wisconsin "uprising" that saw thousands occupy the state Capitol to defend collective bargaining is part of a wider mood to fight for a better world.

This is the context in which the "orange wave" emerged. And it's the secret to its ongoing success. The surge that boosted the NDP in Parliament has even more potential to boost the movements in the street-if the left can connect to it. Indeed, for the NDP to consolidate and build on its electoral gains, it will surely need the support of a mass movement.

The NDP is being attacked by its enemies

The NDP is already under attack, not even a week after the election, and long before a single MP has been sworn in. In the coming Parliament, there will be tremendous pressure on the party to move to the centre, abandon its "idealistic" policies (like its opposition to the war in Afghanistan) and act like a "respectable" Opposition -- in other words, more like the Liberals. If this happens, it will be a disaster.

The NDP attracted record support in this election because voters saw it as a clear alternative to the Liberals, even if their platforms weren't all that different (aside from the question of the war). It's the perception between the two that made all the difference. Worryingly, there are some who locate the party's success in its relatively moderate platform. This is a dangerous argument that, if taken to its logical conclusion, could lead to the NDP's becoming merely an orange version of the Liberals.

This is why the NDP needs the movements: first, to defend it against the right-wing attacks that have only just begun and that will escalate the closer it comes to forming government; and second (and more importantly), to hold its feet to the fire, to keep it close to its base, and to give it the confidence to express in Parliament the demands of the social movements and the needs of ordinary working people.

This is also why the movements need the NDP. The Official Opposition has a far greater reach and a much bigger platform than the movements do on their own. If the left can develop and cultivate a meaningful relationship with the NDP (this doesn't necessarily mean becoming a party member), it has the potential to draw new people into the day-to-day struggles that carry on in between elections, and that likewise shape the issues over which elections are fought.

The left is well poised to do this. Some of the best activists and organizers on the left are either NDP members or supporters. Indeed, many in the NDP caucus are activists themselves or long-standing supporters of the movements. Among Toronto MPs, Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina) is a backer of the War Resisters Support Campaign; Peggy Nash (Parkdale-High Park) has been a fixture in the anti-war movement; and Rathika Sitsabaiesan (Scarborough-Rouge River) was a key organizer in the anti-prorogation movement.

The connection to the movement is also evident among the fresh crop of NDP MPs elected in Quebec: many of them are young women who have been involved in all kinds of local struggles. Some are even members of the left-wing political party Québec solidaire, a group that describes itself as "a party of the ballot box and the street." Both the NDP and the left in English Canada could learn a lot from the recent successes of left re-groupment in Quebec: those lessons could help build a bigger NDP in Parliament and bigger movements in the streets.

While we're on Quebec, the left must resist the argument that the NDP's near-sweep in the province is an endorsement of federalism and a rejection of Quebec's aspirations for self-determination. Judy Rebick's post-election analysis makes this point crystal clear. The left and the NDP alike must continue to build on the success of the party's Sherbrooke Declaration, instead of retreating from it to placate rigid federalists in English Canada.

First attack will be on the unions

The left will face these challenges sooner rather than later, especially on the labour front. Harper has been craving a majority in order to implement his own austerity agenda, which will include sustained attacks on public sector workers. Postal workers are first in the line of fire: Canada Post is trying to reduce wages for new hires by 30 per cent -- creating a two-tiered workforce -- while cutting benefits, sick leave and pensions.

In response, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) have given their leadership its biggest strike mandate ever -- 94.5 per cent -- following the union's largest turnout ever. The union could strike as early as May 24.

There is now a line in the sand in this fight. And the left has an important role to play in it: generating support for postal workers among fellow trade unionists, in the social movements and among the wider public. That support will likewise be necessary to push the NDP to back postal workers in Parliament, and to resist the pressure from the Conservatives, the Liberals and the mainstream media to "be reasonable" (i.e. force concessions). The outcome of the battle between Harper and CUPW will affect every other struggle that will follow. And there are many more on the horizon.

The election of a Conservative majority government is nothing to celebrate, but neither is it reason to despair. The Tory victory is fraught with contradictions that actually represent opportunities for the left to reach a much bigger audience, and to convince more people to become involved in the social movements -- especially on the labour front. The NDP's rise to Official Opposition status could dramatically accelerate this process -- if the left seriously engages the NDP base and connects to the surge that sent a record number of NDP MPs to Ottawa.

The next four years don't have to be miserable. In fact, they could be quite exciting. But it depends on whether the left can move past the immediate sense of demoralization (that many of us are feeling in the wake of Harper's majority) and seize on the tremendous opportunities that exist to engage the growing desire for change.

That desire needs expression both in Parliament and in the streets. When it comes to stopping Harper, at least one campaign slogan still rings true: "Together, we can do this."

James Clark is an anti-war activist in Toronto. Although not an NDP member, he gladly volunteered for Peggy Nash on Election Day. You can follow him on Twitter at @2jamesclark.

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