The history of the New Politics Initiative: Movement and party, then and now

| November 29, 2011
The history of the New Politics Initiative: Movement and party, then and now

I. A short history of the NPI

The New Politics Initiative was formed in the spring of 2001. At that point in time, new forms of grassroots progressive organization were on the rise -- represented most energetically by the anti-globalization movement (which, in retrospect, reached its apex in Canada at the Quebec City protests that April). But that energy and hope was not reflected in the left's electoral fortunes, which at the time were depressed. For example, the NDP had endured three consecutive poor showings in federal elections. The movements and the party seemed headed in different directions.

Outgoing NDP Leader Alexa McDonough launched a party renewal exercise in 2001 (echoing a similar review that took place in 1994). It seemed to many of us that the left needed an electoral party with closer links to the new energy in the grassroots social movements, to better unify our efforts, push our demands, win converts, and fight for change -- both inside parliament, and outside. The NPI thus launched a proposal that the NDP reconstitute itself (in active cooperation with other organizations and progressive parties) as a broader, inclusive, more movement-connected party.

The NPI's work was organized around a resolution submitted to a special NDP convention on party renewal that was held in Winnipeg in Nov. 2001 (culminating McDonough's renewal exercise). In the lead-up to that convention, NPI supporters had argued -- both within the NDP, and outside of it -- for a "new politics," linked more organically to social movements, and reflective of a more participatory, dynamic democratic process. Our thinking was that social change does not come solely, or even primarily, from electoral campaigns. It comes, rather, from deeper shifts in popular consciousness, ideology, and organization. That's why progressives must be campaigning on progressive issues, and working to build progressive structures of engagement and democracy, all the time, not just during elections.

Indeed, we argued, the success of progressive political parties ultimately depends on whether we are winning that day-to-day battle of ideas in society, and on our success in building alternative structures and capacities among the whole spectrum of communities fighting for social change. Without social movements, trade unions, environmentalists, feminists, queer activists, anti-racist organizations, civil libertarians, and all the rest striving to raise issues and win converts, progressive politicians don't stand a chance come election day. And even if, by fluke, they did happen to win (perhaps because of how the votes for other parties broke down), their power to implement progressive promises is utterly compromised without an aware, mobilized, demanding population behind them. We've learned that painful lesson many times.

The NPI was endorsed by close to 2,000 individuals and organizations, many of whom were NDP members, but many of whom were not. In addition to progressive NDPers, NPI support came from a wide range of other grassroots organizations, other movements, and even other political parties -- including Greens, revolutionary groups, and the Canadian Action Party. The NPI organized meetings and consultations in cities across Canada. At the NDP convention, it organized an NPI caucus. It also sponsored an electrifying town-hall meeting and rally the night before the NPI resolution was debated -- which still ranks in my mind as one of the most hopeful and thrilling political events I have ever attended.

However, the NPI's resolution was defeated the next day by delegates to the NDP's special convention, by a margin of 63 per cent to 37 per cent. Coincidentally, that was exactly the same margin of defeat when Jim Laxer, on behalf of the Waffle movement, challenged for the leadership of the federal NDP 30 years earlier, in 1971. Indeed, the Waffle and the NPI reflected many similar themes and concerns (although the language, constituency, and style of work of the two movements differed considerably, given the changing times); several former leaders from the Waffle were among those who endorsed the NPI.

Following the NDP convention, the NPI continued to organize local consultations and other activities for a couple of years, but the focus of its work was not clear, and the political environment was becoming more hostile (in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent decline of anti-globalization struggles). The NPI opted to formally dissolve at a final conference in Toronto in early 2004.

II. Movement and party today

The NPI was founded as a result of the diverging trends of movement and party at the turn of the century. It is interesting to look back over the subsequent decade, and review how the relationship between the two sides of the left has continued to evolve.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and resulting anti-democratic repression, the anti-globalization movement (a major inspiration for the NPI) and other grassroots movements slowed down. Meanwhile, Jack Layton's election as NDP leader reflected a more movement-connected perspective on behalf of the party leadership. Though he didn't endorse the NPI, he seemed sympathetic to many of its ideas and goals, and he worked closely with MPs Libby Davies and Svend Robinson (two of the NPI's co-founders). On the other hand, Layton's "job" as leader of an electoral party meant that electoral calculations still naturally dominated his decision making. When the NDP brought down the Paul Martin minority in late 2005, sensing a chance to win seats, Stephen Harper's Conservatives got their foot in the door.

In 2008 the global financial crisis hit. Initially, Canada's Conservatives were on the defensive -- sparking the famous but short-lived effort by the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition to unseat them from power. The idea of progressive electoral coalitions fits naturally with the NPI's view of politics -- although this one quickly failed, largely (I would suggest) because of the inability of grassroots movements to mobilize sufficient mass support for the idea, as well as because of the Liberals' internal incompetence. Harper got another chance, and began to slowly, carefully consolidate his power. Subsequently, as the after-effects of the global crisis continued to wreak widespread misery, the right seized the political initiative more effectively than the left. (Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine precisely explains why and how.) Then came another federal election, and here we are.

The dichotomy between movement and party was surely never more striking than on election night, 2011. As New Democrats wildly celebrated their stunning rise to Official Opposition, most movement activists were distraught over the prospects of a Harper majority and what it would mean for our society. How will we now stop Harper, and (more importantly) everything he stands for? Having effective and progressive spokespersons in Parliament will help, of course, as will presenting a credible electoral threat to Harper in 2015. But that won't remotely be enough. Even more important, we must have large numbers of Canadians able and willing to complain, agitate, organize, and demonstrate. Articulating demands, writing letters and lobbying, educating our neighbours and members, hosting public meetings, producing credible progressive research, organizing increasingly forceful protests: that is the bread and butter of social movement organizing. If it isn't happening (and in recent years, we haven't had nearly enough of it), social change will not occur, because Canadians won't be excited or organized enough to demand it.

Electoral parties don't usually do that kind of work. They focus, rather, on fine-tuning a message (backed up by effective electoral machinery) in order to appeal to a larger slice of the existing spectrum of political opinion. The goal of social movements, in contrast, is to change those opinions.

So without activists successfully pushing the goalposts of commonsense popular consciousness, any electoral party will tend, by default, to be obsessed with refining its message and image so as to broaden its appeal within status quo politics. Indeed, as official opposition, the federal NDP is quite likely to do exactly that -- unless our grassroots activists succeed in raising popular visibility and support for our issues: inequality, the environment, labour rights and jobs, human rights, and (urgently under Harper) the future of democracy itself.

Today we have the NDP as official opposition (unthinkable until very recently), yet we confront regressive and anti-democratic forces that are more powerful than in generations. We are fighting for our lives (in many cases quite literally). To succeed, we must be ambitious, audacious, and creative -- and the Occupations have shown us it can be done. The present dangerous moment reminds us, therefore, that successful progressive social change requires both of the left's camps, electoral and extra-parliamentary, to be working at the top of their games. And in Canada, I suggest that means we need to focus first and foremost on stepping up our grassroots organizing efforts, in all areas -- building a strong progressive multidimensional fight back that, among other benefits, would help the new NDP opposition live up to its potential.

Jim Stanford is an economist with CAW and has a column with rabble.ca. He was a co-founder of the NPI in 2001.

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