NDP must connect with social movements to prevent history from repeating

| February 12, 2016
Photo: flickr/ Matt Jiggins

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While debate rages about whether Tom Mulcair should or shouldn't stay on as NDP leader, party history shows that replacing the leader may be necessary but not sufficient. For the NDP to become the real champion of the left and differentiate itself from Trudeau's Liberals, the party will have to finally reform its relationship with social movements.

In May 2015 the National Post published an article entitled "NDP won't fade like it did in the 1988 election, Ed Broadbent says." Unfortunately, history did repeat itself. The disappointment of Mulcair's 2015 campaign mirrored that of Broadbent in 1988. The mistakes of 1988 and its aftermath translated into a decade in the wilderness for the NDP.

To avoid another lost decade, let's look at the course taken after 1988 and imagine striking a different course this time around.

In 1988, like 2015, expectations were high. Broadbent led national leadership opinion polls, with 37 per cent popularity. When NAFTA became the dominant issue of 1988, John Turner's Liberals fiercely opposed it -- only to support it later -- but Broadbent balked. Anti-free trade campaigners across Canada called for Broadbent's resignation. He refused at first, then stepped down at the following NDP convention in 1989.

But leadership change alone didn't solve the NDP's problems. Over the next three campaigns the NDP won only 8.5 per cent, 11 per cent, and 8.5 per cent. Indeed, social democratic parties around the world were in crisis throughout the 1990s. The UK's Tony Blair and Ontario's Bob Rae implemented neoliberal policies, hastening the welfare state's demise. Even as NGOs mobilized against the growing institutions of neoliberal globalization, the major social democratic parties watched from the sidelines.

Burned by NDP provincial governments in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and B.C, some Canadian trade union leaders argued that only strong movements could hold the party to account.

In 1994, CAW President Buzz Hargrove challenged the NDP to "move beyond being just an electoral machine and to become an integral part of a movement-building agenda which extends into every workplace and every community."

Key MPs active in the NDP's left wing attributed the party's decline through the 1990s to its alienation from the energetic new movements against globalization and austerity. In 2001, activists from those movements joined with the MPs and started working together on the "New Politics Initiative," pressing for a united front against neoliberalism. They wanted to permanently expand the party's relationship with social movements and make common cause with other small parties like the Green Party.

After holding meetings and hosting consultations across the country, the NPI released a discussion paper which began, "The left is at a crossroads," with the major parties going one direction and the movements going in another... The apparent triumph of corporate capitalism rests on the assumption of continued popular acquiescence -- and that assumption is looking more shaky all the time."

In an interview with rabble, NPI steering committee member Corvin Russell recalled that, "the NDP seemed moribund in the desert 10 years after the fall of the Eastern bloc and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. But with the rise of the anti-globalization movement there was a heady atmosphere and optimism, at least until 9/11. If a party wasn't oriented towards that, it was a big problem at that moment."

The founders of the NPI didn't want to predetermine exactly what this reorientation would look like, Russell says. "There were no specifics. It wasn't articulated. Had it been articulated, differences would have emerged in the group. But we never had that discussion."

Nevertheless, the NPI proposal won 37 per cent of votes at the 2001 NDP convention. It was a decent showing, but not strong enough to launch the formal renewal process.

Former NDP MP Libby Davies, who was an NPI supporter, agrees that it remained to be worked out how the party could better relate to social movements. "I think we had a better idea about what didn't work, than we knew about what would work," Davies told rabble. "Hence the need to engage in political discussion about new relationships. I don't think it's necessarily a more formal relationship -- it's more about a sense of equal players and respect."

There was also a solid constitutional foundation for a relationship between movements and the NDP. There's already a formal tie between the labour movement and the NDP: federal and provincial labour councils are allotted delegates to NDP conventions, as are individual unions. The NDP constitution allows for farmers' organizations, cooperatives, women's organizations, and other NGOs to also become affiliates -- though this rarely happens because most non-union organizations wish to remain non-partisan.

Some party leaders believe that, as Broadbent said, the "trade union movement is the notable exception to the general rule that civil society groups and the party should remain structurally independent and unaffiliated." But the exception could become the new rule. To the extent that the labour movement has remained independent despite formal affiliation with the NDP, this can be a model for relationships with other movements.

The founders of the NPI noted that a big obstacle to their project was the mutual mistrust between party and movement. There's a "deep and irrational divide between NDP party politics and the active social movements," Murray Dobbin wrote in rabble's 2011 10-year retrospective of the NPI. "The two should have been working together -- at least informally -- yet they existed as two solitudes."

Members of the initiative suggested that mutual mistrust could be overcome if the party energetically supported social movements between elections, and not assume movement support during elections. "This entails a serious discussion about how a political party -- the NDP -- engages with social movement partners on policy, strategy, and building campaigns, between elections as well as at election time," says Davies.

The NDP already benefits from affiliation with a mature social movement -- the labour movement -- which has significant resources. Even if electoral reform legislation eventually bans party donations from unions, other equally important resources can flow from labour to the party: organizational assets and expertise, labour power, skilled leaders and activists. Sometimes resources can flow the other way, from party to emerging movements with less experience and organization. In all cases the weaker partner would have to guard against being controlled or coopted.

Social movements could also gain in other ways from a healthy relationship with the party. According to Davies, this would help "social movements to also understand the importance of electoral politics and not dismiss it as irrelevant. When activists buy into the corporate media bias that all politicians are bad, they end up disempowering their own voice and lose the opportunity to influence the political agenda. Likewise if progressive political parties ignore social movements, or only use them when it seems convenient, then they too have lost an important opportunity to build a stronger community for transformative change."

Over a decade later, Russell thinks that we still don't have any successful models for creating this symbiotic relationship. "So far, every such attempt has failed. The tendency of parties to centralize and form bureaucracies seems inevitable. Party elites have unequal access to resources, and they are trapped by the logic of the electoral cycle." Partial exceptions could include MAS in Bolivia, and Quebec Solidaire which "has organic relationships to social movements in the street, even if it's not itself a real force on the streets."

Since the founding of the NDP in 1961, there have been few fundamental changes in the party's structure or culture. But there have emerged powerful social movements. In the past decade alone, indigenous rights and Idle No More, the climate justice, and migrant justice movements have leapt to the fore.

Arguably the latest manifestation of the NDP tendency to renewal in spite of itself, the Leap Manifesto, will be the subject of Part 3.

Part 1: Putting democracy back in the NDP

Part 2: NDP must connect with social movements to prevent history from repeating

Part 3: The NDP can be renewed by the Waffle, NPI and Leap manifestos

Sarah Beuhler is an activist campaigner who runs issue-based digital campaigns for non-profits and unions. She was the Campaign Manager for the 2014 COPE municipal election campaign. She is currently rabble's B.C. Development manager.

Tristan Markle is a writer and activist based in Vancouver. He co-founded The Mainlander, an online publication for progressive civic politics. He has been active in provincial NDP campaigns, as well as municipal campaigns for the left-wing COPE.

Photo: flickr/ Matt Jiggins



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