Putting democracy back in the NDP

| February 3, 2016
Photo: flickr/ anne campagne

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With Tom Mulcair intending to stay on as leader despite the NDP's recent campaign performance, many on Canada's left are asking where is the NDP's Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders?

The key to radical leadership is grounding it in the grassroots. The British Labour leader won power, and is holding onto it, by involving over 100,000 new members in the party. Sanders is successfully challenging the U.S. Democratic Party's establishment candidate on the strength of over a million small donations.

Likewise only a massive exercise in party democracy will allow a substantive leadership change in the NDP.

It's a common refrain that NDP insiders have too much control over the party. That said, it's not impossible for an outsider to win: Mulcair's 2012 leadership campaign was nearly uniformly opposed by the party establishment, which put forward one of their own -- Brian Topp -- as their choice. It's an even taller task for an outsider from the party's left. As Corbyn's fragile tenure shows, this requires a massive influx of members, new forms of participation, and a fight to rebuild and defend internal party democracy.

Some left-wing critics in the NDP say Corbyn or Sanders-like politics -- not to mention leadership that's even more radical and less white and male -- will be excluded from the party until it adopts a much more democratic structure and culture.

"The gulf between NDP members and the party centre is wide," says David Bush, editor of labour news publication rankandfile.ca. "The internal democracy in the NDP is strained at best and the recent federal election, not to mention the provincial elections in Ontario and B.C., showed this. NDP leadership virtually makes whatever decisions it wants, with little accountability or consequence."

We asked Brian Topp, now Chief-of-Staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, how to improve the NDP's internal democracy and bridge the gulf between members and the party centre.

"We need to work on being less fucking boring inside the party," said Topp, paraphrasing Tony Penikett speaking at the party renewal conference called after the NDP was reduced to nine seats in 1992. "Specifically, we need party initiatives, meetings and events that are exciting, engaging, and attract and recruit rather than repel."

Topp says the NDP should "move away from war conditions, imposed on the party in the 2000s due to four successive elections in short order, and toward peacetime." That means "a functioning resolutions process rooted in ridings, discussions about public policy issues at the riding, federal council and convention levels that are real, substantive, and on key topics," he said, and "the party's channels for discussion between members be revived," and creating online tools for member engagement.

The failure of the party structure to engage activists on the front lines of diverse struggles is not new.

In 1937, long-time party president David Lewis admitted, "There is a need for the party to become more involved in the daily struggles which would attract many eager men and women who are really ready for a Social Democratic Party but have so far failed to be inspired by the CCF -- and I don't blame them."

Historically, the NDP leadership has often actively excluded grassroots activists, restricting party democracy in the process. Labour historian Ben Isitt documents near-constant maneuvering to purge the party of socialist organizers in the post-war period by British Columbia's CCF-NDP executive boards. Many of these organizers were active educators inside key trade unions, anchoring the party in socialist principles that challenged the leadership's active leap to the centre.

Isitt told rabble that these rank-and-file activists proposed reforms to NDP structure, including "provision for annual conventions, a more direct connection between policymaking established by delegates at convention and party platforms during election campaigns. There were also debates over who should have the authority to expel left-wing dissidents from the party -- executive, council, or convention -- and what mechanisms of appeal should exist."

The most notorious example of the NDP establishment purging party activists is what is now known as the "Waffle affair." The decade following the NDP's founding in 1961 was rocked by civil rights, anti-war, second-wave feminist, and the New Left movements. In Quebec the Quiet Revolution upended centuries of Catholic control of Quebec. But until the Waffle Manifesto of 1969, all this had little effect on the formal structure, leadership, or even culture of the NDP.

The Waffle Manifesto argued that Canada had become a subsidiary of the American imperialist empire, run by multinational corporations and sustained by imperialist wars like Vietnam. To break free from the American empire, Wafflers said, Canada should assert socialist control over its economy. It was both a fresh perspective as well as a return to core CCF principles.

The Waffle received significant party support (around 40 per cent) at the next two NDP conventions. But reaction from the establishment produced a backlash; by 1972 the leadership had purged Waffle organizers, accusing them of acting as a "party within a party."

Waffle historian John Smart rejects the charge that Wafflers were acting as a separate party, arguing instead that a "process of change and renewal had been launched inside the party in a leftward direction and that action was taken to bring that process to an end...the NDP leadership outlawed caucuses in the party [and] the New Democratic Youth wing was dismantled too."

Judy Rebick told rabble in 2011 that "the Waffle emerged in the NDP putting forward very progressive policies like support for women's liberation and Quebec's right to self-determination, which were eventually adopted by the party. The NDP leadership treated the Waffle like an internal enemy rather than the injection of youthful energy that it was."

Ed Broadbent was one of the original drafters of the Waffle Manifesto, but quickly distanced himself from the Wafflers, writing the compromise "Marshmallow Manifesto" eventually adopted by the party. After becoming NDP leader in 1975 he did attempt to bring Waffle activists, some of the youngest and brightest thinkers and organizers on the left, back into the party fold, with mixed success.

In the end though, Broadbent's weak stance on NAFTA during the 1988 federal campaign became a symbol for the disconnect in the party between poll-driven election campaign strategy and anti-free trade activists. Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Director Bob White wrote in his influential Brief to the NDP Task Force that we need "a party that encourages participation and sees its primary function as fighting immediate battles, educating for change, developing the co-ordination and organizations for the larger battles."

Relations between labour activists and the NDP deteriorated in 1993 when the Rae government implemented the "Social Contract," imposing austerity measures on the Ontario public service.

CAW President Buzz Hargrove said that the NDP buckled to corporate pressure not because its leadership was right wing, but because the party's structure lacked roots. The NDP needed to "transform structures, like riding associations, from being primarily fundraising bodies to forums that develop ideas and work to build movements and solidarity groups engaged in those daily struggles -- big and small -- that introduce people to politics and nurture the confidence that change is possible."

Because of these experiences, the CAW pulled support for the NDP, instead supporting 'strategic voting' which has harmed the NDP up to the present.

Organizations like the Council of Canadians, born in the anti-NAFTA fight, became active players in the anti-globalization movement, but did not trust the NDP enough to establish a close relationship. According to Rebick, "no-one in the anti-globalization movement talked much about political parties. It was older activists like Jim Stanford, Libby Davies, Svend Robinson and I who first called for a new kind of party." These influential NDPers in the anti-globalization movement came to believe that the party needed a new and closer relationship with social movements of the left.

Few NDPers would deny that a healthy relationship is beneficial for both the party and social justice movements. "Like all democratic socialist and social democratic parties," says Brian Topp, "our party needs a broad alliance with civil society groups who share our values -- without becoming their creature, or expecting them to subordinate themselves to the party's necessary electoral work."

But making the structural and cultural changes to make it healthy is easier said than done, and the devil is in the details -- the topic of part two of this series on NDP renewal.

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/ anne campagne

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