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Fifteen years ago, activist and author Naomi Klein attended a founding meeting of the New Politics Initiative (NPI). After groups of activists and NDP members met across the country to draft a manifesto, the NPI sent a resolution to the NDP convention proposing to build a new party and a new relationship with social movements.
It fell short of securing a mandate from the party membership, but offered many lessons for future renewal efforts.
- READ part 1: Putting democracy back in the NDP
- READ part 2: NDP must connect with social movements to prevent history from repeating
Fourteen years later, during the September heat of the federal election campaign, Klein was instrumental in the launch of another manifesto, the Leap.
Unlike the NPI, the non-partisan Leap disavowed any formal relationship with the NDP. Leap drafters weren't trying to persuade the NDP to integrate the manifesto into their election platforms -- long since decided democratically at pre-election party conventions.
Klein made the rift explicit at the launch: "Since, unfortunately, many of our leaders are too busy watching the polls to grasp either the urgency or the incredible potential of this transformation, leadership is coming from outside electoral politics."
In turn, NDP spokesperson Nathan Cullen said the party would not be pressured into changing its platform. "[W]e're not going to be guided by a manifesto delivered in the midst of a campaign by high- or low-profile people."
Given this arms-length approach towards organizing or engaging with political parties, what is the Leap's strategic roadmap to transformative change?
Leap posits an end, but not the means
The manifesto calls on all elected officials to "embrace the urgent need for transformation," while the website FAQs prioritize pressuring the federal government: "hop[ing] that momentum behind the Leap continues to grow, and when it is supported and signed by a significant enough number of people in Canada it will be impossible for Parliament to ignore."
Bianca Mugyenyi, Outreach Coordinator of This Changes Everything, told rabble: "The goal was to have outside pressure to galvanize debate about climate change and push whatever new government was elected to adopt more ambitious climate targets."
But making things impossible to ignore is an end, not a means.
This April, the Leap Manifesto will be a topic at the federal NDP convention in Edmonton. A dozen or so riding associations have submitted resolutions connected to the Leap. The manifesto, in some form, could make it to the convention floor and may even receive more than the 37 per cent support the Waffle and NPI garnered in their time.
The Leap highlights important connections between climate change, green jobs, Indigenous sovereignty, and migrant justice, but is silent on how to change the current party structure and culture.
The NDP membership could easily adopt the Leap Manifesto at its April convention with little effect. The text could be added to the massive NDP policy book, much of which already overlaps with elements of the manifesto.
However, an unsuccessful vote could simply deepen existing pessimism among activists about engaging with political parties.
Drafting three manifestos: The Waffle, the NPI and the Leap
Until the 1990s, it wasn't a given that manifestos like the Leap would be non-partisan. The Leap closely resembles other manifestos directed towards the NDP, especially the 1968 Waffle Manifesto and 2001 NPI. And it isn't lost on NDPers that the father and grandfather of Avi Lewis, one of the Leap's main architects, were prominent figures on the establishment side of the line drawn by the Waffle.
The drafting process for the various manifestos resemble each other. By 1969, the Waffle movement had generated clubs in several major Canadian cities, and the leaders of these clubs (focused in the Toronto area) drafted an electrifying manifesto clarifying their vision for a renewed "democratic socialist" NDP.
In 2001, the NPI held meetings across the country over a period of 18 months; these meetings included NDP members and non-partisan activists, and culminated in a call for a new anti-neoliberal party with the NDP at its centre.
In 2015, 60 participants -- mainly from labour organizations, NGOs and grassroots environmental, migrant justice and anti-poverty groups from across Canada -- chose the themes of the Leap Manifesto over the course of two days. The document was drafted by several activists proficient at connecting the dots between climate change, resource extraction, Indigenous rights, green infrastructure and green jobs. It was then circulated to celebrities and the general public for signatures.
While some observers have unfairly criticized the involvement of celebrities, these launch tactics are a small issue compared to clarifying the organizing function of the manifesto and its associated petition.
While the Waffle and NPI had the clear short-term goal of transforming the NDP, the Leap's short-term aim is applying pressure to the Liberal government. It remains to be determined how the Leap campaign can be accountable to its signatories.
Building a truly progressive renewal process
The Waffle and the NPI renewal efforts are good starting points for today's NDP renewal process. They prioritized broad public consultation and grassroots support -- inside and outside of the party. Both started with a small group of activists and eventually won 37 per cent support at convention.
Neither profoundly reorganized the party directly, but they had significant indirect impacts: the Waffle forced the NDP to engage seriously with anti-imperialism, Quebec sovereignty, and women's rights -- among other movements of the 1960s left in Canada -- and the NDP took these new attitudes into Parliament. The NPI sought out alternatives to neoliberalism and Third Way politics in the aftermath of the communist collapse of the 1990.
The NPI voted to dissolve itself after Layton became leader, considering his leadership to be a fulfillment of their original aims. In hindsight, prominent members regretted dissolving the network that grew out of the NPI.
Politically, it's an inherent limitation of the Leap Manifesto that it makes carbon emissions the dominant issue. Green parties often focus on carbon targets, but lose sight of social inequality and exploitation, leading to "green capitalist" solutions that don't address the roots of the problem.
Nevertheless, the Leap offers a great starting point for thinking more deeply about how to integrate the climate change issue into a larger vision of a socialist society. Corporate resource extraction is a key component of the devastation of Indigenous lands and exploitation of the global south, in which Canadian companies play a major role.
While targets for greenhouse gas emissions are essential, they cannot be the dominant issue of a party aimed at anything resembling a socialist transformation of society.
For that, the NDP could develop a plan for a socialist economy that is not predicated on extracting wealth from poor countries -- drawing on cutting-edge ideas from movements and socialist economists around the world. The party could also begin rethinking the Canadian constitution, particularly in the context of Indigenous sovereignty, looking to Bolivia and Venezuela for model processes.
Renewal of the NDP's structure and culture has been so long delayed that it's now vitally important to integrate the ideas of not only the Leap, but also earlier Waffle and NPI efforts.
The Waffle movement raised the crucial discussion around asserting socialist control of the Canadian economy in order to break from American imperialism -- a discussion that is timely again in the context of resurgent socialist politics in South America, the U.S., Britain, Greece, Spain, and beyond.
The NPI made a conscious commitment to democratic organizing and held nationwide meetings on how to combat corporate globalization or neoliberalism. Out of those conversations began a drive to reform the party's formal relationship with social movements, building on the model of trade union membership in the NDP and proposing a united front approach. Reorganizations such as these were prerequisites to socialist party successes in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Greece.
Let's imagine a renewal movement, one with the intellectual heft and socialist reorientation of the Waffle, deep democratic culture and anti-neoliberal United front politics of the NPI, and the progressive environmentalism of the Leap.
A socialist NDP with an active grassroots that takes part in a united front with social movements -- building on the relationship between party and labour movement. That's what we call renewal.
Editor's note: An earlier verision of this piece noted the 60 participants in the Leap were mainly from an informal collection of Toronto and Vancouver-based NGOs. This was incorrect and we have updated to reflect the significant grassroots and labour involvement as well as involvement across Canada.
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: wikimedia commons