After the last few weeks of the post-Quebec left where young energetic activists dominate most events, Ed Broadbent's conference on the Future of Social Democracy held in Montreal last weekend looked a lot more like a discussion of the past.
Not formally a New Democratic Party event, the conference attracted many key federal NDPers, including leader Alexa McDonough. A wide range of academics and a handful of activists were also present. The average age was late fifties; the participants were overwhelmingly white and anglophone.
The New Democratic Party is in deep crisis. While the broad left is experiencing a youthful and energetic renewal on the streets and through citizen groups, little if any of this new energy is making its way to the NDP. How the NDP can hook up with these new activists was a burning question for the conference?
In contrast to the bloodletting on the other side of the political spectrum, the tone of debate here was friendly, open and supportive. Almost everyone from Ed Broadbent toBuzz Hargrove felt good about the conference. It was a conference designed to raise and debate a series of policy ideas and it did just that.
Former BC NDP cabinet minister Andrew Petter made an impassioned proposal for embracing participatory democracy. He advocated decentralizing the state and placing public services under the control of the citizens who receive them - forming a sort of "citizens' coop." Under such a system, welfare, for example, would be administered by an agency comprised of current and past welfare recipients. This model of service-delivery has been tried in Italy with much success.
There was an apparent consensus on the importance of changing the electoral system to some form of proportional representation and significant support for party financing reform that would ban both corporate and union contributions to electoral campaigns.
Economist, Armine Yalnizyanan suggested that a new focus for social democracy could be redefining progress from a strictly economic definition to one where quality of life was just as important as economic growth or even redistribution of wealth.
There was little appetite for the Tony Blair style of social democracy.
The NDP seems ready for just about anything in order to recapture some energy and momentum. The problem is that the Party has lost so much credibility with activists, especially in provinces where it has been in government, that it's difficult to see how it can re-invent itself in its current form.
If the NDP is smart, it will initiate a process to create a new party that can unite the broad left under one banner at the federal level.
By calling for a new party, the NDP would recognize that it is no longer the only standard-bearer for the left. It would invite the tens of thousands of anti-globalization activists to take their struggle into the corridors of power as well as continuing the fight on the streets. It would invite thousands of environmentalists battling corporate polluters and clear-cutters to join with others in defining an electoral strategy for sustainable development. It would invite the Green Party to join in this coalition party as well as those more radical forces that are involved in a grassroots process to rebuild an anti-capitalist left. It would invite the hundreds of thousands of community activists to participate in a process of creating a party that would meet the needs of their community.
This kind of left-wing coalition is unheard of in Canada, but it has been quite successful in other countries. If Canada already had a system of proportional representation, such a coalition might come naturally. Building it today would take strong leadership.
A lot of activists outside the NDP see no reason for a left-wing political party. They think that building bigger and stronger citizens' movements can counter corporate power. The problem is, as many conference delegates pointed out, that the state sets down the rules or lack of them under which corporations and markets operate. If government is dominated by corporate-controlled parties, it is hard to imagine how many of the changes sought by the anti-globalization will be brought about.
As Ed Broadbent pointed out at the conference, most of the progress of the left in Canada has come about through a combination of action and electoral pressure. In the 21st century, the relationship between electoral and street politics has to change. For a left-wing party to gain credibility among cynical youth, it has to be more open, more democratic, more active outside Parliament and more supportive of their struggles than it has ever been. That's quite a challenge to a party rooted in bureaucratic social-democratic ways.
Originally published by cbc.ca. Judy Rebick's column appears every second Thursday.
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