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As we face a climate emergency, is it time to rethink the NDP?

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Jagmeet Singh virtually attends 2021 NDP convention. Image credit: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

"Thanks for being part of this movement. Thanks for being part of this party."

In two consecutive sentences, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's speech to his party's recent convention referenced a central source of both division and potential dynamism.

Is the NDP a party, or a movement? And does it matter?

At a time of climate emergency, it does. As Seth Klein has argued in his remarkable book A Good War (which I reviewed for rabble.ca), the needs of the times -- and the willingness of publics to endorse strong action -- contrasts with the sclerotic response of our political system. It will take both visionary political leadership, and a strong push from civil society movements, to push through the economic transformation with sufficient scale and speed against the "regime of obstruction" of the fossil fuel industries and their allies.

Delegates to the Liberal convention, held on the same weekend, could soak in the warm bath of governmental power. Sometimes described as Canada's "natural governing party," Trudeau's Liberals can offer his crowd the psychic and sometimes material rewards of electoral success.

By contrast, the federal NDP disproportionately attracts activists motivated by ideology and ideals -- by commitments to social and racial justice, ecological sanity, workers' rights, democratic socialism. The party depends on their donations and campaign energy.

But its original principles may be watered down in order to appeal to a wider range of voters, especially when the party leadership senses potential electoral victory. As political sociologist Leo Zakuta showed in his pioneering analysis of the NDP's precursor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), what started as a protest movement evolved into an institutionalized party, increasingly resembling its competitors -- career-minded politicians, salaried staff, professionally tailored messaging, and centralized control over the party platform.

One of the NDP's most outstanding former MPs, herself with a deep background in community activism, puts the challenge astutely. "The intersection between the political world of social activists and the world of people in elected office -- who are progressive, and on the left -- can create misunderstanding and a tense relationship," writes Libby Davies in her political autobiography.

"Social activists can act more freely to achieve their goals for change, and they don't face the same demands and constraints as those in or running for elected office. Activists see their job as primarily putting pressure on the people in power to make change happen. Their motivation is to win on an issue."

Social democratic parties in particular need both to inspire dissent, but also to contain it. Their aspirations for social transformation are offset by their commitment to working primarily through Parliament, and by the dependence of their social welfare policies on the very economic system they claim to challenge. 

At about the same time that I first joined the NDP, a half century ago (!), British scholar Ralph Miliband described Britain's Labour Party as "a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly…rooted. That system badly needs such a party, since it plays a major role in the management of discontent." Without a vigorous mass base offering a clear alternative, it was not surprising that social democratic parties in Europe retreated in the face of mounting neoliberal attacks on the welfare state in the 1980s. 

And yet, there is no mass-based alternative. The NDP is the largest umbrella for politically active progressives in anglophone Canada. It is more committed than any other major party to workers' rights and to using the tool of public ownership. Interestingly, Miliband's own sons, Ed and David, became leading lights in the Labour Party. 

For their part, social movements aren't immune to morphing into self-reproducing fundraising machines. Dissatisfaction with the large established ENGOs (environmental non-government organizations) is one reason for the rise of the youthful, direct action-oriented Extinction Rebellion. On the other hand, movements that don't institutionalize to some extent risk disappearing into the void, like the Occupy protests of 2011.

One characteristic of a progressive social movement is participation by members. The NDP convention offered a welcome experiment with virtual democracy. Rather than having policy resolutions vetted by a small committee, all delegates could rank-order them online to trim the hundreds submitted to 140 eligible for debate -- a model that could be built on for future party conventions.

That initiative made a certain difference. Resolutions on abolishing billionaires, and modest sanctions against Israel until Palestinian rights are respected, were moved higher up the agenda than the leadership might have preferred. 

In subsequent debate, a resolution on extending adequate internet service to Indigenous and rural areas was bolstered by an amendment for public ownership of telecommunication. A proposal to allow biennial conventions to be postponed by the much smaller Federal Council was nixed by the delegates. 

On the other hand, only a handful of resolutions were voted on, with insufficient time for meaningful debate. The leadership and senior officials carry the greatest weight in deciding which ones enter the party's election platform. A constitutional amendment to increase trade union delegate representation was approved, after the chairs allegedly violated procedural protocol in order to beat the clock, allowing no speakers opposed to it.

Indeed, a senior NDP veteran described the convention's procedures as a "travesty," a "toxic combination of Stalinist control and incompetence." Ouch!  And activists are circulating an intra-party petition for an inquiry and a special convention. At the very least, these moves show many members' hunger to be heard on policy issues.

From the viewpoint of the climate justice movement, though, perhaps the most significant moment occurred during a debate on the green recovery. The motion called for investments in building retrofits, public transit, and other means to reduce emissions and create jobs. But it said nothing about Canada's oversize contributions to global warming through expanding the extraction and export of fossil fuels. That's a gap large enough for a fleet of SUVs. Activists proposed an amendment to oppose all new fossil fuel projects and subsidies, and projects that violate Indigenous rights. 

A short but sharp debate followed. "Think politically," said a labour delegate. "Don't cause problems for our friends in B.C. and Alberta," provinces where NDP governments have supported fossil fuel megaprojects. The amendment failed, though an impressive 44 per cent voted in favour.

So, some questions:

Can the federal NDP form "a government that acts like it wants to win on climate change" (Jagmeet Singh's phrase in his speech to the convention) if it feels beholden to its powerful B.C. and Alberta wings? Is that why Singh has been relatively quiet about the Trans Mountain pipeline, even as it cuts a swath of destruction through his own riding, Burnaby South? Is it time to separate the NDP's federal and provincial branches, like other Canadian parties? 

What does it mean to "think politically"? Is it about winning elections, or is it about empowering diverse voices and enacting policies that meet the needs of the times?

Is there a political project that could intelligently combine parliamentary and movement energies, like the Waffle Manifesto in 1969 and the New Politics Initiative in 2001, both of which galvanized progressive Canadians within and beyond the NDP? An initiative that could channel the energy and enthusiasm of youthful progressive activists, and that improves the odds of electoral success against the Liberal climate delayers and the Conservative climate deniers?

Well, yes there is: form a new party.

Take a deep breath, maybe crack a brewski, and think about it. A coalition of New Democrats, Greens and disaffected Liberals could "completely change the political landscape in Canada," according to analyst Philippe J. Fournier in Maclean's. Using data from 338Canada before the 2019 federal election, he calculated that a "Green Democratic" party would win about 59 seats, more than double the combined total actually achieved by the NDP (24) and Greens (3). With the support of about 27 per cent of the electorate, a new "GDP" would make it nearly impossible for either Liberals or Conservatives to form a majority government. 

Die-hard partisans of both parties will find many excuses to carry on their mutually destructive rivalry. Politics doesn't lack egos bigger than blimps. There are principled parliamentarians open to cross-party collaboration, but the initiative probably has to come from frustrated climate voters outside the parties' machinery -- and through our voices and our funding donations, we do have leverage. 

We could start with the ENGO 350.org, which is calling for a tactical "climate emergency alliance" between Greens and NDP in key ridings, to elect "climate champions." A similar strategy in 2015 helped to defeat Stephen Harper's government.

In any longer-range coalition, the Greens would need to take unionized jobs and workers' rights more seriously; the NDP, climate action that more decisively challenges the grip of carbon capital. But on tax laws, environmental investment, pharmacare, and electoral reform, there's no fundamental differences between the parties.

The right has learned this lesson. The division between the Reform and Progressive-Conservative parties during the 1990s enabled prolonged Liberal rule. Encouraged by the right-wing press (Conrad Black's National Post's inaugural headline in 1998 was "Unite the Right"), the two entities eventually merged, leading to the dark decade of the Harper regime. A similar deal between Wildrose and Conservatives in Alberta gifted the province, and the country, with Jason Kenney. Aren't we the lucky ones?

History offers an even more catastrophic example -- the failure of the German left (torn by bitter rivalry between Socialists and Communists) to form an anti-Nazi common front in the 1930s. If we take science seriously, humanity's situation today is no less dire than on the eve of the Second World War.

The NDP itself is the product of a restructuring of Canada's left. In 1961, stuck for 30 years as a third party, the CCF joined with the Canadian Labour Congress to form what was originally known as "The New Party." It's no longer so new. After 60 years in opposition, with no breakthrough in sight, it's time for a fundamental rethink.

It's a long shot. But as Noam Chomsky reminded us, climate disruption, along with nuclear war and pandemics, threaten the survival of organized human society. Long shots may be the best we have.

Robert Hackett is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives. He is also a member of the NDP and of the non-partisan Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion (BROKE).

Image credit: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

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