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Is the party over?

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Today I was on The Current  to debate the proposed name change of the NDP. The name is the least of their problems in my view. David Michael Lamb, the guest host, asked me why I wasn't going the NDP convention. I answered, "I've kind of given up on the NDP." Frankly, it didn't even occur to me to go. I have been involved in efforts to change the NDP since the 1980's in Ontario and with a few exceptions (getting them to support the Morgentaler clinic), it has been almost impossible to get them to change.  Their response to opposition from the Waffle , a powerful youth opposition reflecting the new politics on the 1960's until now has been to crush it.

Paul Dewar, the Ottawa NDP MP who seems to be doing an excellent job, is taking the opportunity of a debate on changing the name of the party to propose a process of thorough going debate about what the party is doing.  He is enthusiastic about the possibilities of change and I wish him luck.I am sure he and I agree on many things. Libby Davies, another fantastic NDP MP, is currently on a mission to Palestine, as usual doing and saying what a progressive politician should be doing and saying.Follow her blog here on rabble.ca

Libby was part of the effort to transform the party in 2002 called the New Politics Initiative. Most of the leadership of the NPI no longer sees the NDP as an instrument of change.The NDP defeated the NPI's proposal for a new unitary party of the Left at the 2002 convention by promising to incorporate our ideas.Instead Jack Layton has moved the party more towards the other parties, more professionalized, less and less presenting any kind of alternative vision.Paul Dewar said that the NDP unlike the other parties has real debates at convention. That's true, but like the other parties, the NDP doesn't really have discussions where they try and learn from opposition and from their own mistakes and look at debate as an opportunity for transformation rather than a threat to their power.

On this eve of the NDP convention, next week-end in Halifax, here is an excerpt from my book Transforming Power about the NDP and NPI experience.

"Over the years I have had to acknowledge that political parties seem to be just about the most intractable organizations around. I have been trying to convince the New Democratic Party to change since the 1980s, using various methods. Frankly, it was easier to win legal abortion in Canada against the power of the church, the police, the courts, and the government than to get this rather weak third party to change in any fundamental way. The pressure on political parties to conform to the existing political system is so great that they seem incapable of behaving in a way that is accountable, transparent, democratic, and effective. It is no wonder that so few people want anything to do with them.

"My generation of activists expanded the notion of politics, arriving at an understanding that social movements, such as the women’s and environmental movements, far from being special interest groups or interlopers in the political system—as they have been labelled by right-wing politicians—have actually been the most important forces for change in our political system. Ever since the early twentieth century, trade unions participated in electoral politics through a close alliance, often institutional alliance, with labour parties, such as the NDP in Canada. But the movements that emerged in the 1960s maintained a greater autonomy from political parties, pressuring the parties from the outside or making alliances with activists inside the party to make change. Today, many activists believe that it is movements alone that will make the changes we need, and that political parties are anachronisms of a previous age that cannot adapt to the new politics of this one. However, my experience tells me that unless we change power at the top while we are building power from the bottom, the change will only be partial. I am frankly not sure if this means retaining political parties as we know them. In any case, I think we need to learn how power can be exercised at a government level in a manner that is dramatically different than that used today.
"The efforts I have been involved with, starting with the Campaign for an Activist Party in 1988, and ending with the New Politics Initiative in 2002, attempted to persuade a social-democratic party that its future lay in an alliance not only with the labour movement, but also with all the various social movements for change that had emerged and were emerging...

 "In 2002, using some of the ideas from the Workers Party in Brazil  and some of the lessons we learned from the NDP experience in Ontario, I got together with Jim Stanford, who is the chief economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, and we came up with the idea of the New Politics Initiative (NPI). We noted that the New Democratic Party was not attracting the youth of the anti-globalization movement, so we pulled together a group that was half old-time left-wing activists and intellectuals and half newly minted activists from the anti-globalization movement. Stanford and I proposed a manifesto for a new party that would be, in deference to the anti-authoritarian politics of the new movement, signed by grassroots activists in addition to well-known leaders.

"The young activists said “No” to the manifesto, because the process was too top-down, but suggested we put out the manifesto as a discussion paper on the internet and ask for comments and signatories. Since we had the support of CAW president Buzz Hargrove and NDP MPs Svend Robinson and Libby Davies, our discussion paper hit the front page of The Globe and Mail.
"Within days of the posting, we were engulfed in a maelstrom of public debate as well as a difficult private process of trying to integrate the Old Left culture with the emerging New Left culture. The NPI argued that a new party be a unitary party of the Left, bringing together the NDP and the Green Party as well as movement activists, and base itself on a partnership with social movements and with a commitment to participatory democracy. Many in the NDP, including current leader Jack Layton, easily took up the politics of partnership with the social movements that in the 1980s had been such a hard sell, but there was less general understanding about what participatory democracy would mean in a party. Even though I had just written a book on the topic, in retrospect, I don’t think we had much of an idea ourselves. Nonetheless, NPI argued that the NDP had to open itself to the new forces of the anti-globalization movement by initiating the formation of a new party.
Writing for rabble after the NPI made its debut at the 2002 NDP convention, I said,

"What became clear over the course of the NDP convention, where we brought a resolution calling for the formation of a new party, was that the NPI is really about transforming left-wing politics by bringing together the best traditions of old left with the radical democracy of the new left..."The NPI was able to bring a bit of the spirit of the anti-globalization movement onto the floor of the NDP convention, chants, costumes, and face paint included. More than that, in a profoundly cautious political party, 40 percent voted for a radical proposal to initiate a new party. Indeed the impact may have been strong enough to open the NDP to formally including a political opposition for the first time in its history..."On the left internationally, two currents are emerging. On the one side, social democratic parties in England and most of Europe are moving to the right and embracing the so-called “third way,” meaning corporate globalization with a slightly more humane face. "The other current is emerging through the anti-corporate-globalization movement and some socialist parties in Latin America. This current strongly opposes corporate globalization and sees radical democracy, engaging citizens at every level of government, as the way to counter corporate power. As someone who has given up on the NDP more than once in my long political career, I feel a greater sense of optimism today that a new kind of political party that brings together most of the forces fighting for social justice is a real possibility."

'It’s a little depressing to read these words today, but important to assess them. What really happened was that Jack Layton used the rhetoric of the NPI for his run for leadership, and he was supported by NPI leaders such as Svend Robinson and Libby Davies. As most NPI activists were NDP members, they got caught up in this election campaign and the NPI dissolved....

"Jack Layton has since turned the NDP into more of a professionally driven party than it has ever been. Instead of participatory democracy in the party, what we have is informal social networking. Layton does this himself as a form of damage control every time the party makes a move in a direction that activists don’t like. The party considered it a victory when it won eight more seats in the same election won by the Bush-loving Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, infuriating a lot of social movement activists. In the 2008 election, the party recognized the error of its ways and turned its fire on Harper, thus improving its presence in Parliament and somewhat healing its relationship with social movement activists.
"In retrospect, the NPI was too little, too soon. It has taken a decade or more even to begin to ask the right questions about how to transform political power. Events in Brazil and South Africa, as well as the experiences of Venezuela and Bolivia, have given us a lot of information about what works and what doesn’t. And the experiences of two decades of organizing under neo-liberalism gives us more of a vision of what a participatory democracy might really look like.".. For more on political parties read Transforming Power
So I've given up on the NDP once again.  Here's hoping Paul Dewar has more luck than the NPI.  Change would be alot easier if we had real vision and leadership or at least a little more help  from the political Left.

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