What can be said of the Peoples' Social Forum?
The convergence was massive and from the outside, seemed to be executed without a hitch. The organizers went big and participants delivered: thousands of people in attendance, hundreds of workshops presented and dozens of movement assemblies converged.
But it's openness and enormity was also a barrier to action. With dozens of workshops held at the same time, people were forced to self-segregate. People doing work in a specific field stayed with their own rather than break into new movements and make connections across existing networks.
The hugeness of it all allowed us to maintain our fractions and divisions. There was no formal space opened for informal discussion.
But, in the informal spaces, there was lots happening: people met, ideas were shared and debates were hashed out.
Unfortunately, little emerged on the most pressing question: how do we defeat Harper in 2015?
I know that there's debate about whether or not this is the most pressing question. Certainly movements are more important than electoral politics, and Indigenous sovereignty and the environment trump electoralist gains.
But there’s no debate that Harper must be stopped. Only the most privileged of leftist activists can deny how dangerous Harper is for average people.
In absence of a debate about how to stop Harper, the only narrative that has emerged is one that is being advanced by many union leaders: the need to coordinate a strategic voting campaign. This approach stands opposed to the "vote-NDP-at-all-costs" alternative.
I heard a lot of poo-pooing of strategic voting from the self-styled ultra left, chalking it up to union bureaucrats who are more interested in hijacking a progressive space like a social forum to advance their own agenda. This analysis stunted any further development of what a "strategic" voting campaign could look like.
Strategic voting landed the Liberals their victory in Ontario's last election. I agree that it’s a terrible direction to take, but I don’t share the "hijacking" narrative of some. Surely, labour leadership must be part of whatever campaign the broad left undertakes.
The lack of a nuanced position and the polarization of this debate is one failure of the left: it's a failure of the labour movement to offer a nuanced approach to the Harper problem and it’s a failure of the radical left to offer an alternative for how to defeat Harper.
In Québec, where there is no threat of a Conservative win, the strategic vote argument will likely privilege the NDP. It could also mean a Liberal victory. Unsurprisingly, the Québec labour leaders are calling for a strategic vote. But, calling for a strategic vote elsewhere, will ensure a Liberal votes, but won't ensure a Harper defeat.
Strategic voting is dangerous to democracy because it demands that people suspend their desires and vote against their own interests. It requires citizens to vote against something rather than for something. It places way too much faith in polls and is easily corruptible. The result is deep disenfranchisement and the election of a party that is not actually supported by the people.
Calling for a full vote of the NDP would also be a mistake. The NDP's record so-far is not progressive enough to warrant a blank cheque in support from the left. In many parts of Canada, progressives might choose to make the deeply cynical decision to stop the Conservatives by voting Liberal. While "Liberal, Tory, Same Old Story" both rhymes and rings true, the NDP's record at the provincial level indicates that "Liberal, NDP, seems the same to me" might hold more truth.
Fact is, either party would be a much better result that Harper's Conservatives and neither will bring about the change that we desperately need.
Both paths are laden with contradiction and trade-offs and neither are very good options.
What will be needed in 2015 is another approach. Progressives should unite around a set of demands and push all left-of-centre candidates to unequivocally support these demands. And, where no candidates will support these demands, progressives should put themselves forward as candidates.
In some parts of Canada, this might force the NDP and even the Liberals to the left. In others, it will mean that new, progressive candidates will emerge. Together, a non-partisan, progressive coalition could build the support necessary on the ground to stop Harper's Tories.
Imagine the following five priorities, each with concrete demands that could unite progressives in all corners of Canada:
To receive the support of progressives in their riding, candidates would have to sign on to these priorities. If they refuse, they'll face someone running to their left. Either way, the work will have started to create a real alternative to the NDP and the Liberals beyond 2015.
Harper needs to be defeated and the left needs to unfragment itself to make this happen. It needs to stop talking inside baseball to the same union hall of activists. Together, we need to offer a vision of something new, something possible and something inspiring for people to get behind.
If the ALS bucket challenge has shown us anything, it's that people are compassionate, regardless of their formal political orientation. I don't believe that true social transformation is possible under our current system of government, but it sure as hell isn't going to disappear without a credible, leftist alternative. Together, working from outside the formal mechanisms of politics, we have to offer a peoples' alternative, invite everyone to join us and challenge those people who refuse.
We can't know how the Peoples' Social Forum will influence organizing in the months and years to come. What it demonstrated is that there are thousands of people who have dedicated their lives to fight for justice and peace.
If uniting under the tent of the Peoples' Social Forum made sense that sunny Ottawa weekend in August, then the same approach must be taken to defeat Harper.
It's time to unite and fight, build and grow, organize and win.
Photo: QUOI Media/flickr
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