Party politics and making change

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How can any significant social transformation happen without a political party elected by masses of people taking charge at the key point, and making changes? No one has ever been able to explain to me how else social change happens. The wonderful Muriel Duckworth never stopped working for change. Alex McDonough also credited Muriel with being the inspiration behind her career in politics, including being first women leader of a political party in Canada.

Think of the major victories won by social movements. The abolition of slavery, the extension of the franchise to women, universal health insurance or the right to strike. In each case one political party, somewhere, was first to enact legislation, budget the money and put the administrative measures in place.

Social activists do not much care which party makes change happen, so long as it does. In Canada a rookie Liberal Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced an omnibus bill that ended the criminalization of homosexual relations. Jean Chrétien introduced legislation allowing marriage between same sex couples. These were transformative measures. Nothing would have come forward if there had not been a gay rights movement with plenty of support. But parliamentarians had to act.

The Liberals were not alone in 1967, the NDP pushed for legislation. Both the NDP and the Bloc supported same sex marriage. If the Harper Conservatives had been in charge it would not have mattered what the gay rights movement said or did.

At a time when transformative political action has never been more needed, to end militarism, stop greenhouse gas emissions from destroying the planet and replace speculative financial capitalism underwritten by the state, with an economy based on meeting human needs world wide, how can activists say they have no time for political parties?

It is fairly easy, actually. Most parties want nothing much to do with social activists. The Chrétien Liberals wanted no criticism from the woman's movement so they cut off funding to NAC (National Action Committee on the Status of Women). A former NAC president, Chaviva Hosek, was policy chief for the Liberals when it happened.

As Larry Haiven has just shown superbly, how in the past, the NDP provincially has found ways to mute activists in its own ranks, in order to make itself conform to mainstream opinion.

The reality is that political parties of the left need strong social movements, and should be making every step necessary to bring activists on board. The federal NDP is a case in point.

Social action grows out of deep needs that are not being met. In Canada today, the income security system is broken: public pensions are inadequate, EI does not cover enough people, pays out too little, for too short a period; and the national government no longer funds welfare, which has been gutted by the provinces. Without income security, the balance of power in the workplace shifts to employers. Concessions follow. This devalues union membership.

The NDP must re-mandate itself. Act always, and everywhere, as the party of labour, jointly organizing with trade unionists on the ground to build support for a new income security system.

Similarly, on climate change, the NDP needs to spearhead an alliance between labour, and environmental groups, what Leo Gerard called in his Halifax speech to the NDP convention, a blue-green alliance. David Suzuki needs to be on the same page as the national labour leadership, not taking pot shots at people who put the economy first.

There is a place for independent socialists, particularly journalists, editors, public servants, academics or activists with organizations using charitable status for fundraising. I was one such activist myself throughout a career teaching in Ontario, and volunteering with a think-tank (CCPA), a magazine (Canadian Forum), and the anti-free trade movement (Action Canada Network).

I understand when social activists say the NDP does not get what to do to make change, and that all the party is interested in is winning seats. Because electoral priorities requires not getting toasted for holding unpopular views, it is easy to see why the Saskatchewan NDP swung to the centre, and ultimately turning against the farmer-labour-church social movements which created it.

What I do not get is when independent socialists write off electoral politics, and in particular, the NDP. Of course academics can choose academic life, and act politically through their writing, but they still hold citizenship and with that comes some responsibilities to engage with the party system. To me writing off party politics smacks of quitting.

Even the most important victories have a way of needing to be won again. Carol Off has written a book Bitter Chocolate showing that slavery is back, alive and well in cocoa production in Africa, in the Ivory Coast specifically. Structural adjustment policies introduced by the IMF and the World Bank blew away the social fabric created in the post-colonial period, she shows.

Muriel Duckworth never gave up because of reversals. She showed us we need more social activism not less, and smarter strategies. Winning the hearts and minds of people is never enough. Power must be conquered as well.

Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.

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