The Left: A lot of activity, but lacking definition

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A spectre is haunting Canada, as Marx and Engels said in a different era (and not about Canada): the spectre of the Canadian left. But I think phantom would be a better term. As in phantom limb. Take two examples.

A Liberal-NDP merger. This has often been a subject of speculation. It has now moved into serious discussions. However, an anonymous Liberal organizer told the Toronto Star it won't happen, because "They're socialists, we're not." Would that it were so, as they say in the Talmud. It would be nice to have someone at least make the case. But most NDP-like parties in the West long ago abandoned socialism to embrace free-market orthodoxy. Some, like New Zealand's Labour government in the 1980s, were more zealous than the official right-wingers. In the U.K., Labour leader Tony Blair admired Margaret Thatcher; he modelled New Labour in imitation. In Canada, Bob Rae's Ontario NDP government killed its own 1990 election promise of public auto insurance. I once asked Jack Layton what distinguished the federal NDP's views from Stéphane Dion's Liberals. He replied, it's that people can believe those things when we say them. That may be arrogant and implausible, but it's not socialist. Let the merging begin.

Such backpedalling is fairly inevitable when parties get serious about gaining power. They focus on the short-term task of hitting whatever notes will get a swift nod from the voters, at that moment. More marginal parties, like the old Reform or the old CCF-NDP, play a different role: they float innovative ideas like populist democracy or socialism. But a narrow focus on power means a shrinking focus on those ideas. Why notions like democracy or socialism, which have (or had) lots of general appeal, fare so poorly in an electoral context is a mystery I'll leave for a more contemplative time.

The coming Canadian version of Fox News. Its mission, says its head, former Harper aide Kory Teneycke, is to take on the leftist mainstream, or "lamestream," media, typified by the CBC, a "left-wing channel." I've been beaten to punch on this by John Moore, writing as a "house liberal" in the National Post, who noted that "Canadian conservatives already have talk radio, the Sun newspaper chain, the National Post and Maclean's," while 17 of 18 major newspapers backed Stephen Harper last election. I could cheerily extend his list, but I'll restrain myself. In other words, the mainstream media are largely right-wing. What left-wing media? If you're a right-winger like Kory Teneycke, Ezra Levant or the gang at the National Post, you've probably been gainfully employed in government or lamestream media since you left university. If you're a genuine left commentator like Yves Engler (Who? you say) with four good books to your credit, you probably financed your magnum opus on Canadian foreign policy by working nights at a Montreal hotel and only rarely sneak onto those left-wing channels. (For the record, I am not now nor have I ever been an actual mainstream media employee. I've always gone freelance.)

But if that's so, where is the phantom Canadian left? Who is it? Is it? Well, there's lots of left activity but not much definition. The old centrepiece of socialism is either missing or under heavy, tentative reconstruction. (I'd put my money on an anarchist version.) Unions, once the left's backbone, are in serious decline precisely when most working people need a way to resist the power of an increasingly compact corporate sector. It's unclear whether labour can rejig itself to meet that need. There's lots of disparate activism to support foreign "struggles" (Haiti, Free Gaza) along with environmentalism, save public health care, etc. But in mainstream party politics, or in the mainstream media -- Poof! Now you see them, now you don't.

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