Jim Stanford and I are friends and comrades. We thought up the idea for the New Politics Initiative one day while marching in an anti-poverty march. So it is with a deep sense of solidarity that I beg to differ with his analysis of the recent Canadian election.

I find myself at odds not only with Jim but also with recent commentators who are portraying this election as somehow a victory for the left in Canada. The increase in seats for the NDP combined with the fact that the Conservatives fell far short of the majority predicted by a cheerleading mainstream media are interpreted as positive signs in the reading of electoral tea leaves.

In my view the election was a disaster for progressive ideas and movements in Canada. While the Conservatives are carefully constructing a majority for the next time, the left is deeply divided and demobilized. The major visible debate on the left was whether or not to support the Liberals and whether the NDP should be blamed for forcing the election and therefore the Conservative minority.

The fact that the NDP ran the most right-wing electoral campaign in recent memory was barely mentioned. On three issues the NDP not only broke with party policy but seriously undermined the alliance between the social movements and a left-wing political party that is — as Jim Stanford says — key to progressive social change.

The crass electoralism of the NDP’s embrace of a law-and-order agenda is unforgivable. There are mountains of evidence that more cops on the streets, minimum sentencing and other similar right-wing solutions do nothing to reduce violent crime. Jack Layton should have been taking Stephen Harper on by citing chapter and verse of how Mike Harris’ punitive policies and cutbacks were more responsible for increased violence than anything else, not to mention Paul Martin’s cuts to welfare. Instead, the NDP adapted Tony Blair’s hypocritical catch phrase, of cracking down on crime and cracking down on the roots of crime. I came pretty close to ripping up my NDP card over this.

Focusing on winning a few votes from left-wing Liberals also led the NDP to support increased military spending with nary a phrase about staying out of war and keeping our independence from the U.S. administration, a key issue given the rise of the pro-Bush Conservatives.

When Jack Layton announced out of the blue at the beginning of the campaign that he actually supported the Clarity Act, any chance of unity with the left in Quebec flew out the window. Most progressives in Quebec that I’ve talked to voted NDP in the last federal election because they believed that Jack was the first leader who really supported Quebec’s right to self-determination. This time they voted Bloc Québécois.

That having been said, it is no solution to move to the right of the NDP to solve the problem and that is in essence what Jim Stanford is promoting. It is one thing to criticize the NDP for refusing to attack the Conservatives especially on key issues like law and order and child care and it is another to campaign for the Liberals, which both Jim and Buzz Hargrove did.

I think strategic voting is a pretty foolish idea in our electoral system. Unless two parties make an electoral alliance it is unlikely to work. But campaigning for the man who single-handedly removed the right to welfare in this country by eliminating the Canada Assistance Plan is beyond the pale. Paul Martin and the Liberal Party of Canada are not now nor have they ever been progressive. The Liberal campaign rhetoric of uniting the left is crass opportunism.

Moreover Jim’s subtle blaming of the NDP for the gains of the Conservatives is also wrong-headed. Claiming the Conservative minority as a victory for the “anti-Tory” forces is without a shred of evidence. Indeed, the increase in the NDP vote would suggest that the recommendation to strategic voting thankfully fell on deaf ears.

The corrupt and witless Liberals defeated themselves and in truth they deserved to be defeated. The Conservatives, in my view, were never really within shot of a majority, but in any case shot themselves in the foot in the last week of the campaign with the American-style comments about the Supreme Court and the civil service, reminding the media — among others — that Harper is not quite as moderate as he is pretending to be.

We should remind ourselves, whatever progressive measures the Liberals were forced into as a minority, when they were a majority they did more to undermine social programs like unemployment insurance and welfare than the Tories ever did. It may be true that a Liberal minority would be better than a Tory minority. But to show independence from the NDP by actively campaigning for the Liberals is a major step backwards.

What we needed instead were social movements pushing the NDP to present a real alternative to both the Liberals and the Conservatives through a bold campaign on electoral and political reform, universal child care, for a preventative, anti-racist approach to violent crime, against militarism and for peace, and for a green economy.

I just came back from the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. There the discussion of the relationship between the party and the social movements is very intense. It is true that left-wing parties came to the fore on the shoulders of their comrades in the social movements but it is also true that the pressure of electoralism is moving some of those parties, like Brazil’s Workers’ Party to the right and now the discussion is whether it is even worth pressuring them to really represent the interests of the poor and marginalized any more.

The Workers’ Party in Brazil moved to the right once in government, the NDP under the pressure of winning a few more seats. The pressure of electoral politics in the age of neo-liberalism and a relentlessly right-wing media is enormous. It is difficult for a social democratic or even a socialist party to stand up to these pressures. The only way that can happen is for social movements to pressure the party from the other side. It is a sign of the devastation that neo-liberalism has wrought on our movements that the only visible criticism of the NDP from the social movements was over electoral tactics rather than policy and in the case of some from the right instead of from the left.

In Latin America, movements have moved from the defensive against neo-liberalism to the offensive. They are redefining socialism as socialism from the bottom up using participatory democracy. Indigenous people are in the lead in many countries providing their community values as a counter to the greed and individualism of corporate globalization. The debates are open- ended and intense and there is much for us to learn.

While we are far from the revolutionary situation in many Latin American countries, the debate we must have now is more profound than the one suggested by Jim Stanford. The problem is not only the divisions between the NDP and the social movements but the weaknesses of both. It is not only the NDP that is failing to present an alternative vision of society.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of rabble.ca , wrote our advice column auntie.com and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....