The upcoming federal NDP convention will be a time for debate, reflection andstrategizing amongst party members. New Democrats will put forward resolutionsdesigned to change or reinforce party policy. Yet most of these resolutionswill never appear in a campaign platform or be espoused at a party newsconference.
For the NDP is split. On one hand there are a group of partyofficials, bureaucrats and the caucus (what I call the official NDP) whoseunstated but implicit goal is to successfully sell the party to the electorateas a product is sold to a consumer: with persuasion, media savvy and ambiguousassertions about the nature of Canadian society and the direction in which theparty would take it.
On the other hand is the party base: active in riding associations, furiouslypassing resolutions in time for convention, mobilizing diligently at electiontime and participating in a wide range of social movements. Convention bringsthe two NDP factions together.
But as discussion and debate make way forkeynote speakers and various entertainment acts, convention is bled of itsdemocratic importance and turned into a spectacle intended more for theconsumption of the media and the voting public at large than for the party’sgrassroots activists.
The quiet transition of the NDP from mass party to electoral machine must betraced, at least in recent history, to the defeat and subsequent decline of theNew Politics Initiative (NPI). Designed to renew the Left and democratize boththe party and politics as a whole, the NPI made the official NDP shudder whilechallenging the party’s base to rethink the brand of social democracy it hadcome to embrace in the 1990s.
As the NPI fades from memory, the lessons of its challenge appear to be lost onthe official NDP. Since the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the NDP’s starkopportunism and electoral strategy has resigned much of the Left to once againlook outside the party for vehicles of effective social change.
The official NDP has successfully alienated the activists mobilized by the NPIand those who put their bets on Jack Layton during the leadership race. Theyquickly learned that an increased media presence was the sum result of hisvictory, and not the reconstruction of the party into a social movement asLayton supporters had hoped for.
This state of affairs must bring the Left to mobilize and challenge thedirection of the party once again. In these efforts, there are a number ofdevelopments and political facts that should be brought to the attention of theparty base. The following eight points are to merely outline the party’scurrent conjuncture and the context in which the party’s Left must be renewed:
- The official NDP is in no position to claim success for their electioneering,narrow vision of the party. After running its most right-wing campaign inrecent memory — and with the Liberal Party arguably at one of the mostvulnerable points in its history — the NDP gained only two per cent more of thepopular vote in 2006 than in the federal election of 2004. The official NDPcalls this a victory as the party’s seats in the House of Commons haveincreased.
Yet their criterion for success has always been the percentage ofthe popular vote. This is understandable given the party’s commitment toproportional representation and the cruel logic (particularly to the NDP) ofthe first-past-the-post electoral system. When reduced to a low number ofseats, New Democrats could point to the popular vote as an indicator of itsrelevance. Apparently with more MPs, the party’s standards for success havechanged.
- The NDP has made little effort to mobilize the 40 per cent of the electorate who don’tvote (many of whom are poor and working class). The official NDP seemsresigned to the strategy of the Democratic Party in the U.S.: as electionturnouts decline, the party continually shifts to the centre in search ofsupport from unaligned voters. The NDP’s downplaying of redistributivepolicies at the expense of appeals to typically middle class issues is furtherevidence that the official NDP is in no mood to engage the disenfranchised anddispossessed.
- The process of converting party policy into an electoral platform isn’ttransparent. The secretive and unaccountable Election Planning Committeewields undue influence within the party’s structure.
- The NDP’s increasing reliance on focus groups to determine party policy isundemocratic and ignores the fact that throughout history, successful partiesof the Left have been tools for popular education and not simply reflections ofpublic opinion and the majoritarian thinking of their time. Parties of the Leftaim to change public opinion, not simply act as its mirror.
- In his remarks to the final meeting of the NPI, Jack Layton pledged to reachout to social movements and establish a constructive dialogue between the partyand the movements. Apart from some small steps in this direction, the party’srelationship to social movements has not changed significantly and was severelydamaged by the official NDP’s push for an early election.
- The party’s bureaucracy, leadership and membership are not reflective of amultiethnic Canadian society and severely limits the NDP’s ability to makeinroads with new Canadians and the increasingly multicultural urban workingclass. On this point, the official NDP has put forward some positiveinitiatives, but whether they will be adequately funded and carried throughremains to be seen.
- It is necessary, following on the examples of the Latin American and EuropeanLeft, that the party becomes open to the establishment of official politicaltendencies within its ranks, understanding that debate contributes to partydemocracy and stimulates new ideas.
- Prior to the 2004 and 2006 federal elections, the official NDP sought out someof the brightest minds in progressive Canadian economics. Poised to review theparty’s economic and industrial policy (or lack thereof), this work was abruptlyhalted as an election appeared imminent.
Instead, the NDP took the economicthought of a Bay Street economist, and relatively new party member, PaulSummerville, as its guiding vision. His speech at the Ottawa election kick-off — seen by many as an official statement by the party — represented an emaciatedvision of social democracy which could have been penned by any first yearpolitical science student with minimal knowledge of Left politics.
A renewed Left must remind the party that it’s a means to an end, and not an endin itself. The NPI has been laid to rest. The timing of its death is a matterfor reflection as most of the party’s Left flank collapsed its resources andsupport into Jack Layton’s project. For those of us concerned with socialjustice and a democratic socialist vision of Canada, it’s imperative that wefind our voice and once again stake a claim on the future of the NDP.