When I first read the New Politics Initiative’s manifesto I thought it was one of the most visionary and exciting things I had read in a long time. Re-reading it a decade later, the NPI’s vision of a more fundamentally democratic society and its ideas for a new type of politics still ring true. They also have a tremendous resonance with the current political moment, though in ways not intended by the drafters.
As a call to action to progressives inside and outside the NDP to transform into a new kind of political party, the NPI was a failure. While Jack Layton’s campaign for leader resonated the most with that sentiment, and he became the candidate of NPI supporters, the Layton decade made little progress towards the NPI vision. Layton did make some early attempts to build party linkages to social movements, but before long the party fell back into its more traditional mode of legislative battle.
Indeed, the NDP’s recent (and, to most, unanticipated) rise to Official Opposition status under Layton’s leadership was good ol’ election politics, albeit well timed to the implosion of the Bloc Quebecois. It is only fair, after so many decades, that the NDP has a voice in Parliament in proportion to its broader public support. But the party’s longtime looking in from the outside speaks directly to the deficiencies of representative democracy in Canada. The flipside of 2011’s gain for the NDP, a Harper majority government, only re-asserts the need for a new politics to replace a system that conferred massive power on a party that got only two out of every five votes cast.
The NPI’s vision of more participatory democracy underpinning a broader social movement clearly seems more at home in the also recent and unanticipated rise of the Occupy movement. The practice among (primarily young) activists to make decisions differently through consensus-based participatory methods is central, and linked to smaller-scale attempts at collective decision-making a decade ago, such as in grassroots protest against the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (where political and corporate elites met literally behind the walls of Quebec City’s medieval fortress at the Summit of the Americas in 2001).
Ten years on, the NPI manifesto hardly looks dated at all. The underlying challenges of a growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, and a deteriorating global environment are even more acute. It was a great decade for capitalism.
Now, the NDP leadership is again being contested, this time with a chance for the winner to become prime minister and the NDP to become the Government of Canada. This is sure to set up barricades of risk aversion from within the party. With real power in sight, would the NDP open itself up to the type of new politics proposed by the NPI and practiced by the Occupy movement?
In this, the NDP should heed a warning of the NPI that political power is constrained by economic power, that one cannot win power just by winning an election. Without a vibrant and deep social movement that’s got its back, the NDP has little hope of implementing even modest reforms should the next election paint Canada orange.
If the NDP wants to really win, it needs to offer a bold vision that challenges capitalism, but more importantly it must be rooted in the day-to-day struggles of social movements. The NDP could still evolve to become a party bigger than itself, one that fought elections, but between elections helped build the capacity of social movements. Championing participatory democracy for the 21st century means more than supporting proportional representation in parliament. Embracing the democratic principles of the Occupy movement, there is an opportunity for the NDP to change the way it practices politics by becoming a new kind of, er, democratic, uh, party.
The 10th anniversary of the NPI could not come at a better time. Imagine a coming decade of Canadian politics where growing social movements, using democratic processes mediated and amplified by networking technologies, coalesce into a progressive political force that could actually make Canada a more equal and fair society, where we remade our economy to meet the needs of everyone while living better lives in harmony with the planet.
I’ll give the last word to the NPI vision statement:
“We reject the idea that the sun has somehow set on the ideals of egalitarianism, solidarity, redistribution, community responsibility, and socialism — ideals that have motivated generations of human beings to fight to limit the economic and political power of private wealth. … Far from retreating defensively and adopting so-called “moderate” values, we have an opportunity to loudly call out that the emperor has no clothes: decades of pro-business policies have not delivered better life prospects for the vast majority of Canadians (let alone those in the Third World), and it is time once again to think about fundamental changes in the way we organize our society and our economy.”
Marc Lee was an early signatory to the New Politics Initiative. He is also a senior economist with the B.C. Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Co-Director of the Climate Justice Project, a five-year partnership with the University of British Columbia looking at the social justice aspects of climate action policies.