A year ago this October Nova Scotia voters tossed out the NDP from government and elected a Liberal majority. The crushing defeat for the NDP after only one term in power was primarily the result of its move to the right, which only served to alienate, disorient and demotivate its base of urban and trade union voters. Of course there were other factors — the MLA expense scandal and the poor state of the economy — but ultimately the first NDP government failed to deliver on the change that so many people expected.
In the lead up to the 2013 election the Liberals opportunistically tacked to the left. The NDP, having ceded its left flank by positioning itself as the responsible economic stewards of the province, failed to both distinguish themselves from the Liberals and win the approval of the business interests in the province.
Many on the left at the time and subsequently have argued that the Liberals were either more progressive or that there was no real difference between the NDP and Liberals. There was a certain kernel of truth to the argument. The NDP in government after all had not been radically different. It doled out corporate welfare to the business class, increased tuition fees, used back-to-work legislation against the paramedics, cut small business taxes, and placed a premium balancing budgets. It put in place some modest progressive policies, such as increasing access to dental coverage, instituting fair drug pricing and passing first contract arbitration.
The idea that the political options presented by the major parties have narrowed in the last 20 years is undoubtedly true. However, to jump from this to the notion that there was no difference between the Liberals and the NDP has proven to be absurd when actually faced with the facts.
The Nova Scotia Liberals in power
The Liberals’ first year in power has been one of 365 days of unremitting assault on the working class. Bill 30 legislated over 400 home care workers back to work. Bill 37, stripped nearly 40,000 workers in the health care and community services sector of their right to strike. Bill 1 will force 24,000 unionized workers into government crafted bargaining units, while further curbing their labour rights. The Liberals also gutted the first contract arbitration previously passed by the NDP. They are now excluding students from the drafting of new memorandum of understanding concerning tuition rates (not even the Tories did this). The Liberals have also frozen personal allowance for those on social assistance. All this in their first year in power, Harper would be proud.
Yes, both the Liberals and the NDP used back-to-work legislation and should be criticized for it. But to then use this as a basis for equating the two parties in power is intellectually lazy and reveals how divorced some on the left are from workers in struggle. The aggressiveness with which the Liberals have waged class conflict is quite different than the way in which the NDP tried to manage class relations. This reflects the internal contradictions of the NDP as a party. The party leadership and its base see the party as an instrument for different purposes (the leadership seeks power and respectability, while the base wants the promise of social democratic reforms). The leadership wants to steer the party to the right to be more acceptable, but they can never maneuver too far to the right without alienating their base, which is ultimately their source of legitimacy in the political arena.
Those of us on the left have a duty to be rigorous with our analysis. It is simply not acceptable for us to paper over facts with abstract statements about neoliberalism, social democracy, and socialism. We need to understand the strength and weaknesses of the actual existing left (such as unions, political organizations, social movements forces) versus the organizational depth and fortitude of the right wing. A rational approximation of the balance of social forces is required to understand why the NDP is positioning itself the way it is, where the political openings are and to formulate a strategy that can advance true alternatives.
As we move into 2015, the left will be pulled in many directions around the elections. There will be those who argue for people to fall in line behind the NDP, those who argue for strategic voting (aka voting for the Liberals) and those who will take the stance of ‘why bother voting, all the parties are more or less the same.’
The electoral question for most people is one that is isolating and individualizing. The left needs to be able to understand why many people are pushed in those directions and offer a strategy that can collectively build an alternative way forward. We must begin to build on the ground movements that push specific demands such as stopping the cuts at Canada Post, ending the subsidization of oil and gas, a national universal childcare program, an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and stopping the war on Iraq and Syria. These demands are by no means the extent of the alternative to the present state of affairs, rather they are possible strategic starting points upon which to mobilize larger layers of people, shift the political terrain to the left and build democratic organizations capable of challenging capitalism.
Six lessons for 2015
1. The choices in the electoral sphere have been narrowed dramatically in the last several decades, but the parties are not all the same.
2. The gesture of collapsing the differences in the electoral sphere shirks our responsibility to understand and explain the actual world around us.
3. We ultimately need an independent left and therefore must begin the process of building one.
4. The strategy of building an independent left must start with organizing around concrete issues and demands.
5. There is also a role for lefties to build smaller political organizations that can be the initiators and organizers for broader based campaigns.
6.The energy and lessons of those issue-based campaigns should be the basis for building a larger independent left organization that gives expression to those struggles.
To offer only abstract ideas and abstract critiques means the left will forever remain a marginal political current that simply reinforces the NDP or strategic voting as the de facto options for the broader working class. Simply faulting the NDP without doing the work that will create the conditions for an organized left that can express a real alternative is not only ineffective, but an abdication of our responsibility.