The federal NDP must stand tall in its commitment to a boldly progressive agenda

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Image credit: Joshua Berson

In 2015, Libby Davies retired as deputy leader of the NDP and member of Parliament for Vancouver East, after four decades of work as a politician, community organizer and activist for progressive causes. Her recently published book, Outside In: A Political Memoir, recounts her career and the causes she has worked for, from the legalization of same-sex marriage to housing justice and access to safe injection sites on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In the following excerpt, Davies diagnoses what went wrong for the NDP in the 2015 federal election and how the party can avoid the same pitfalls in the future.

Many things have been written about the 2015 federal election, which sent the NDP back to third place with a Liberal majority government in power. Having retired from political office prior to the election, I nevertheless helped with the national campaign in B.C. What the NDP did or didn't do -- or should have done -- has been the subject of much debate. What I think about is our drift . . . like a lifeboat cast from the mothership.

The common analysis is that the NDP abandoned some of its traditional social democratic principles and Thomas Mulcair took the party to the centre, in the hope that we would attract more centre-minded voters, particularly when it came to supporting balanced budgets. But it's a lot more complicated than that. I think we lost the imagination of the voters because we thought being an efficient and pragmatic electoral machine would do the job. It didn't begin with Tom; it began earlier as attention focused on "winning" -- not at any cost, but by drifting at the margins.

What I dwell on is thinking that said: "it's what's happening in Parliament that Canadians pay attention to and determines how they will vote in an election." That thinking bolstered our hope that we could win in 2015.

Certainly, what happens in Parliament is enormously important. The terrible legislation passed by Harper's government, his disregard for democracy, his secrecy, arrogance, and elitism, it was all part of a decade of darkness. Fighting the government in Parliament was our job, and we did it well.

But somewhere along the way we lost our bigger vision and connection with people, including some of our base, as we became focused on winning. We forgot how to be creative and bold outside of Parliament and bring people with us.

One example involved the legalization of marijuana. I cannot fathom why we didn't clearly take a stand. Instead, we let the Liberals walk all over us with their pronouncements on marijuana. For years the NDP had led the way on drug policy reform; we had been the first federal party in 1971 to call for the decriminalization of marijuana before legalization was even raised.

The need for a regulatory and legalized approach is obvious -- just as it was during the prohibition of alcohol. But somehow, despite excellent resolutions crafted by NDP marijuana activist Dana Larsen calling for such an approach from more recent NDP provincial and national conventions, we couldn't say it clearly and unambiguously. We wrapped ourselves in a blanket that we were protecting ourselves from Conservative attacks and that it was a niche issue that only a few people cared about.

I fought tooth and nail, along with Dave Christopherson in caucus, to get us on the right track. And many in the caucus supported a position of being bold and outspoken on the issue. In the end, we settled on lines that were so nuanced that they just missed the point. New Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was on the issue and we looked like tag-alongs, showing up after the fact.

The report of a parliamentary committee studying marijuana gave me the opportunity to table the NDP position in the House on June 15, 2015. Having worked closely with Steve Moran, the NDP's head of parliamentary affairs and deputy chief of staff, I hoped the statement would make our policy clear -- despite avoiding the term "legalization." In part the statement read: "An NDP government would: Establish an independent commission with a broad mandate, including safety and public health, to consult Canadians on all aspects of the non-medical use of marijuana and to provide guidance to Parliament on the institution of an appropriate regulatory regime to govern such use." 

Unfortunately, our position was either ignored, or criticized by pro-legalization groups who thought the NDP had not gone far enough.

Of course that issue didn't lose us the election. But it's a nagging example of the mindset we got ourselves into. We acted cautiously and too late. The same with climate change, and natural resource management, including pipelines. We started on the right path and then somewhere along the way let ourselves limp along, becoming cautious and careful when people wanted boldness. As often happens in federal politics, we became focused on "managing" what was perceived as a difficult issue, particularly as it impacted various provincial party interests, rather than simply doing the right thing.

No political party is exempt from this kind of game plan; maybe it’s an inevitable outcome of our federation and its complexity of federal/provincial/territorial relations. But there are moments when it is necessary to speak truth to power. I think of the history of the NDP and its opposition to the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis or the original anti-terrorism legislation in 2001, or earlier, speaking out against the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War -- these were historic moments that displayed courage and integrity.

All of this to say, I am an optimist by nature and proud of so much of what the NDP does and stands for. I know we face formidable double standards in the mainstream media. Regardless of how well we do, they would still find a way to trash or ignore us. On that I am cynical. All the more reason for us to be smarter than all of them, and find new ways to do politics with people who have a passion for social justice and a better world.

In these political times, the NDP is needed more than ever. The rise of right-wing populism even here in Canada and the underwhelming position of Trudeau’s Liberal government on crucial issues such as climate change, democratic electoral reform, income inequality, and more make it crucial for the federal NDP to stand tall and unwavering in its commitment to a boldly progressive agenda. We must embrace a post-fossil-fuel economy and lead the way on an economic and social transition to it, and demonstrate that retraining, good jobs, and social advances create a healthier economy and healthier society overall.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain when we stand by what we believe in and learn from the historical roots that are our foundation. Tommy Douglas brought public health care that we couldn't now not imagine. Jack Layton brought hope and optimism that a different kind of politics and country is possible. I know we have the ability and capacity to realize a vision with Canadians where people live their lives to the fullest potential without destroying the environment around us.

Excerpted with permission from Outside In: A Political Memoir, by Libby Davies (Between the Lines, 2019). Image credit: Joshua Berson

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