Labour and the NDP: What now?

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The CAW decision says labour should not give unconditional support to a party that does not represent it effectively. But you cannot build a labour party by saying we will support you only where and when you can help us.

The CAW council just voted to sever relations with the NDP, all aspects of it, federally and provincially. No more money, no more direct affiliations, it is over: the 45 year-long partnership between the union and the party is gone.

The Ontario NDP had previously voted to expel the CAW leader, so it should have known what to expect. Perhaps it has a plan for how to deal with the loss of support. More likely, it will just try and put the best face possible on the action, while sweeping the matter under the carpet.

This would compound the earlier mistake.

In Ontario and elsewhere, the CAW speaks for a lot more people than its members, and their immediate families (nationally, well over half a million people). Social activists of all sorts look to the CAW for leadership. Many organizations owe their existence to union support, and the CAW is a major financial player.

The good news is that the CAW is looking to step up support for progressive organizations that share the CAW vision of a better Canada and a better world.

The bad news is that CAW activists will be in short supply at NDP conventions around the country, as for instance, when the Federal party holds it first convention since Jack Layton was elected leader.

The Liberals are undergoing a painful re-examination of the party in the light of the major internal battles between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, which go all the way back to the leadership contest between John Turner and Chrétien to succeed Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Headed by Tom Axworthy, a review is being done on what went wrong, and how to move forward. And, until a few months ago, the Liberals were in office for better than 12 years.

After the 2004 election when the Conservative campaign faltered, Stephen Harper ordered a review of party performance. The findings helped them adopt a strategy that won minority government.

Surely, it is time for the NDP to undertake its own broad review of the party. It should take place at the riding association level, and be done in time for the next convention. All labour organizations, affiliated or not, to the NDP must be invited to participate.

In the meantime the Canadian Labour Congress and its provincial federations need to undertake their own strategic review of the role of the NDP in representing workers, and defending union issues.

Outside its birthplace (it was born as the CCF) in Western Canada the party has not delivered as expected.

The key political divide is the same as always. Aristotle called it between rich and poor; we know it as between investors using control of Parliament to define and protect their property rights, and workers fighting, and organizing to build a society based on justice, solidarity, equality and freedom for all.

The struggle across the divide goes on whether people want to recognize it or not.

In this spirit the American poet Robert Frost defined a liberal as someone who did not take his or her side in an argument.

Who is going to take the side of workers in the political arena?In the U.S. there is not a party willing to do it. In Canada, the NDP has done it, notably while in government in B.C., but does not always do it, and more importantly, is too often too weak for it to make a difference when it does.

The CAW decision amounts to saying that labour should not give its unconditional support to a party that does not represent it effectively.But you cannot build a labour party by saying we will support you only where and when you can help us.

Many of the key issues surrounding making the NDP stronger were raised in the New Politics Initiative debate that took place prior to the NDP convention in 2001. That convention adopted the one-member-one-vote principle, which weakened the logic for union affiliation. It did not face other key questions: whether to establish a stand-alone federal party, adopt a new name, and open up the party to outsiders. Election financing reform brought in by Chrétien weakened financial ties between labour and the NDP and changed the relationship in ways that have yet to be understood.

Building a party that has broad public appeal across the country in both official languages, that speaks and acts on behalf of workers, not investors, and can win government is not going to be easy.

A party review, evaluations of the NDP by labour and others, and a public debate, is an important step in making it ready to happen.

The NDP does not have to deliver a new world. It does have to get ready for the one that is coming.

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