There appears to be an uptick in progressive activist engagement in electoral politics at the local, provincial and federal levels.
For example, we’ve recently seen 26-year-old Lyra Evans win in Ottawa’s Rideau/Vanier-Capital ward to become likely the first openly transgender school board trustee in Canada, 45-year-old Joel Harden win Ottawa Centre for the provincial NDP, and now 26-year-old Paige Gorsak seek the federal nomination for the NDP in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona.
There may be numerous other examples across the country.
It’s not that activists haven’t run for office before, but significantly, there’s now a context of candidates in the United States identifying as democratic socialists, notably newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
We are also seeing a critical analysis and internal challenge of established parties — once seen as being on the left that have drifted to the centre — and a concerted effort to push them to the left.
Youth engagement may represent a certain flexing of demographic electoral power.
The CBC has reported, “Elections Canada figures compiled by Abacus Data show millennials (those born since 1980) and generation Xers (those born between 1964-79) will represent two-thirds of the electorate in 2019, with millennials forming the largest single voting bloc.”
The CBC adds, “A majority of young voters tramped to the polls and about 44 per cent of them cast their ballot for Trudeau’s party. Both the Conservatives and New Democrats lost about 10 points in a voting group they split in 2011.”
As such, engagement could also be retribution for the promises broken by Justin Trudeau (particularly on the climate change front) from the demographic that will arguably be more impacted by climate breakdown than voters born before 1964.
The uptick in engagement may also be arising because of the inspiring example of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom under Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn’s more progressive positioning has seen the party increase to 540,000 members (up from the 190,000 members under centrist Ed Miliband), fundraising spike to £55.8 million (up from £39.6 million under Miliband), and most significantly, Labour winning 12.878 million votes in the 2017 election (compared to its 9.347 million votes in the 2015 election).
This success — not to mention the vitriolic attacks against Corbyn by the Labour Party establishment and the right-wing — could be a sign that it’s possible to do politics in a different way, one that doesn’t involve rushing to the “extreme centre” as Tariq Ali has termed it.
So why am I feeling ambivalent about activist engagement in electoral politics?
In part I feel it must be related to the crushing disappointment I felt as a 26-year-old political activist who had celebrated the unexpected NDP win in Ontario in 1990.
You might say it’s time to get over that.
I felt the same rise and fall when the NDP under Rachel Notley unexpectedly won in Alberta in 2015. Yes, Alberta is a petro-state and maybe she had no political choice other than to back the Energy East and Kinder Morgan pipelines, but that’s a reality not easily forgiven and one that doesn’t support electoral politics as a strategy to win climate justice.
And the same with Syriza in Greece that came in on an anti-austerity platform and under the thumb of the banks and international capital-imposed austerity measures.
It could also be that I agree with radical labour activist Lucy Parsons (1853-1942) who commented, “Never be deceived that the rich will let you vote away their wealth.” A present-day Parsons might say, “Never be deceived that Big Oil will let you vote away the billions of dollars in profits they see in the ground and under the sea.”
So what to do?
I realize it may not be an either-or proposition. Within a diversity-of-tactics approach, there is room for a conscious, politicized experiment in radicalizing electoral politics.
I keep in mind that Corbyn was a member of Parliament for 32 years before he (unexpectedly) won the leadership of the party and had previously voted against his own party (when it was in power) at least 428 times while also remaining connected to social movements.
Maybe it’s possible that through activist engagement in the NDP and the Green Party we could see a clearer articulation in the 2019 election (or the 2023 election) against colonialism, climate change, capitalism and the rise of fascism than we’ve had so far.
And there’s also undoubtedly a desperate need to up our game in terms of credible and effective social movement organizing. As Extinction Rebellion has highlighted, we need to move beyond symbolic protests and the overuse of e-petitions.
Author-activist Howard Zinn once commented, “The really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in — in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating. Those are the things that determine what happens.”
I take that to heart, but maybe we are in a political moment where this isn’t a mutually exclusive proposition and where we need to demand more from all of our traditional institutions of social change (political parties, unions, non-governmental organizations, grassroots groups) in order to advance our critical efforts on all fronts.
Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.
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