Electoral politics and progressive activism have always been uncomfortable bedfellows.

Activism is about principles and taking direct action to further those principles.

It most often has defined goals, and seeks to rally people who share those goals to work together.

Electoral politics is about achieving state power.

It is about managing the affairs of government on all fronts, and it is inevitably about compromise, conciliation, and acting within the realm of the possible.

Federally, for most of its history, the New Democratic Party, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF) that preceded it, straddled the worlds of activism and electoral politics, in part because the Party had little realistic aspiration of achieving power.

Such was not the case provincially.

Many provincial New Democratic and CCF leaders — from Saskatchewan’s CCF Finance Minister Clarence Fines, who brought down 16 consecutive balanced budgets, to Roy Romanow, Gary Doer and Darrel Dexter — pride themselves on their “pragmatism” and “realism.”

The founding document of the CCF — the Regina Manifesto of 1932 — called for the “eradication of capitalism and a full program of socialized planning” and included proposals for massive nationalization of key productive sectors of the economy.

Those proposals are a far cry from anything anyone in the present day NDP would advocate.

Even the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (CCPA’s) most recent Alternative Federal Budget is silent on such Regina Manifesto notions as public ownership. It does, however, propose a series of significant — and maybe even radical — tax measures.

Whoever is chosen leader, the NDP will almost certainly adopt a very small number of those tax proposals — such as rolling back recent corporate tax cuts. But the Party would almost certainly consider the majority of the CCPA’s taxation ideas to be electoral poison, in the current Canadian political climate.

That is why it is essential to have entities such as the CCPA.

Electoral politics is so governed by the mysterious and dark forces that influence that strange beast called “public opinion” that parties can only afford to go so far in any given campaign.

The Conservatives, on the right, have understood that, and have used their media and think-tank allies (such as the National Post and the Fraser Institute) to soften public opinion and prepare the ground for their creeping, radical right agenda.

As for Canadian progressives, is the electoral process so governed by the imperatives of compromise that it is not worth the candle?


When you get close to it, political power, like adulthood, may not be all that it might seem from a distance. And it is true that the nation state in the contemporary, globalized economy has only so much power.

But if political power in the contemporary nation state is limited in its capacity to achieve good, to fully realize social and environmental justice, it certainly has great capacity to do harm.

Just look at the current majority Harper Conservatives.

These Conservatives tried to kill the gun registry in a minority parliament. Couldn’t do it. Then they got a majority.

When they were in a minority, they tried bringing in a series of draconian criminal law changes, most of them utterly unsupported by any evidence. Couldn’t do it. Then they got a majority.

They fulminated against the Wheat Board, and threatened to abolish it. Couldn’t do it. Then they got a majority.

They denounced climate science and secretly longed to withdraw from the Kyoto Accord. Couldn’t do it. Then they got a majority.

They tried to bring in selectively punitive refugee measures, which almost maliciously targeted a single oppressed minority group (the Roma) and, being in a minority situation, actually had to compromise with the Opposition and accept fairer, amended legislation. Then they got a majority.

Those are just a few examples.

As Jack Nicholson’s character said in A Few Good Men: “‘Lives are at stake here!”

A party holding state power, especially majority power in Canada’s far-from-perfect “democracy,” can’t do everything it wants to.

But if you want to know what kind of power it does have, go ask the families of the Montreal massacre victims, or the Roma, or the prairie farmers, or the governments of the provinces saddled with the bills for the new crime legislation.

And we ain’t seen nothing yet: this majority government is not even a year old.

That is why, for activists and progressives, it is really important that they participate in the NDP’s leadership process.

The Party had lots of interesting and engaging leadership battles in the past.

At its founding, in 1961, we had Tommy Douglas versus then interim leader Hazen Argue, who was so embittered by his defeat that he jumped to the Liberals.

A decade later, the party witnessed a classic fight between the left, Canadian-nationalist, “Waffle” faction and the mainstream, “establishment” Unity Group. David Lewis, the “establishment’s” candidate, defeated Waffle candidate, Jim Laxer, on the final ballot. Among the candidates who got knocked off on earlier ballots was Ed Broadbent, who had tried to bridge the Waffle and the establishment.

Broadbent got his turn at leadership the next time, in 1975.

In 1989, the NDP chose the first female leader of a major, federal party: Audrey McLaughlin, who defeated the more politically experienced former B.C. premier, Dave Barrett.

In 1995, having been reduced to nine seats in the previous election, the party had a choice among three possibilities: a colourful and articulate B.C. MP, Svend Robinson; veteran Saskatchewan MP Lorne Nystrom (who had lost his seat in the 1993 rout); and the former Nova Scotia NDP Leader Alexa McDonough. Robinson was actually leading after the first ballot, with McDonough in second place. But, in a dramatic gesture, Robinson put on a McDonough button and moved to support her before a second ballot could be held.

Jack Layton’s victory over seasoned parliamentarian Bill Blaikie, the last time around, is well known. At the time, the party’s choice of a Toronto city councillor over one of the most respected MPs in Canadian political history was at least partly based on a desire for a leader who was bilingual and who had the “flash” to help the NDP compete in an age of media politics.

Now, the Party — closer to power than it has ever been — has the almost agonizing responsibility of choosing Jack’s successor.

But this time the choice is not just important for the New Democratic Party.

It is of vital importance to all Canadians living under the majority rule of Stephen Harper.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...