As the race for New Democratic Party federal Leader draws to a close it is painfully evident that none of the seven remaining candidates proposes a clean break with the pro-capitalist direction of the party. Keep in mind that this is the fourth year of the global Great Recession. Crippling austerity measures, rising environmental havoc, and the growing threat of a widening war in the Middle East loom on the horizon. The party’s current course is a recipe for disaster.
Under the circumstances, in our estimation, the best hope for progressive change in the NDP’s top office is represented by Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill (Manitoba).
In contrast to the other candidates, Niki campaigns for closer NDP identification with the working class. She excoriates any electoral pact with the parties of big business. She denounces the imperialist war drive, insisting that Canadian troops “be brought home now.” Although Ashton does not demand “Canada Out of NATO” (the NDP position since the 1970s), at the Socialist Caucus-sponsored leadership debate in Toronto, on March 1, she denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Ottawa, and defended freedom of speech for advocates of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions aimed at the Zionist apartheid state.
While Ashton does not advocate public ownership, she praised the successful effort of the Socialist Caucus at the NDP federal convention in Vancouver, in June 2011, to keep “socialism” in the party’s constitution. In answer to a question, Ashton cited Manitoba’s practice of no public funding for Catholic or any religious schools as a model for Canada.
Frankly, we like Ashton’s willingness to rock the boat. She did that when she challenged an NDP incumbent MP in 2005 who opposed equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Niki won the nomination, and was elected MP in 2008 and 2011.
In our book, her age, 29, and her bold feminism, add to her appeal, and increase the potential for her to move the NDP to the left.
Where the other candidates fall short
Sadly, the other contenders have contributed heavily to a dull and dumbed-down leadership campaign that wallows in the status quo, or threatens to take the party backwards. Running chiefly on their resumes, they have inspired few and raised the consciousness of even fewer.
In terms of regression, the worst offenders are Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen.
Mulcair, the ex-Liberal cabinet minister from Quebec, who also considered joining the Conservatives, wants the NDP to “move to the center.” This would make it the New Liberal Party of Canada. Rather than save the NDP’s newly-won seats in Quebec, he is likely to lose them by being outflanked on the left by the resurging Bloc Quebecois.
Mulcair’s “Israel right or wrong” policy is odious by any standard. He joined Harper in attacking MP Libby Davies when she stated that the occupation of Palestine began in 1948. He also has accepted a donation to his campaign from Peter Munk, CEO of Barrick Gold, the Canadian mining giant that daily despoils acres of indigenous land across Latin America and beyond.
B.C. MP Nathan Cullen is notorious as the prime advocate of a non-compete electoral pact with the Liberal Party. By obscuring the class question, by obsessing on Harper, Cullen fosters illusions in the system that caused the Great Recession, the system that enables the rulers to substitute another arrogant dirty trickster for the current PM at a moment’s notice. Cullen’s opposition to the XL pipeline coursing through British Columbia indigenous lands is overshadowed by his allegiance to the sanctity of big business control of the resource sector.
Ottawa MP Paul Dewar proposes to give city governments more say, even a seat at federal-provincial ministers’ meetings — merely an exercise in optics at a time of massive cuts. When he was the NDP Foreign Affairs Critic in Parliament, Dewar championed the bombing of Libya by Canadian Forces. He supported the Canada-UN occupation of Haiti, opposed the Canadian Boat to Gaza, and he rejects boycott, sanctions and divestment aimed at the Zionist apartheid state — topics he disingenuously tried to avoid during the leadership race.
As for Martin Singh, his entrepreneurship mantra is little needed in a party which, both at the provincial and federal levels, is already overly concerned with the plight of business. Although he stressed the need for a federal pharmacare program, he failed to pose the urgency of increased taxes on the rich — nor did he call for abrogation of the North American Free Trade Agreement — both necessary to establish a public drug-care system.
That brings us to the party-machine politicians Brian Topp and Peggy Nash. They were at the helm over the past decade. They steered the starboard course charted by deceased Leader Jack Layton. They “professionalized” (i.e. super-centralized) the NDP, minimized the policy in-put of members, and maximized its fund-raising capacities, while shaping its agenda to the needs of big business control of every aspect of the economy.
Recall the Tory bailout of the banks and the auto giants, which they hailed with enthusiasm. Ex-CAW negotiator Nash would go further, calling for even more public money to bribe Canuck companies to generate a few jobs. Yet what we need is not economic nationalism or corporate welfare, but a massive job creation program through public ownership under workers’ and community control, and reduction of the workweek with no loss in pay or benefits.
Both also favoured the removal of “socialism” from the NDP constitution. Topp moved to refer the proposal back to the secretive federal executive, just to save face, only after the Socialist Caucus and other leftists won the debate at the Vancouver convention in June 2011.
Topp campaigns to tax more heavily the top 1 per cent. Nash agrees, and supplements that call with good arguments for Proportional Representation in Parliament. But neither proposes to go far beyond reversing the latest Tory corporate tax cuts. Both decry “foreign” ownership, but not the system that makes Capital a global monster on the prowl for the lowest wages and the highest profits, at the expense of nature and humanity.
Topp is handicapped by his “insider” status. Nash is hobbled by the CAW’s treacherous and failed “strategic” voting orientation. At Convention 2011, Topp lamented out loud the failure to form a coalition to oust Harper. Nash didn’t differ; indeed she was party president when the attempt was made. Neither one offers the anti-capitalist alternative so much needed.
Together with most of the other candidates, they showed their contempt for democracy by shunning the March 1 SC leadership debate. In fact, Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, Thomas Mulcair and Paul Dewar didn’t even respond to our numerous invitations to them. Niki Ashton, on the other hand, was quick to respond, and happy to participate.
Many New Democrats argue, correctly in our view, that there is altogether too much emphasis placed on the position of Leader and the selection process. A more collective kind of leadership, and a much greater emphasis on policy and principles is needed.
But wouldn’t it be a serious error for NDP socialists and progressives to ignore the current leadership race, solely to agitate for socialist policies and greater democracy in the party, and just hope for the best? Clearly, we need to be engaged in all facets of making positive change in the NDP.
As a result, the Socialist Caucus urges NDP members to vote for Niki Ashton for Leader. We do not recommend a second, third, or further choice. Ashton opens the door for progressive change. The others do not.
The need for socialist democracy
At the same time, the need for a socialist alternative inside the NDP and the labour movement has never been more urgent. It will come by winning more working people, youths, women, Quebecois, Acadians and aboriginal peoples, immigrants, LGBT folks, the poor and the dispossessed, to the party — and to socialist policies and action.
Solidarity knows no borders. So our fight for socialism must go beyond the polling booth, into the streets and work places. Organize the unorganized. Stop the capitalist austerity drive. No labour concessions. Make big business pay for the crisis of their system. Nationalize the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ and community control.
On May 2, 2011 over 4.5 million Canadians and Quebecois voted for the NDP. Since then party membership has nearly doubled to 130,000. Without winning a majority of those voters and new members there will be no socialism, and all the past labour, social and environmental gains of the past may be lost. Winning that majority is the goal to which the NDP Socialist Caucus is dedicated. We invite you to join us now to achieve it. Better sooner than later.