A leaked letter to Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath by 34 prominent NDP members—including Michele Landsberg, Judy Rebick, Winnie Ng, and Grace-Edward Galabuzzi—has reflected the anger of thousands of people disillusioned with the NDP’s rightward drift. But it’s not clear why the NDP is drifting, or what to do about it.
As the letter explains, the NDP is “running to the right of the Liberals in an attempt to win Conservative votes. It is not clear whether you have given up on progressive voters or you are taking them for granted…You seem to be giving credence to his (Hudak’s) policies by adopting a more moderate right-wing program focusing on balanced budgets, austerity or at least public service cuts and ‘common sense.’”
This captures the shock and sense of betrayal amongst NDP members at the leadership’s refusal to support the $14 minimum wage, promise of an “accountability” minister to deliver budget cuts, use of an election slogan reminiscent of Mike Harris, and refusal to rule out a coalition with Tim Hudak.
The vicious attack on the signatories from within the party—calling them “embittered pensioners” and an “aging commentariat”, or “whiners” who should “shut the hell up”—further confirms the rightward drift of the party. As Michele Lansberg responded, “We hoped our painful decision to write the letter would spur a change in direction. Even if it didn’t, we wanted to let thousands of bewildered New Democrats know that they are not alone in their commitment to principle. What we didn’t expect was such a spite-storm of ageism and personal insult … yet another page torn from the Tory playbook.”
Be strategic: don’t vote for Bay Street
The pain and bewilderment with the NDP’s rightward shift is leading many people to shift their own vote to the right by voting Liberal—inappropriately named “strategic voting.” This is based on fear of Tim Hudak, who has promised to slash 100,000 public sector jobs and threatened to impose “right to work” legislation to smash unions. But fear of the Tories is leading to amnesia about the Liberals. In his article “Anyone but Tim Hudak for Ontario premier”, Unifor president Jerry Dias writes that “If Tim Hudak becomes premier, Ontario will see unprecedented job cuts, health-care cuts, education cuts and the decimation of workers’ rights.”
But this is exactly what’s been happening for the past decade under the Liberals. Ontario has lost hundreds of thousands jobs through the economic crisis, and the only action Liberals have taken has been to further attack workers—revoking Toronto transit workers right to strike and imposing Bill 115 on teachers. Liberals have closed hospitals, massively increased tuition, held down welfare rates and the minimum wage, and refused to conduct an environmental assessment of Line 9.
In the lead up to the election, with the NDP drifting right, the Liberals are posturing left—burying their record, hiding their corporate base and appealing to people’s fear of Hudak. The open letter claims the NDP defeated “the most progressive budget in recent Ontario history,” but this ignores the Liberal record and other cuts contained in the budget—including $1.25 billion to public services and a continuation of the Drummond report cuts (80 per cent of which the Liberals have already imposed).
The Liberals are not the “lesser evil”, they are the twin party of corporate Canada, who share the Tories’ austerity agenda but only differ in their tactics on how to impose it. While the Tories have gone into an election declaring war on workers, the Liberals have offered concessions—like a minimum increase in the minimum wage, and pro-labour rhetoric—as a tactic to bury their own record and demobilize campaigns so they can more effectively rule after election day. There’s nothing “strategic” about supporting one party of Bay Street over the other just because we’re angry with the NDP.
NDP and the crisis of social democracy
Part of the sense of betrayal of NDP members is the idea that the NDP are a real alternative to capitalism: the letter states that “the NDP has always stood for more democracy and social justice.” But Andrea Horwath reminded people that NDP leaders like Roy Romanow and Tommy Douglas believed in “balanced budgets.” When the NDP have been in power they have legislated teachers back to work and attacked indigenous resistance in BC, legislated paramedics back to work and increased tuition in Nova Scotia, and attacked workers and refused to support same partnership benefits in Ontario.
This follows the behaviour of social democratic governments around the world—from the British Labour Party that invaded Iraq, to the Greek PASOK government that imposed austerity, to the South African ANC who shot miners. The economic crisis is creating a wider gulf between people’s aspirations for reforms and the ability of reformist parties to deliver. There is no parliamentary road to social justice, but this doesn’t mean elections don’t matter.
As the letter-writers warn Horwath, “In this election, we are seriously considering not voting NDP…you will lose not only our support but also the support of thousands of others who will turn to other parties or not vote at all.” Faced with an NDP that is selling out, the two most obvious solutions are abstention or voting for other parties. But both of these, expressions of frustration with social democracy, reinforce its vision of change—which is said to come from above through Parliament or the Legislature, as an expression of party platform that people vote for once every few years.
But change comes from outside the official institutions of capitalism, in the hundreds of days between election day—driven by movements in the streets, campuses, communities and workplaces. The Liberals raising of the minimum wage to $11/hr would never have happened had it not been for struggle outside the Legislature, and the movement for a $14/hr minimum wage will continue after the election regardless who is elected.
But the composition within the Legislature will affect the struggle outside the Legislature. Despite the limits of social democracy in general and NDP’s latest rightward drift, it is the only party associated with the working class. If the NDP vote collapses this election both Tories and Liberals will feel more confident to impose austerity, which will make our work in the movements more difficult. “Punishing” the NDP at the polls will not force the party back to the left, it will only punish the 99% with an emboldened Tory/Liberal vote that will claim people have shifted to the right—like the rise of Rob Ford after the betrayals of David Miller.
The best “strategic vote” in this context is a critical vote for the NDP while building the extra-parliamentary movements that really make change. This means voting against the parties of the 1%, exposing the Liberals and Tories against whom we we need to mobilize after the election. A critical vote for the NDP is a vote for the only mass party that currently exists that is associated with the working class, while not hiding the anger at their failure to fight for the 99%.
Calling for a vote for the NDP, while criticizing and explaining their sellouts and building the movements, is part of a process that can give rise to left alternatives. With recent electoral gains for Québec solidaire to Syriza, many are hoping for a left alternative in Ontario. But these parties emerged from mass struggles between elections—like the huge anti-globalization and anti-war protests in Quebec, and the series of general strikes in Greece. Like the call for the Quebec student strike to be transplanted in Ontario without building the rank and file networks that made it possible, calls for a new party in Ontario in the midst of an election are decontextualized.
As much as we could benefit from a left-wing alternative to the NDP, it won’t materialize in the midst of the election campaign when the pull of electoralism is the strongest; rather, it will have to emerge from the current movements growing much stronger after the next election, rooting themselves in the working class, and winning people to building a party that combines the ballot box and the street.
The legitimate anger at the NDP could lead to disillusionment and a strengthening of the Tories/Liberals, or an internal fight to “reclaim” the NDP despite their record and the reality of reformism. Or it could lead some to break to the left, rejecting social democracy and fighting for a socialist alternative, with a tactical approach to elections; if this includes you, join the International Socialists!
On June 14 join the panel discussion “The NDP and the crisis of social democracy”, including rabble.ca founder and letter signatory Judy Rebick, author and activist Nora Loreto, rankandfile.ca editor David Bush, and labour activist and socialist Ritch Whyman. This is part of Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference in Toronto. For information and to register visit marxism2014.ca