With a federal election in 2015, there are increasing debates about how to stop Harper, and as election day approaches this will focus on so-called “strategic voting” at the ballot box. Usually this means voting for the Liberals to stop the Tories—a strategy fuelled by fear of the Tories, hope in the Liberals and disillusionment with the NDP.
Fear of nasty Tories
After nearly a decade of Harper’s in power, attacking every conceivable section of the 99%, the appeal of “anyone but Harper” is understandable. But the sheer hatred for Harper can personalize his agenda, rather than explaining it.
The first half of his reign (the minority government 2006-2011) was only possible because of Liberal support, and the second half has been driven by the global economic crisis—which has seen Obama launch more drone strikes and deportations than George Bush. As Idle No More has helped to explain, Harper’s agenda is the latest extension of centuries of colonialism and capitalism, and electing “anyone but Harper” won’t change this.
Hope in opportunist Liberals
Historically, the Liberals and the Tories—the twin parties of corporate Canada—have taken turns launching wars, cutting social services, restricting civil liberties and destroying the environment. Like the Democrats in the US, the Liberals in Canada only offer tactical differences to their corporate counterpart Republicans/Tories, offering the 1% a variation on how to impose their policies. So voting for one does not stop the other. If we oppose Harper’s wars, we shouldn’t vote for the Liberals who invaded Afghanistan and overthrew democracy in Haiti. If we oppose Harper’s austerity, we shouldn’t vote for the Liberals who imposed massive cuts in the 1990s. If we oppose Harper’s tar sands, we shouldn’t vote for the Liberals who subsidized it while ignoring the Kyoto protocol.
In 2011 this record of complicity led to the Liberals’ welcome collapse, and in 2015 they are trying to reverse this trend—using the fear of Harper to erase their own record and create false hope that they offer an alternative. Justin Trudeau is trying to replicate at the federal level what Kathleen Wynne did in Ontario—use a new leader to tack left, erase their prior record, absorb progressive votes and rebuild themselves to rule again. The Liberals campaign to the left and rule from the right. Despite the talk of a “progressive budget,” it’s taken Wynne no time to show the Liberals’ true colours after the election—ignoring Grassy Narrows and cutting healthcare. The Liberals are rebuilding themselves on both the hatred of Harper and the disillusionment with the NDP, who are also shifting right under the economic crisis.
Disillusionment with reformist NDP
The NDP is the only party affiliated with the labour movement and connected to social movements. While some labour unions mistakenly donate to the Liberals and blur the lines between them and the Tories, corporations donate overwhelmingly to both Tories and Liberals. Meanwhile resistance outside Parliament has increased the NDP’s vote at the expense of the corporate vote. The mass anti-war movement pushed the NDP to speak out against the war in Iraq in 2003, which in turn helped build the movement that stopped the Liberals from going to war. In 2011, years of anger at the Tories, disillusionment with the Liberals and Bloc Québecois, and hope from the Arab Spring led to the collapse of the Liberals and the Orange Wave for the NDP—despite their centrist platform. The NDP’s subsequent filibuster against the attack on postal workers showed what’s possible when an opposition inside Parliament becomes a megaphone for the opposition outside Parliament.
But the NDP has been more interested in vying for votes so it can win the next election and manage the capitalist economy, and this electoralism and reformism has led it to subordinate the movements to its own ambitions. The NDP elected ex-Liberal Mulcair, who refused to meet with Chief Spence during the start of Idle No More, instructed his MPs not to support the Quebec student strike, and has followed a Blairist path to the right.
This has paralleled the experience at the provincial level: in BC the NDP lost by failing to provide a real alternative to the hated Liberals, in Nova Scotia the NDP were thrown out after imposing austerity on workers and students, in New Brunswick the NDP failed to pick up a seat after turning its back on the climate justice movement, the Ontario NDP refused to support the $14 minimum wage and lost the balance of power, and in Toronto Olivia Chow’s centrist campaign allowed the millionaire John Tory to portray himself as an alternative to the millionaire Rob Ford.
The left tack of the Liberals and right-shift of the NDP can make them seem indistinguishable—like their position on pipelines—but their policies comes from different places. Trudeau has been cautious on the Energy East pipeline because the Liberals (and Tories) represent Big Oil, who are anxious about opposition and looking for a corporate party who can win popular support. Whereas Mulcair supports pipelines as an expression of the trade union bureaucracy narrowly defending tar sands workers instead of fighting for a just transition to green job alternatives. The latter can change by building and radicalizing the labour movement, and the NDP’s recent shift back to the left—supporting the $15 minimum wage and childcare, and opposing the Iraq war—all reflect the impact of past and current movements.
Dreams of a new party
In response to the NDP’s disappointments many activists hope to “reclaim” the NDP from the likes of Mulcair and Horwath. But as a social democratic party, the NDP has a long record of following capitalist priorities—attacking Indigenous rights at Gustafsen Lake in BC, ignoring LGBT rights in Ontario, and attacking paramedics in Nova Scotia. This is also nothing new for social democratic parties around the world: the Labour Party in Britain invaded Iraq, PASOK in Greece imposed austerity, the ANC in South Africa shot miners, and the Socialist Party in France launched wars and is criminalizing Palestinian free speech. We shouldn’t vote for the NDP because we think they will transform capitalism, but because voting for the NDP against the Liberals/Tories represents the desire of the 99% to organize on our own.
As we saw in Ontario, anger at the NDPs rightward shift can lead people to shift their own votes to the right by voting Liberal. Disillusionment with social democracy can lead to the right: in Britain years of Labour Party brought back the Tories and now the racist UKIP, while frustration with the Socialist Party in France has seen a rise in the National Front.
But disillusionment with social democracy combined with mass movements can also radicalize people to the left: in Greece 30 general strikes pushed Syriza to victory, mass strike in South Africa have led to a break with the ANC, the $15 minimum wage movement elected Kshama Sawant in Seattle, and Québec solidaire is growing alongside mass movements against austerity. These left alternatives did not materialize out of people’s frustrations but were built through movements fighting for alternatives.
How to strategically vote
There’s nothing strategic about simply voting for one corporate party over another, ending up with the same policies. Real “strategic voting” would entail a number of points:
1) recognize the limits of Parliamentary democracy. Under capitalism the 1% exploit, oppress, invade and destroy people and the planet without our consent. Once every few years we have a minute at the ballot box to vote for political representatives—most of them representatives of corporate power—who have no control over the economy or the repressive apparatus that defends it. Regardless of the election result, even a Syriza victory in Greece, we need to keep building movements the day after the election.
2) take advantage of election campaigns. Despite the limits of the ballot box, the election campaigns leading to them draw vast layers of people into political discussions, many for the first time, and lay the terrain for after the election. Campaigns are not only about the limited choices on the ballot box, but the large audience for wide discussions leading up to it.
3) vote against the 1%. At the ballot box, the day of the election, we need to reject the parties of the 1%—the Tories and the Liberals in Canada. In Canada the NDP is currently the only party affiliated with the labour movement and associated with social movements, and we shouldn’t let their reformism shift our own vote right.
4) build movements from which alternatives can emerge. Every day leading up to election day is a chance to infuse the campaign with more radical politics—like shutting down the tar sands and transitioning to green jobs, supporting Indigenous and migrant rights, expanding reproductive justice, and rebuilding unions. The Stop Hudak campaign in Ontario made use of the Ontario election to mobilize rank-and-file workers, building networks that continue beyond Hudak’s defeat. To stop Harper, and his agenda, we need to reject the parties of the 1% at the ballot box, and mobilize the 99% outside Parliament before and after the election. This can push the NDP as far as left it can go, and lay the basis for a left alternative to emerge.