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NDP leadership and the fight against austerity

Ritch Whyman

June 25, 2017

With three months left in the Federal New Democratic Party leadership race questions are being asked as to why it hasn’t sparked any boost to the party in either polls or a swell in grassroots support or interest.

One and half years after losing 51 seats in an election where the NDP a ran tepid campaign designed not to oppose austerity, and more interested in reassuring the wealthy they wouldn’t tax the rich, the NDP languishes at 15% support in the polls.

The defeat of Mulcair by the membership via a non-confidence vote at the 2016 Convention raised hopes that maybe the NDP would look to take a page out of Bernie Sanders’ or Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigns—a turn outward and try to mobilise sentiment against the Trudeau austerity agenda.

The terrain is favourable to a party that is seen as party for the working class. Median incomes have fallen by 17% since 1976, wages are stagnating or declining for millions of workers and 70% think that their lives won’t get better or will actually get worse if things don’t change. Only 27% think that their children will have better lives.

This should lead to a leadership campaign that isn’t just about platforms or policy, but one that is reaching out and tapping into the bitterness and anger of the 99%. The Trudeau Liberals are slipping in the polls as more and more promises are broken and the Tories have a no name leader.

Instead the most remarkable part of the leadership to date has been that it hasn’t generated much interest beyond the political commentariat and party members themselves.

The series of debates that have been held haven’t produced a clear frontrunner yet, although the two candidates generally seen to be on the left (Peter Julian from BC and Nikki Ashton from Manitoba) have pushed the debate to the left.

In the Toronto debate Ashton deepened her reputation as the most left candidate and the one most open to linking up with struggles outside of parliament. Her references to Corbyn and Sanders received large applause at the debate. She is calling for the party to adopt a platform against austerity and to respond to attempts to privatize services with calls for nationalising industries.

Provincial NDP

The fortunes of the NDP federally have always been balanced on the success or failure of their provincial counterparts. The excitement of the success of Rachel Notley defeating the Tories in Alberta on a platform that promoted a $15 minimum wage, has now given way to demoralisation as the Alberta NDP nearly uncritically endorse and support the growth of the tar sands and hugely unpopular pipelines.

In Manitoba the NDP lost badly after introducing an increase to the provinces sales tax rather than taxing the wealthy. In Saskatchewan the NDP has been in disarray and unable to take advantage of the corruption scandals of the right wing Saskatchewan party.

In Ontario the NDP languishes well behind the Tories who have captured the anger over Hydro costs and has been outflanked, again, to the left by the ruling Liberals who have just introduced sweeping labour law reform. The NDP’s public response was to claim the Liberals stole NDP ideas. Unfortunately the NDP has done little to relate to or organise around the growing anger at Hydro bills and the corruption of the Liberals.

The only beacon of hope this year was the hope that the BC NDP could defeat the right-wing Liberal Party in BC. Once again despite being well up in the polls the NDP was unable to capture a majority.

The one area where the provincial NDP tried to take a page out of the Corbyn playbook was in Nova Scotia, where Gary Burrill won the leadership on a platform to move the NDP to the left. In the provincial election the NS NDP was able to gain seats a defeat some leading Liberals.

With this background it should be clear to the NDP leadership that there is no room in the centre, the only space to move is to the Left.

So why isn’t the leadership campaign or the various provincial parties moving left or opening up as been shown to work elsewhere. The problem isn’t whether a candidate is more left in policy or not, it is the very nature of Social Democratic parties.

Social democracy

Firstly the various swings to the left and more active parties hasn’t been done through the official channels of the parties. In the UK Corbyn relied on his years of being linked to the anti-war and anti-racist movements and linked his campaign to struggles outside of the Labour party.

Any campaign that is contained by the NDP party leadership will reflect the parliamentary logic of the majority of the MP/MLA/MPPs and the party bureaucracy and its allies in the Union leaderships. This logic says that the object is win seats and manage capital in a more humane way.

This means that the campaigns are tightly controlled and not based on mobilising and raising expectations but by showing how “responsible” in government they will be. The whole history of the NDP in power has been one of at best dashed hopes at worst open attacks on workers and the poor.

Even in opposition the NDP seeks to contain and channel opposition into parliamentary debates. This was seen when the NDP was prepared to drop its opposition to the war in Afghanistan for a few cabinet positions in a minority government with the Liberals.

It is based on the wrong assumption that power lies in parliament not in the workplace or the street. However a quick look at most of the reforms that have made gains for working people have come not from sharp parliamentary motion or good speech at parliament hill. Instead they’ve come through struggle and strikes outside of parliament.

But a shift to the left by the NDP can help create openings for the left both in and out of the NDP. That is why it is important to push for the leadership campaign to break out of the constraints of the party brass and for candidates who seek to replicate the success of Corbyn to move beyond these constraints and reach out to those beyond the party and start to speak to and provide space to mobilise the aspirations of the 99%.

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