NDP Brass Treads Water in Halifax

No new name, No new policies
by Barry Weisleder

Labour unionists, traditional social democrats and radical socialists held off a drive by a wing of the federal New Democratic Party establishment to propel the NDP faster and farther to the right. The effort to re-brand the party as a clone of the U.S. Democratic Party, with a copy-cat name and comparable policies, suffered a humiliating defeat at the NDP convention held August 14-16 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. About 1400 witnessed the gathering, which was broadcast live by the Cable Public Affairs TV channel, CPAC.

Proposals to phase out taxes on small business and to drop ‘New’ from NDP never even came to the floor for debate. The reason was simple. A majority of delegates saw the name gambit as a distraction, or worse, as a move to take a distance from labour while embracing business. In combination with the entire ‘weekend package’ – a tightly-scripted, teleprompter-driven convention in which over two-thirds of the time was devoted to guest speakers, award ceremonies and reminiscences, plus heavy promotion of Barack Obama’s pro-war, Wall Street-controlled Democratic Party USA – it is easy to see why delegates might be apprehensive. What clinched the collapse of the honchos’ game plan was the blatant dominance of image over substance (the Leader’s name and face were eerily omnipresent, prompting one wag to suggest the party should be renamed the Jack Layton Party).

An early sign of trouble for the establishment was the success of a Socialist Caucus amendment to the agenda early on day one. It aimed to add an hour for policy debate by bumping a US Democrat guest speaker into an evening session. The motion carried, verified by two counts. But this small victory for democracy was short-lived. In an unconstitutional move, Toronto MP Olivia Chow (Layton’s partner) proposed that the motion be immediately ‘reconsidered’ (i.e. overturned). The convention chair ignored rule requirements that the mover come from the prevailing side, that there be a one-day notice of motion, and a two-thirds majority vote to pass. Thus, a popular act of rebellion was reversed by a sleazy maneuver and a willful or incompetent chair (she admitted her error when called on it by an SC delegate the next day). Still, the challenge to the establishment made its mark. Layton and the party tops disassociated themselves from the name change, and focused on blocking from consideration anything tainted by controversy.

Unfortunately, they succeeded in precluding debate on leftist proposals to make Capital pay for the capitalist crisis that is ravaging working people and communities. This occurred despite many Socialist Caucus resolutions submitted by riding associations that called for nationalization of key sectors of the economy under workers’ control to facilitate good jobs, a shift to green energy, massive social housing and public transit construction, as well as proposals to abolish student debt, raise the minimum wage to $16 an hour, get Canada out of NATO, and strengthen solidarity with Cuba, Venezuela and Palestine.

As a result the convention was reduced to rewarming a number of old NDP policy chestnuts. These included eternal positions on child poverty, pay equity, aboriginal rights, national child care, violence against women and arts funding, plus calls to reduce high credit card rates, to protect pensions and expand employment insurance.

It prompted business media pundits to observe that while NDP staff went to the great effort of parading veteran Manitoba NDP Premier Gary Dewar, newly minted Nova Scotia NDP Premier Darrell Dexter, and Obama senior strategist Betsy Myers, each of whom argued for ‘professionalism’, fiscal conservatism, and a further shift to the right, no substantive ‘new vision’ emerged in policy terms.

Of course, the rub here is this: should the NDP be foolish enough to fully follow the pro-business perscription, the same bourgeois columnists and editorialists would then insist that the NDP has outlived its purpose and should join the Liberal Party to be better able to defeat the Conservatives – a more toxic version of ‘strategic voting’. After all, the aim of the ruling class is to keep socialism off the agenda by crippling its source – independent labour politics.

Sadly, the rulers are but one small step ahead of the Layton leadership which demonstrated a lust for junior cabinet positions in a federal Liberal coalition government last winter. We could see a repeat of that episode, either as tragedy or farce, following the next federal election. A vote may occur as early as this Fall or next Spring, depending on when the Conservative minority government of Stephen Harper is defeated in the House of Commons.

While contentious resolutions were kept off the agenda, contention was not absent at the floor microphones, in media interviews, and even on the main stage. Former federal leader Ed Broadbent told the delegates “not to abandon the core values that have guided the party since the 1960s”. Alexa McDonough, who led the party in the 1990s, told the Globe and Mail “There needs to be change as the world changes around us. But what isn’t going to change is our basic values, and most of our policies simply build on those values.”

Although such views express an enduring commitment to the utopian concept of reforming capitalism into a humane alternative, they do conflict with the direction articulated by such party operatives as UBC professor Michael Byers, former Layton staffer Ian Capstick, and MPs Brian Masse (Windsor) and Paul Dewar (Ottawa) who would ‘professionalize’ and ‘modernize’ the party to such a degree that it would disappear as a force for independent working class political action.

Layton himself cultivated the bourgeois ‘modernizers’. But he retreated when he saw their message snubbed by affiliated unions, as well as by rank and file riding and youth delegates. (Hundreds of delegates wore a small orange button, distributed by the Steelworkers’ Union, bearing the letter ‘N’, to show opposition to dropping ‘New’ from the name.) Still, there is a lesson here for those with illusions in the federal Leader.

At the November 2001 Winnipeg convention, the New Politics Initiative garnered nearly 40 per cent of the vote for a proposal to launch a new party. The NPI was dissolved by its founders, writer Judy Rebick, economist Jim Stanford, and former MP Svend Robinson, on the strength of their stated belief that Jack Layton would build a social movement-based party committed to an anti-globalization agenda. Now we can see what Layton did when left to his own devices, once left wing activists stopped organizing, and sidestepped the fight for socialist policies.

The NDP Socialist Caucus, launched in 1998, implored the NPI to adopt a clear socialist program, and to place no confidence in the NDP tops. The Socialist Caucus continues to fight in that spirit today. It had a strong presence at the Halifax convention.

SC speakers at the microphones argued forcefully for socialist solutions to the economic and environmental crises, and for solidarity with struggles of the oppressed in Honduras, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and beyond. Delegates repeatedly referred to the dozens of Socialist Caucus-initiated resolutions that came from NDP riding associations across the country. Even though the party establishment blocked these from floor debate (via an elaborate priority screening process imported from the Saskatchewan NDP), the ideas contained did raise awareness and attracted many delegates to the SC display table where quite a few joined the radicals.
The NDP Socialist Caucus grew markedly by signing up over eighty new members amongst the one thousand delegates. The Caucus recruited new SC federal steering committee members in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario (Sault Ste. Marie and Sarnia), Manitoba, Saskatchewan (Prince Albert) and B.C.

The SC candidate for federal treasurer, Thornhill NDP President John Orrett, received over 22 per cent of the votes cast, running against Rebbeca Blaikie, daughter of former Winnipeg MP Bill Blaikie. (Peggie Nash was elected party President with 92.4 per cent of the votes, easily fending off a challenge by disability rights advocate Kevin Kinsella who was not endorsed by the SC.)

Nearly a thousand copies of an attractive 12-page edition of the SC publication Turn Left, edited by Oakville NDP activist Sean Cain, were snapped up by delegates and observers. It is posted on the web site: www.ndpsocialists.ca A number of people donated to offset costs (more money is still needed) and urged that Turn Left be produced more often.

Socialist Caucus candidates ran for federal positions in the Atlantic, Quebec and Ontario caucuses, attracting 42 per cent of the votes in the Atlantic region, and winning a Quebec seat on the party’s federal council.

About forty delegates attended two Socialist Caucus lunch time forums. One featured economist Mathieu Dufour and John Orrett on “Capitalist Economic Crisis – Socialist Solutions”. The other forum was titled “Canada: Peacekeeper or Imperialist state?”, with Public Service Alliance of Canada V.P. and Ottawa Haiti solidarity activist Larry Rousseau, and this writer, sharing the panel. These talks were video recorded and will be posted.

On the last day of the convention, CPAC TV interviewed SC treasurer Elizabeth Byce, and separately, yours truly. Thousands of viewers were thus presented with a socialist analysis of the economic crisis, the urgency of public ownership under workers’ control, and told how the NDP can meet the needs of the vast majority by being more democratic and rejecting distractions.

So where was the rest of the radical left, at least from English Canada? Sadly, most of it boycotts the NDP, preferring to conduct its business in a proverbial phone booth rather than fight for a Workers’ Agenda across a mass working class political party.

The main exception is Socialist Action, which helped to found the Socialist Caucus and plays a leading role in it. SA members found a strong resonance for Marxist ideas at the convention. Over $400 in sales of literature, buttons and subscriptions was one indicator. The literature mostly consisted of 17 different small booklets on topics ranging from Marx Was Right, History of Imperialism, Women in the 21st Century, and The Cuban Revolution, to Profits versus the Planet, plus Yves Engler’s latest work “The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy”. Scores of people sported socialist buttons with the slogans “Canada Out of Afghanistan” and “To survive, the NDP must Turn Left”. Delegates bought ninety individual copies and six year-long subscriptions to the monthly newspaper Socialist Action.

Another socialist group present at the convention was Fightback, known for its support for Hugo Chavez in Venezuala and for its opposition to French language Law 101 in Quebec. Apart from press sales and tabling (until they were asked to leave the building, due to not having paid for a display table), its members did not say a word in any debate or at any session of the NDP convention (although they reportedly did play a role at the NDY convention that preceded the party convention).

Similarly, at least two members of the International Socialists were present at the NDP convention, ostensibly as delegates or media reporters, but they did not intervene in any of the convention or work shop debates, nor did they offer their press for sale, or staff a literature display table. No members of the Communist Party, the Socialist Project or Socialist Voice were evident. A member of the New Socialists did speak at a Socialist Caucus forum.

On Sunday morning, delegates gave Jack Layton an 89 per cent vote of confidence. That means 11 per cent asked for a leadership review. That exceeds the 8 per cent margin of discontent at Quebec City in 2006. Was that a vote against coalition with the Liberal Party? Was that a partial measure of support for the SC? If so, that’s not bad for a grass roots movement that operates on a shoe-string budget in a party with over 100,000 members.
While clearly the SC did not change the direction of the NDP, it did have a strong presence and a positive impact on procedural and policy debates. That impact can be magnified when other organized and independent leftists decide to work together to fight for a Workers’ Agenda inside the only mass, labour-based political party in North America.

For now, unionists and leftists registered a limited, defensive victory by blocking a further leap to the right by the party. We did not score any positive gains, such as at Quebec City in 2006, where the Canada Out of Afghanistan policy was fought for and won.

To its shame, at Halifax, the party establishment squandered a golden opportunity to put capitalism on trial and to adopt policies urgently required to advance the interests of working people still in the throes of the deepest economic crisis of world capitalism since the 1930s.

That remains the challenge facing the socialist, labour and NDP left.