Will NDP and Labour rise to the challenges of 2011?

Beyond North America, labour is on the march and the left is finding its voice again. Well into the third year of the global economic crisis, growing opposition to capitalist policies is fueled by layoffs, social cutbacks, rising school fees, currency wars, environmental catastrophes, attacks on civil liberties and festering imperial military interventions.

So why do the accumulating conditions for a radical resurgence seem to spell trepidation and crisis for the labour-based New Democratic Party and for unions in Canada? Could it be that the labour leadership has been driving in reverse gear for so long that they find it difficult to stop, and shift into forward?

The problems are numerous. Many are self-inflicted. Instead of fighting the bosses, some union leaders are fighting one another. Conflicts over raiding (in the Canadian Labour Congress) and bids to undermine top elected officers (in the Ontario Federation of Labour) testify to that.

Instead of mobilizing the rank and file to reverse corporate bail-outs and tax gifts to the rich, union leaders tend to rely on weak ad campaigns, legalistic initiatives and token rallies. Instead of bolstering labour’s political independence, the tops play footsie (or cohabit) with Liberals. Instead of deepening workers’ democracy, the brass clamp down on the left, and treat the NDP membership like a milch cow rather than as a source of new ideas and energy.

This helps to explain the public cynicism that surrounds labour and its political arm in English Canada. It reveals why the party cannot translate its opposition to the war in Afghanistan, and its resistence to the attack on pensions, welfare and public services, into significant growth at the polls.

The likelihood of a federal election in Spring 2011 should be good news for the NDP. Party debts are paid and many of its candidates are already in the field. But the NDP vote in three federal by-elections on November 29 sank like a stone; it even lost its long-held seat in Winnipeg North.

Even more inauspicious was the municipal election disaster in Toronto where a voter revolt against the lethal combination of service cuts and tax hikes turfed the Liberal/NDP regime at City Hall in favour of a right wing populist mayor and allied anti-labour councillors.

As in west coast British Columbia, the Ontario NDP failed to channel popular opposition to a heightened Harmonized Sales Tax, which could have been done by demanding its abolition and its replacement by major tax hikes on the rich. Proposing paltry exceptions to the regressive tax, and steering clear of a radical critique of the bourgeois tax system, has allowed right wing populists to run wild with the issue, especially in B.C.

Dissatisfaction with BC NDP Leader Carol James within her own provincial legislative caucus forced her to resign from the top job. Her anemic response to the sales tax hike, which was a broken promise that forced Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell to quit in November, was only the tip of the political iceberg. James’ refusal to campaign in 2009 for reversal of Liberal provincial cutbacks, and her ongoing attempts to distance the NDP from its traditional labour base, while appealing to the business elite, which remains firmly aligned with the BC Liberals, proved to be her undoing as NDP leader.

This turn of events shows the potential to win the party ranks to the fight for a pro-labour, socialist agenda – a fight that can succeed only if it is actively waged.

In the meantime, the NDP is flailing away, still identified with the late-2008 aborted federal coalition with the Liberal Party, and still smarting from the split in the NDP parliamentary caucus over the federal gun registry. The social democratic leadership is so perplexed that Leader Jack Layton may even summon his MPs to vote for the next Conservative federal budget just to avoid precipitating a Spring election.

Internally, morale is low, reflected in stagnant membership figures. The undemocratic move last March by the Ontario NDP executive to postpone the party’s provincial convention by nearly two years likewise does not inspire confidence. Neither does the decision by the senior party executive to imposed a “re-vote” that overturned the win by leftists at the Ontario New Democratic Youth Convention (see article in Dec. 2010 S.A.)

The disorientation, confusion, even crisis in sections of the NDP reflect also the state of the labour movement, and vice-versa. At the BC Federation of Labour Convention, held Nov. 29 – Dec. 3, there was little word about the schism among the NDP tops. But division within the labour brass was evident when most of the CUPE delegation walked away for an entire session. This left the BC Government Employees’ Union in the hall even though the latter will be outside the Fed in January due to the imminent expulsion of the federal public service umbrella, the National Union of Public and General Employees, over non-payment of dues to the CLC. That is NUPGE’s response to a dispute over raiding of its affiliates by other unions in three western provinces.

On the positive side of the ledger, the BC Fed adopted a sharp critique of the global corporate agenda. But it did so without mapping out a mass action response to it. At the same time it voted to end its practice of hosting annual Fed conventions in favour of holding them only once every two years — a prescription for a less responsive, less accountable, and less democratic union federation.

It is the last thing workers want, highlighting the urgent need for a class struggle opposition in the unions and the NDP to mine the deep reserves of working class solidarity, to sweep aside the mis-leaders of our class, and to fight for a Workers’ Agenda against the employers’ relentless austerity drive. -Barry Weisleder