[Northern Lights column for May 2016]
by Barry Weisleder
The stunning defeat of Leader Tom Mulcair, and the launch of a cross-country discussion of the Leap Manifesto, signals a shift in the relationship of forces in Canada’s New Democratic Party.
The right wing forces of the party and the union bureaucracy are now on the defensive. The ‘progressive’, soft-left is ascendant. Will the left seize this golden opportunity to fight for an anti-capitalist agenda and make North America’s only mass, union-based political party a weapon in the fight against austerity and climate catastrophe?
As over 1,700 delegates gathered in Edmonton, Alberta for the April 8-10 NDP federal convention, two things were evident. Firstly, it was clear that Mulcair, who led the disastrous election campaign in which the party lost a million votes and 60 per cent of its parliamentary seats last October, did not enjoy the confidence of a large majority. Secondly, anti-pipeline sentiment was pervasive, at least outside of the Alberta delegation, and the appetite for action against catastrophic climate change would prevail.
The conflict over carbon-based energy came to a head when Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley made a provocative gamble. She went on television the night before the convention to demand that a west-to-east pipeline be built, with the help of the federal government. That put Mulcair, who had been wavering, after initially supporting the pipeline East, in an impossible position. He continued to waver, and was mostly absent from the convention floor, thus sealing his fate.
Former Ontario NDP Leader and U.N. diplomat Stephen Lewis delivered the coup de grace with an electrifying speech on Saturday night. Lewis topped Notley by persuasively arguing that an extensive transition to green energy would be the greatest job creator on earth.
But few, outside of the NDP Socialist Caucus, predicted Mulcair’s precipitous fall. When delegates voted 52 per cent on Sunday morning in favour of launching a leadership race to replace the former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, the convention and the country were stunned. Party honchos and bourgeois pundits forecasted that Mulcair would get over 70 per cent support, which they insisted would be enough for him to stay on as Leader. No one saw the 48 per cent sinker ball coming. But the signs were there.
After the Socialist Caucus launched a national campaign for Leadership Review in late October, a number of prominent NDP leftist figures called for change at the top. Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo, and Sid Ryan, former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, led the way. NDP electoral district association presidents and local labour council officials added their voices. Then 37 prominent Quebec NDP activists issued an open letter calling for change in the party’s direction. On the other hand, five heads of unions publicly backed Mulcair. And the mass media weighed in, mostly on his side. The party staff commandeered huge resources to conduct highly manipulated telephone Town Halls, and to host scores of events to promote “fighter” Mulcair all across the country.
But that was countered by the President of the Canadian Labour Congress, Hassan Yussuff, who predicted that Mulcair would be defeated. In fact, on the eve of the vote, leaders of CUPE and UNIFOR ‘released’ their delegates from a pledge to support Mulcair. This came after the 274-strong Labour Caucus, which met on Saturday morning, took no position on the issue. In the words of Bob Dylan, “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blow’in.”
The convention showed Mulcair the door, but asked him to pause at the exit — to stay on as parliamentary Leader until a race to replace him can be orchestrated. That contest will culminate in a one-member-one-vote election, and a policy convention, to be held 18 months to two years from now.
Delegates also voted about 60 per cent in favour of conducting a grassroots discussion of the environmental and social justice proposals in the Leap Manifesto. Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom describes the document as “middle of the road”. Journalist and former NDP star candidate Linda McQuaig asks “What’s with all the ruckus over the Leap Manifesto?” “Reports of it’s scariness have been greatly exaggerated; its call for a transition from fossil fuels to green energy is solidly based in science and widely accepted.”
This begs the question: why have the capitalist media and bourgeois politicians been pouring abuse on the Manifesto, and on NDPers who backed it and who voted to dump Mulcair?
The reason is simple: they fear that the party right wing will lose control of the apparatus. They worry that the left will gravitate towards radical socialist politics that call into question, not only capitalist austerity, but the system itself. The ouster of ‘balanced-budget at-all-costs’ Mulcair, and the warm welcome accorded Leap’s critique of growing inequality, job precarity, and environmental plunder, greatly disturb the Canadian Establishment.
Will the Canadian left turn up the heat, and work to set the agenda for fundamental change? Well, that would require quite a break in practice — an end to navel gazing by leftists outside the NDP, and an end to nit-picking and juvenile name-calling by some inside the labour-based party.
The answer will come soon as local forums and discussions get underway. The openness to such debates has rarely been so great. The convention in Edmonton, despite its rigged policy priorities process, and dubious guest speakers (like John Ashworth, one of the most right wing members of Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party leftist Shadow Cabinet), was nonetheless the most open NDP convention in decades.
A proliferation of independent issue campaigns and candidates greeted delegates at registration. This included CUPW members for postal banking, folks who want to abolish the monarchy, and proponents of proportional representation in parliament. One group, with scissors in hand, snipped hundreds of credential-holding lanyards embossed with Mulcair’s name and replaced them with plain ribbons. Soon a huge pile of discarded lanyards accumulated on the Shaw Communications Centre carpet, while a tray heaped high with Tom Mulcair buttons sat ignored on the registration counter.
Party officials provided the Socialist Caucus a venue for its meetings, along with a display table in the hallway – after refusing SC requests for three months. The socialists faced no hassle from officials when they unfurled a huge banner “For Democracy and Socialism Back in the NDP” in the main corridor, and even on the convention floor. Likewise, the SC had no problem distributing nearly 900 copies of its full-colour, glossy magazine Turn Left, nor any difficulty collecting over $850 in donations and revenue from sales of literature and buttons at its highly visible campaign depot.
For the first time the meetings of the NDP socialists were listed in the official Delegate Kit, and the group name was spelled with capitals ‘S’ and ‘C’. Six meetings of the caucus took place, all well-attended.
Over 70 people signed up to join the SC, which worked cooperatively and successfully with Momentum – the NDP’s left alternative to austerity, with RENEW the PARTY, and New Democrats for the Leap Manifesto. A joint lunch time meeting of supporters of Leap and the SC brought together about 60 delegates, chaired by this writer, to discuss floor tactics for the Sunday morning environment issues debate.
Momentum and Socialist Caucus co-hosted a very popular and enjoyable pub night.
In the weeks leading up to the convention, the SC gained wide media attention. This included in-depth interviews on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, CTV’s Power Play Panel, CPAC (3 times), the Globe and Mail, National Post, Le Devoir, TVA and Radio Canada in Quebec, Huffington Post, three talk radio shows (in Montreal, Calgary and London, Ontario), 680 News, several references in the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, the Hill Times, plus an Op-Ed by this writer published in the Ottawa Citizen.
At the same time, venomous attacks by National Post writers and by former senior NDP staffers Gerry Caplan and Robin Sears appeared. They claimed the SC has little influence – before Mulcair was defeated, before the Leap discussion was launched, and before various socialist policies won significant support in policy workshops.
Jointly with Momentum, the SC ran 16 candidates for party executive and federal council posts. Vote results, ranging from 5.2% to 15%, revealed a significant hard core radical left base. It also indicated that, while the broad membership wants change, it is not yet convinced of the need for a Marxist programme. But the SC will continue to make the case for revolutionary change. That was the essence of my president candidate speech to the convention (see below), which elicited rounds of applause. Toronto’s Marit Stiles, who was elected NDP president, and Montrealer Elaine Michaud, who ran second, refused to say whether they wanted a Leadership Review, and only vaguely indicated that they favoured some kind of “reform” and “renewal.”
Delegates demonstrated significant support for socialist policies on Palestine and BDS, favouring the need to dedicate 80% of convention time to discussion of resolutions (as opposed to less than 32 per cent presently), to establish public Pharmacare, and to institute steeply progressive taxation. These issues were featured in the 4 Ps Petition circulated by the SC during the summer of 2015, signed by hundreds of party members. The SC attracted over 30 per cent delegates’ support for an early bid to amend the convention agenda. This was later attempted by the sizable Quebec delegation.
The Persons Living with disAbilities Caucus won an important change that will benefit all members. It requires that resolutions and proposed constitution amendments be posted and circulated weeks before a convention, not just days in advance. The convention also adopted a more open and accountable candidate vetting process. This gain was in response to the outrage provoked by decisions of the federal office to block or rescind several potential NDP candidates in 2015 who expressed pro-Palestinian views.
What’s next? The key tasks facing the party left include:
- Promote and advance the discussion on the Leap Manifesto.
- Emphasize the need for public ownership and democratic control of Big Oil and Gas, and the entire energy sector.
- Demand justice for indigenous peoples. Economic restitution is the basis for moral reconciliation. Resource corporations and the government must pay.
- Explore running a socialist candidate for NDP Leader, or support someone like MP Nikki Ashton, Linda McQuaig, or Avi Lewis. Defeat MP Nathan Cullen who argued for a coalition with the Liberal Party in 2011, and who favours fossil fuels and more resource extraction projects provided a “social license” is obtained from First Nations.
The dethronement of Mulcair occurred less than two years after Ken Georgetti was deposed as reigning Canadian Labour Congress President. Two incumbents forced out of top positions by a major body of working class delegates in Canada is unprecedented. It is a reflection of the keen appetite for change. It is testament to the resurgence of socialist ideas in Britain, in the USA, and beyond. It is also a sign of things to come in Canada.
Socialist Caucus President Candidate Speech to NDP Convention
My name is Barry Weisleder. I am a union organizer and a proud socialist — working to put socialism back in the NDP.
It’s time for a Democratic Revolution in Canada and the NDP.
On veut des représentations proportionnelles au Parlement et un contrôle par les membres du message que ce parti présente à l’électorat. Nous nous battons pour la classe ouvrier, et non pour ce que les Libéraux appellent la classe moyenne. (translation: We want proportional representation in Parliament and membership control of the message this party takes to the electorate. Our fight is for the working class, not what Liberals call the “middle class”.)
The NDP should stop apologizing for being a labour party. Working people make the country run. Workers should run the country. With real wages frozen for 30 years, and deep in debt, workers need a raise. A minimum wage of $18/hour would be a good start. We need homes, not bombs. We need trains in Canada, not tanks shipped to Saudi Arabia. We need schools and hospitals on the ground, not CF18s in the air. The NDP should fight to make the polluters pay, to build renewable power, not pipelines. Let’s uphold indigenous people’s rights, not condone corporate blight. We demand fair trade, not CETA and the TPPA.
C’est maintenant qu’il faut un contrôle public et démocratique de l’économie. (transl.: Now’s the time for public and democratic control of the economy.)
That’s the way to provide useful, well-paid employment for laid-off oil workers, for farmers and fisherfolk suffering from the effects of climate change, for youths and minorities stuck in McJobs, facing a precarious future. Isn’t it crazy to rely on monopoly control by giant banks, greedy telecoms, big pharma, agribusiness and WalMart, and to expect anything other than de-skilling, speed-up, growing inequality, social decay, and racist police violence?
Our struggle is not for a ‘balanced’ budget. It’s for a Workers’ Budget that puts people before profits. Yes, we will balance the budget – on the back of Conrad Black, on the family fortunes of Thomson and Irving, the Westons, Pattison, Desmarais, Richardson, McCain, Munk, Stronach, Peladeau, and all the non-elected barons of Bay Street.
By taxing their off-shore billions, and by conscripting their trillions in fixed assets, an NDP government will have no trouble leading the transition to a green and democratic economy, and setting an example that just might save civilization on Earth.
En tant que président du parti, je veillerai à ce que les campagnes électorales du NPD reflètent les priorités des membres. (transl.: As President of the party I will work to ensure that NDP election campaigns reflect members’ priorities.)
By devoting 80% of convention time to policy debate we can reason together. I will oppose any move to rescind or block a candidate nomination for reasons of political difference within the frame of our principles. Candidates who have the courage to stand up for Palestinians, and oppose the Zionist apartheid state and NATO, should be praised, not punished.
Les congrès du NPD doivent être plus accessibles aux travailleurs, aux femmes et aux pauvres. La règle serait de baisser les frais d’inscription et de subventionner davantage les déplacements. Je vois le NPD comme le parti du travail et des mouvements pour la justice sociale dans les rues, pas seulement au Parlement. (transl.: NDP conventions must be more accessible to workers, women and the poor. Lower registration fees, and bigger subsidies for travel should be the rule. I see the NDP as the party of labour and social justice movements in the streets, not just in Parliament.)
I will push the party to invite more unions and community organizations to affiliate. More of the money raised should go to EDAs for year-round local organizing and direct participation in the class struggle. The huge economic barriers to run for NDP Leader should be removed.
Many hard working party supporters gave millions of dollars for a campaign they hoped would offer a real alternative to austerity and inequality. Now they want their money back. Much more discussion is needed at the local level about NDP aims and policies.
Members want real in-put, instead of dinner time donation calls, instead of seeing the resources of the party used to lobby members to give the Leader one more chance, instead of telephone ‘town halls’ where tough questions are filtered out.
Why am I running for President? To give members a voice, to give delegates a choice, to keep hope alive. At a time when the NDP is at 11% in the polls, when more NDP supporters say they’d vote for the Liberals than thecurrent NDP leader, we need a change of direction. We need to go back to the future – to the working class roots of the party. Together we can put democracy and socialism back in the NDP, and build the cooperative commonwealth in our time.