Category Archives: NDP

Film Review: The Spirit of ’45

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by Barry Wesleder
About thirty-five people attended the SA Rebel Films screening of the Ken Loach film “Spirit of ’45” at OISE U of Toronto on October 4.  Most stayed for a lively discussion on the origins and present threats to the welfare state, and the need for socialist transformation of society.
Below is the text of the presentation I made on the subject, following the screening.
    The outstanding English film and television director, Ken Loach, was born in June 1936. He is known for his naturalistic, social realist directing style and for his socialist politics, which are evident in his film treatment of social issues such as homelessness (Cathy Come Home) and labour rights (Riff-Raff and The Navigators).
    His best known films are:
    Ken Loach was asked after the screening in Cardiff why he made the film. I want people to be angry¨ he said. “This is not about history. It’s about the fact that society doesn’t have to be this way. We can seize control of the economy, protect the environment, share out the work. You can only plan what you own collectively for the benefit of all! Another world is possible. My god, we have to change it.”
    The film shows the contrast between the poverty of the 1930s and the hopes and aspirations of the working class that there should be no return to these conditions. One contributor from Liverpool described his living conditions before the war, with all the children getting into a bed every night which was crawling with vermin. The happiest moment in his life was moving into a new council house.
    With the 50% increase in homeless families now and the attacks on housing benefits, it shows why the mass house building programme following the war was so important. In Wales some of the temporary accommodation, the prefabs, are still being used.
Tony Mulhearn, one of the Liverpool 47 councillors who stood up to the Thatcher government, was one of the film’s interviewees. He said what politicians should be doing now to improve working class people’s lives. Liverpool city council in the 80s showed that the Spirit of ’45 was not a distant historical event but an example of what working class people can achieve, tangibly with bricks and mortar, when we fight together.
    The film does not fully convey a sense of the mass revolutionary wave involving demobilized soldiers who were determined that after defeating fascism they should build a better world free from squalor and poverty. The 1945 Labour government was elected on a wave of confidence and pushed much further to the left than politicians expected.
    The ruling class was terrified that workers would take power in Britain and fundamentally change society. So the rulers conceded unprecedented reforms: the nationalisation of gas, electricity, coal and transport and the creation of the NHS. All these made a massive difference to people’s lives and showed the advantage and logic of providing services, utilities and transport planned on a nationwide basis.
    The creation of the welfare state and nationalisation at a time when Britain was bankrupt shows what can be done now to stop all the cuts and invest in jobs and services. The ruling class can always find money when it is necessary to protect their system.
The film clearly shows the limitations of the way the nationalisation was done, imposing tyrannical bosses and with no workers’ control. There were also concessions made to create the NHS, leaving private healthcare in place and “stuffing the consultants’ mouths with gold”.
    The creation of the welfare state was a big step forward, but only a glimpse of what could be achieved with workers’ control of society.
    The film exposes the current lack of a mass political alternative standing up for the working class. It lets the audience draw the conclusion that a new political voice is needed. Loach was very clear in the discussions after the screenings that a new political formation representing the working class is needed, and that unions should stop funding New Labour.
    Unlike nearly all other film directors, Ken is not just a film maker. He is somebody who intervenes regularly in the political debate and supports real struggles. His only rival might be Michael Moore, but with all due respect, the latter’s politics are less developed.  Many filmmakers make films with progressive messages that inspire people to think critically about the world, but they usually keep far away from the messy world of politics.  Apart from anything else such engagement can make their next film’s funding problematic.
    For this film Loach obviously worked in a collaborative way with many experienced political activists’ nearly all of whom are clearly to the left of New Labour.  With them he developed an articulated campaign for getting the biggest possible reaction to the movie.  He created a brilliant website packed with educational material that is understandable and accessible to the general public, students, teachers and activists. His media promotion was successful with appearances on Question Time, Newsnight, Morning TV and radio as well as the Evening Standard. Then there was the launch in 40 cinemas with a live Q and A session. He put himself forward as a promoter of the campaign for the June 22nd People’s Assembly against Austerity which is almost a political sequel to the film. He encouraged people to distribute material at all the screenings. Finally he made a public appeal for a new Left Party which 2000 people signed up to join after one week. Although this call is not crudely put into the film, it is a logical conclusion to the points made by most of the participants.
    The film is also politically astute in the way it reaches out to people who have different judgements on the utility of the current Labour party. It is the opposite of sectarian. It could easily have shown more explicitly how the whole way in which the welfare state was set up was a classic example of the limits of bureaucratic social democracy, that the rule of capital was shaken a little but not really challenged, indeed that capitalism itself benefited from the planned rebuilding of the infrastructure in those years. He could also have explained in more detail how the lack of independent working class self-organisation meant the welfare state was never really owned or run by working people.  Consequently, given the difficult economic conditions, it was easy for the Tories to return in the next general election, since the Labour government was identified with the continued rationing, a certain bureaucratic authoritarianism, and with austerity.
    Yet that would have been a different film for a different purpose or period. Today many of the fortresses of the labour movement have been dismantled through deindustrialisation and defeat. Union membership is half what it was in the 1970s and we know what happened to the Labour Party. In many ways this is a rebuilding phase of the labour movement. A large part of the population is unaware of the significance of the founding of the Welfare state. People under the age of 40 cannot even remember when electricity, gas, coal, rail, iron and steel, road haulage, telephones and so on were publicly owned. Several generations have been raised on the Thatcher and Blairite ideology that public sector equals wasteful and inefficient, and the private market and the entrepreneur are effective and dynamic. The current crisis is shredding some of those illusions, but vivid lessons from history put some flesh on a possible alternative. People need to grasp the fundamental difference between the Spirit of ’45 and the neo-liberal ideology and offensive led by Thatcher, and continued by Blair. So this is the right film for now.
    Indeed the strength of the film is the way it shows how government policies and projects such as the NHS or house building go to the heart of people’s lives to health, shelter, security. Key statements about the reforms are interspersed with wonderfully edited interviews with working people who explain how they slept five to a flea-ridden bed, or how profit in the mines led workers not to shore up the tunnels resulting in needless deaths.  A doctor recounts how after the formation of the NHS the women he was visiting still could not understand that he would be able to see the other member of her family who was ill because it was now all free of charge. A South Wales miner movingly talks of the death of his mother in childbirth through lack of care. Anger, hope and celebration are all there, but also some bitterness is expressed at the limits of the change where, for example, the brutal private coal managers are recycled into the leadership of the National Coal Board.
    The visual documentary  evidence came from old newsreels and official government film extracts which were edited together in a fresh way and included some elements most people have not seen, such as Churchill being booed at an open air meeting by Labour supporters. Interestingly, many of the key official propaganda wartime films were made by Communist Party or Left Labour people working in that unit. There was little local mobilisation for the Welfare state changes in terms of committees or workers organising in those sectors. However the officially sanctioned civics meetings organised in the armed forces in the final year of the war, and while people were waiting for demobilisation, did provide an opportunity for mass political debate. Left-leaning servicemen often pushed the discussion on support for no return to the 1930s and the need to win the peace with social improvements. An example is shown in the film. Keep in mind that the 50,000 strong Communist Party was at its height at this stage and worked to push Labour to the left. Russia retained a certain prestige among workers and reinforced popular support for the social efficiency of planning.  People also linked victory over the Nazis to the government direction of the economy and of rationing. 
    So the film shows the material underpinning of the Spirit of 45 that working together and planning could bring results. There was a temporary coalescence between a sense of nationalism and socially progressive measures. Of course nationalism in an imperialist state has a deeply corrosive effect, and the horrid crimes of Stalinism utterly destroyed the Communist Party.
Overlaid on the images from time to time were quotes from Labour party manifestos or its programme. These statements could easily be rallying calls for the struggle against austerity today. But Labour has long since abandoned such positions. Under Blair it deleted Clause 4, its pledge to being a socialist party that aims to socialize the means of production.
    A final component of the film is the analysis made by writers, historians, economists and veteran workers’ movement activists such as John Rees, James Meadway, Ralphie Dos Santos, Dot Gibson, Alan Thornett and Tony Richardson.  This allowed Loach to connect the historical story to the current crisis and to possible political alternatives. Otherwise the documentary could have become an exercise in nostalgia.
Ken Loach has regularly managed to produce works of art for TV or the cinema which are engaging narratives. However, unlike most film directors, he expresses working class lives and struggles in an unsentimental but positive way.
    What about the Labour Party today?
    It held its annual convention in Brighton just days ago. Labour Party Leader Ed Milliband made a rhetorical deke to the left to recover his working class base. According to the Guardian newspaper, “he fleshed out his attacks on ‘predatory capitalism’ and the ‘race to the bottom’ with a string of signature commitments: a freeze in electricity prices, breakup of the energy monopolies, abolition of the bedroom tax, a tougher minimum wage, 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, extra childcare, and a switch of tax cuts from big to small business.”
    But how believable are those promises in light of New Labour’s sins, including bank deregulation and privatization, and waging illegal wars?
    Take into consideration the speech to convention of Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow finance minister. It was reminiscent of classic Gordon Brown, from his pledge to use a higher bank levy to fund childcare to his ‘iron’ commitments to match George Osborne’s 2015-2016 current spending limits. Balls even promised to use the proceeds from selling RBS and Lloyds to pay down debt, in other words, privatizing banks to appease bond markets.
But that wasn’t the mood of Labour’s delegates. They gave a standing ovation to Unite leader Len McCluskey when he called on the party to stand up for organized labour, and they voted overwhelmingly for the lifting of the public sector pay cap. Balls and Milliband support the cap on wages.
    The Labour Party voted to re-nationalize the railways, and if it’s sold, to re-nationalize the postal service. But party leaders said, “That’s not our policy”.
    Have we seen this kind of behaviour in the New Democratic Party? A disregard by leaders for adopted policy? Violation of party principles and trampling of the interests of the working class? Have we seen efforts to remove all references to socialism, and to distance the party from the unions? Interference from the top in the local candidate selection process?
    We have seen all these things, and more.
    The difference in Canada is two-fold: 1. the NDP has never formed a federal government, and 2. unlike in Britain and Europe, the forces to the left of the NDP in Canada are miniscule and incapable of forming a significant revolutionary party.
    But what we have in common is this. We have a capitalism in decline, an ongoing global economic and environmental crisis, and both the need and the opportunity to advance a compelling socialist alternative. The “caring capitalism” that Milliband and Ed Broadbent propose is like the Arabian phoenix. It has never been seen. And it never will be. The system that puts profits before people must go, root and branch.
    A great way in Canada to advance the socialist alternative is to join the NDP Socialist Caucus. The SC has a higher media profile than does the rest of the left combined. The SC has chalked up wins. The SC won the NDP to a ‘Canada Out of Afghanistan’ policy. It helped to generate a major debate in the NDP on public funding of Catholic schools. It prevented the complete removal of socialism from the party constitution. It won support for Quebec students and the fight for free post-secondary education. It helped Linda McQuaig to win the NDP nomination in Toronto Centre.
    And an even better way to advance a democratic and socialist future is to join Socialist Action. No organization is more active, every day of the year, in fighting for union democracy, against labour concessions, against poverty and war, for women’s and LGBT liberation, and for a cooperative commonwealth. A good time to join us is tonight.

Free PDF is available: Concessions No More! Fight to Defeat Austerity

Below is a copy of “Concessions No More! Fight to Defeat Austerity”, a collection of talks presented at Socialism 2013, the annual international educational conference hosted by Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste, held May 10-12, 2013 at the University of Toronto.

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McQuaig nomination challenges Mulcair’s policy

by Barry Weisleder
    When close to 400 New Democrats crowded a YMCA auditorium on September 14 to choose Linda McQuaig to be their candidate in the Toronto Centre federal by-election, they bucked a trend. The trend is exemplified by federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s embrace of the status quo: pipelines to the east, pro-Israeli apartheid foreign policy, reliance on the private sector to generate jobs, and no new taxes on big corporations and the super-rich.
    Particularly on the latter point, Mulcair now has a vocal challenger – one with a good chance of joining his parliamentary caucus. The labour-based NDP placed a close second to the Liberal Party in the riding in the May 2011 general election.
    Linda McQuaig, former Toronto Star columnist and author of many books on economic inequality, proclaimed after her nomination victory in Toronto’s downtown core that she has no intention of backing down.
    “They should pay more,” she told the Huffington Post on September 16. Over the past 20 to 30 years the very rich have got richer, but the proportion of taxes they pay has dropped.
“We definitely need higher taxes on the rich,” she said. “First of all, we need the revenue to do what we want to do and, second of all, we need a better distribution of income in the country. We’ve developed too big a gap between the rich and the poor.”
McQuaig co-authored a book with Neil Brooks, “The Trouble with Billionaires,” calling for steep marginal tax rate increases of 60 per cent for the rich — those earning above $500,000 a year — and 70 per cent for the super-rich — those earning $2.5 million a year — in order to address income inequality in Canada. The problem right now, McQuaig said, is that the top marginal rate kicks in at about $135,000 at the federal level but stays flat after that.
“So, whether you are earning $135,000 or $1.5 million or $3 million, you pay the same top marginal tax rate,” she said.
McQuaig rejects the claim that advocating higher taxes on the rich is political suicide for a party. She says right-wing arguments against tax increases — that the rich will flee and the use of tax havens would increase — have not proved true, and have only limited the capacity of the state to provide public services.
But Mulcair has categorically ruled out taxing the very rich.
“If you look at the combined federal and provincial rate in several provinces, it’s over 50 per cent,” Mulcair said. “With regards to personal income taxes, it’s not on the table to increase them. That is a consistently held position.”
    While McQuaig is no anti-capitalist, her articulate, well-documented and dogged insistence on a more progressive tax system marks her as a radical on the political landscape. Her policies on equality, housing and the environment may rally grassroots NDP members and voters against Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Stephen Harper’s Tories, and also against an increasingly conservative NDP establishment.
    That’s why a bevy of party bureaucrats pushed and plumped for her opponent, former network TV journalist Jennifer Hollett.
    That made McQuaig’s win all the sweeter. And it opens up space for the party left, including the Socialist Caucus which actively backed her candidacy, to fight for socialist policies. The biggest winners in this episode are working class people who want more democracy in the party and in the unions, and who are looking for leadership in the fight against rising inequality and deadly austerity measures.
    The date for the Toronto Centre by-election is not yet set. But when it is, those who want the NDP to turn left should pull out all the stops to get Linda McQuaig elected MP.
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Prorogation x4

prorogation-Bruce-MacKinnon  On August 19 the federal Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared its plan to prorogue the Canadian Parliament — for the fourth time.

Harper used prorogation in 2007, but subsequent moves to prorogue in 2008 and 2010 drew the most fire. In 2008, Harper’s minority government used the tactic to prevent the combined opposition from removing him and forming a coalition government. He prorogued again in 2010 in the midst of a controversy over the Canadian Force’s mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, and just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics hosted by Vancouver.

Before the summer break this year, Harper faced daily criticism in the House of Commons over the ongoing scandal involving the expenses of senators, including three Conservatives he had appointed.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair accused Harper of shutting down Parliament to evade accountability and to avoid questions on the Senate.

“People aren’t going to be fooled. This is clearly a desperate government worn out by ethical scandals and mismanagement. Stephen Harper refuses to answer legitimate questions from the public,” the NDP leader said.

Senate reform legislation is just one of several bills that will die on the order paper with prorogation. The government is awaiting a Supreme Court opinion on Senate reform that could come in Fall 2013. The NDP is presently conducting a commendable cross-country campaign to abolish the Senate.

Prorogation would not affect the Auditor General’s review of Senate expenses. However, the recommendations of a Senate report concerning Senator Pamela Wallin’s expense claims would be on hold until they are adopted by the full Senate. That can’t happen while Parliament is prorogued.

Other affected legislation includes changes to the Canada Elections Act to establish new rules for political loans, and a bill to change parole rules for offenders found not criminally responsible for their actions.

However, these bills can be reintroduced at their most recent stage in the House of Commons.

A private member’s bill that would require labour unions to publish detailed financial information, known as Bill C-377, would be restored to third reading, the last stage completed by the House of Commons.

The bill, strongly opposed by the Canadian Labour Congress and its union affiliates, had been the subject of heated debate in the Senate, where it was amended and sent back to the House of Commons. But prorogation would wipe the slate clean as far as the Senate deliberations are concerned, according to the Library of Parliament.

“Thus, the bill would be sent back to the Senate in the same state it had been when it was passed at third reading by the House in December 2012, prior to the Senate amendment,” the library said in an email to The Canadian Press.

“The Senate would then begin the process of considering the bill anew; the Senate may vote to pass the bill unamended, amend the bill in precisely the same way it had been amended before, or introduce entirely new amendments.”

Harper’s frequent use of prorogation does more than add an arcane word to everyday political jargon; it shrinks and withers bourgeois democracy so its henchmen can serve more ruthlessly the capitalist austerity agenda. This is what some call the new authoritarianism – replete with increasing state surveillance of the population, curtailment of the right to strike, arbitrary police beatings and detentions, expulsion of refugees, and strident promotion of the military. It must be stopped – not just the P word, not just Harper, but the system that drives this descent into a living hell for working people.

 

– BW, with notes compiled from Wikipedia.

BC election, Ontario budget show failure of NDP ‘moderation’

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The obvious lesson from the May 27 British Columbia provincial election is ‘don’t trust opinion polls’. But what can we learn from the NDP campaign, besides the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs is not the only team capable of blowing a huge lead late in the game? *

Consider the observation of Tara Ehrcke, president of the Victoria Teachers’ Association (affiliate of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation).  “My greatest disappointment about this election was not the outcome, but the fact that not a single party stood up and spoke out for a radical re-evaluation of the massive inequity in our society. No political party really spoke to the need to tax the wealthy and to reinvest that money in services that benefit everyone, collectively. Like every election in my adult memory (back to the Premier Bill Vander Zalm days of the eighties), the debate was between a neo-liberal party of the right, and an NDP trying to be a Blairite party of the centre who speaks left to a left audience, right to a right audience, and promises nothing to anyone for fear someone might not like it.”
Reporter Justine Hunter wrote in the May 16 Globe and Mail (BC Edition): “Over his two years as leader, Mr. Dix developed an agenda that was designed not to spook voters. The slogan was change, “one practical step at a time.” He courted the business community with the promise that he would not try to move too fast.
“It was a bad campaign,” said Innovative Research pollster Greg Lyle, a former Liberal campaign manager. The New Democrats were offering incremental change that was hard for voters to get excited about, he said. “He could have built a movement for a compassionate revolution.” Instead, he mounted a defensive campaign aimed at holding a perceived lead in the polls.
“It was a fundamental error, believing that their vote was solid.”
Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star columnist, put it best on May 16.  He wrote:
“British Columbia’s election was many things….it was also a test run for the new, moderate, incrementalist NDP — the NDP that, in its federal form, Jack Layton refashioned and Tom Mulcair inherited. Indeed, three members of Layton’s brain trust — Brian Topp, Brad Lavigne and Anne McGrath — held key positions in the campaign.
“So the fact that this new, moderate NDP managed to lose badly in B.C. — in spite of its early and overwhelming lead in the polls, in spite of voter fatigue with Clark’s Liberals — casts a long shadow.
“The NDP was determined to portray itself as bland. Dix may have been Glen Clark’s chief of staff during the tumultuous ’90s. But his campaign motto this time was minimalist: “one practical step at a time.”
“His promises — such as one to ensure that nursing home residents receive two rather than just one bath a week — were underwhelming. It was at its core a strangely defensive campaign, as if the NDP were saying to voters: “We know you’re sick of the Liberals and wary of us. But don’t be frightened. You can vote for us without fear of our doing much.”
“To that end, Dix presented himself in his stump speeches as softspoken, amiable and cautious. His message was: under the NDP, things will change but marginally. The strategy didn’t work.
“First, the NDP can’t escape its own past. By any reasonable standard, it ceased to be a socialist party long ago. But no matter how many times it tries to purge its constitution of anti-capitalist language, a good many voters still view it as a party of the left.
“Christy Clark’s Liberals seized on this… My guess is that the New Democrats nationally will run into the same problem during the 2015 federal election campaign. It will be difficult to convince those who mistrust left-wing parties that the new, moderate NDP has changed its spots.
“Second, by focusing on incrementalism, Dix gave B.C. voters few positive reasons to vote NDP. The centrepiece of the party platform was the worthy issue of skills training. But Clark’s Liberals offered education goodies, too.
“Andrea Horwath’s Ontario New Democrats, who prefer equally bite-size pieces of practical policy to broad vision might want to reflect on Dix’s failure here.”

That brings us to the budget of the Ontario Liberal minority government, which Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath decided to support in the third week of May.

Let’s be clear. Premier Kathryn Wynne’s budget is a capitalist austerity budget.  There is a 1% cap in annual programme spending; a 3% allowable annual rise in tuition fees; zero growth in hospital base funding; 2% growth in annual health care spending; $100 increase in the monthly Ontario Child Benefit (instead of the $200 promised in the Liberal poverty reduction plan), and income testing of seniors’ drug costs.  A 1% hike in social assistance rates; 0% increase in the minimum wage.  And, of course, all of this is built on a 2 year wage freeze across the public service, and on the imposition of unjust terms and conditions forced on Ontario education workers, including suspension of collective bargaining and the right to strike.  A working class party that supports such an agenda ends up paying a big political price. Just ask Bob Rae.

For what they’re worth, the latest opinion polls, following NDP endorsement of the buget, show the Liberals up, and the NDP dropping into third place, well behind the Tories. The NDP Socialist Caucus slogan sums it up best:  To survive, the NDP must turn left.

* If the judicial recount confirms the NDP win in Coquitlam-Maillardville, the B.C. Liberals will end up with 49 seats in the legislature, the NDP 34, and the Greens and independent Vicki Huntington one each.

The result would be almost identical to 2009, when the B.C. Liberals won 49 seats, the NDP 35, and Huntington won in Delta South. The final popular vote breakdown was: B.C. Liberals 44.14 per cent; NDP 39.71 per cent; Greens 8.13 per cent and Conservatives 4.76 per cent.