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Beyond the New Democratic Party

Canadian PoliticsSocial MovementsSocialism

With so many trains leaving the station, is the NDP’s the right one to jump on? Photo by Andres Garcia/Unsplash.

This article is a response to “Why socialists should join the ONDP now” by Jacob McLean, published in Canadian Dimension on December 19, 2020.


History is back on the move. Since 2016, when the movements behind Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn began taking flight, socialism made a surprise re-entry into the political lexicon of the Western left. This revival, however, was uneven. Canada has largely been left out of the excitement of an “entryist” movement with the widespread popularity of those seen in the United States and England. “Where’s our Bernie?” some ask, the question inflected with a belief that a Sanders-type figure and movement would experience greater success in shifting the New Democratic Party—Canada’s nominally ‘left-wing’ political formation—in a radical direction.

The idea of a socialist takeover of the party has since become a popular one. Many of these feelings were recently captured in labour activist Jacob McLean’s article in Canadian Dimension, titled “Why socialists should join the ONDP now.” McLean’s piece speaks to the recent rehabilitation of socialist ideas and makes a case, based on his own experience within the labour movement, for “pulling the party left.”

The article arrived on the heels of a contentious year of NDP politics during the COVID-19 crisis. The last ten months have generated ongoing conversations about the party and its role in the political life of the working class—especially socialists—and the prospect of it acting as a vehicle for transformation through the ballot box.

What exactly is the NDP?

While the NDP is understood to be social-democratic, the party as it currently stands does not have an easily explicable identity. From the removal of “socialism” from the party’s constitution in 2013, to platforms that swing from barely left-of-centre to nominally social democratic, to a widening rift between its provincial and federal bodies, there is ample proof the party is in need of soul searching—or, at the very least, some kind of clarifying moment.

But it is unsatisfying to suggest the NDP is totally indistinguishable from the Liberal Party, as some critics charge, or that its existence is now pointless. The NDP’s close linkages with the labour movement are baked into the very structure of the party—a trait no other major party can claim—which ostensibly guarantees a seat at the table for workers. In power, NDP governments have also achieved some key reforms. And recently, a number of MPs have waved a far more radical flag than has been the case in the past, a positive sign after a long period of concessions to the political right on issues of foreign policy and the economy.

This might make the party worthy of a socialists’ election day vote. But their time and organized effort—especially in attempting socialist insurgency within the party—is another matter altogether, and one which McLean glazes over in his argument. “Many leftists,” he writes, “believe that social movement organizing is more important than electoral politics, and they choose to spend their time accordingly. I completely support that, but I wonder where the harm is in also taking out an NDP membership and squeezing in some party work once in a while.”

Is the NDP a distraction from social movement organizing, or more militant trade union organizing? Can the NDP change if activists put in work once in a while? Can the NDP change at all?

Historical precedent suggests this is not the case.

“Giving away miracles”

McLean’s argument emerges from a shaky belief that the NDP would not have legislated his union local back to work, thus forcing his employer to bargain. This premise is based on narrow precedent, not a wide ranging view of the NDP’s recent relationship with labour movements. The recent record of the party in government, across the many provinces which it has once governed, is mixed at best. And these histories must be confronted and understood.

Amidst the extreme wealth inequality and financialization of the 1990s, NDP governments were elected throughout Canada. But for whatever good that was achieved, these governments ultimately accepted the basic premises of slash-and-burn neoliberalism: the Social Contract in Ontario, later paving the way for Mike Harris; hospital closures in Saskatchewan; cracking down on “welfare cheats” in British Columbia, and so on.

The NDP’s recent record while in power in BC and Alberta has been marked by capitulation to the dominant neoliberal order, with approval of disastrous megaprojects like the Site C dam, a flagrant disregard for the rights of Indigenous peoples, and inadequate social and economic reforms. One could make a compelling argument that, on most policies, the timid, one-term Alberta NDP is virtually indistinguishable from the federal Liberals.

During the pandemic, the BC NDP—the only NDP government currently in power—failed to legislate paid sick days, manage a decent and safe plan for schools, and nationalize long term-care, despite holding a majority in government. It has, however, marshalled its energy suppressing Indigenous resistance to pipelines.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath celebrate during the provincial party’s bi-annual convention in Hamilton, Ontario, June 16, 2019. Photo by Tijana Martin.

Managerial social democracy

Social democracy has predominantly been about the “management” of capitalism, smoothing off sharp edges through winning elections and pursuing reforms, often producing paradoxical results. The NDP’s patchy and confusing record is attributable to a loose commitment to this way of thinking. In practice, it occasionally comes in left-wing varieties, but much more often—in the tradition of many Third Way parties—its brand of social democracy is right-wing, even liberal in practice.

According to a widely-circulated pamphlet by labour activists Ritch Whyman and Shawn Whitney, published in the shadow of NDP austerity in the 1990s, when capitalism works, social democratic parties can deliver reforms, and the working classes can generally count on simply electing those parties to achieve gains. It is under these circumstances that parties were able to muster public health care and decent welfare state protections.

But when capitalism falls into crisis—as it has done consistently since the 1970s—many social democratic parties end up accepting basic premises of neoliberalism: the need to “stay competitive,” attract capital, and implement austerity. During periods of upheaval, the gains made under social democratic governments, already piecemeal and limited, are particularly vulnerable to right-wing attacks.

Whyman and Whitney speak specifically to the NDP’s brand of social democracy as conflict management. Governments “‘work in the interests’ of a passive working class,” mediating conflict between workers and bosses, not exposing or agitating them. They broker, bargain, and reform. And to do so, they must win elections.

Soon after Whyman and Whitney’s pamphlet was published, the party moved steadily to the right for decades. The NDP both failed to capitalize on its victories in the 1990s and to this day, struggles to articulate a legitimate alternative or even channel the growing popularity of left-wing ideas. And yet even if a platform got it right, the party still lacked a broad-based, dynamic, and explicit programme of socialist political education to win the working class over, instead settling for various degrees of top-down progressivism and electioneering.

It would be through such a programme that capacity might be built among the working class to shape its own destiny. To build the power necessary to confront capital, canvassing and door-knocking around elections to build support for any platform is not enough. But this is ultimately in existential conflict with the NDP’s self-image.

Activist and writer David Bush articulates this belief succinctly: the party “understands its role as acting on behalf of people, not in facilitating others to act.”

Of course, many party activists, riding association organizers, and elected representatives do this work. There is outstanding imagination within the party rank-and-file whose work is rooted in the belief that social movements, not parties, can change the world. But the managerial nature of the NDP’s loose social democracy contradicts this vision.

Entryism’s history and the bureaucracy burden

It seems obvious that the more socialists who flock to the party, the better the chances of a leftward shift. But history has demonstrated how tightly-wed to lukewarm social democracy the party and its bureaucracy are—and how they react to dissenting voices.

The NDP maintains a sizeable bureaucracy to fulfil its regular duties and obligations. The bureaucracy comes largely from its professionalized wing: full-time staff, advisors, consultants, and apparatchiks, alongside backing from institutional labour power brokers and executives (who, in recent years, have been clear about hedging their bets).

This collection of actors typically exercises a “conservativizing” effect over the NDP, taking more moderate, less agitated positions to maintain stability and normalcy. Often, they have distinct beliefs and interests that are separate from, or even in conflict with, the rank-and-file. Internally, there have been accusations of party leadership packing confidence votes at various provincial conventions, to say nothing of suppressing Palestinian solidarity within the party or displacing an internationalist Green New Deal platform for a more ambiguous and far less radical “New Deal for People.”

It is not outlandish to suggest that most NDP members are more radical than the bureaucracy and leadership. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see members (including sitting MPs and MPPs) openly advocating for public ownership or taking far more left-wing positions on Palestine or Bolivia. Sometimes this leads to outright expulsion, with little debate. But more often, tensions between the party’s left and right come to the fore at party conventions; take, for example, the heated ways in which the Leap Manifesto dominated the conversation at the 2017 Edmonton Convention.

Despite an ostensibly democratic structure, leadership and bureaucracy is easily able to maintain business-as-usual, exercising far more power than individual members or well-organized caucuses. This is not to say institutional power is invulnerable, that there are never schisms within it, or that challengers can get nothing done. But historically, it has been strong.

This structure is deeply-entwined with the NDP’s approach of top-down social democracy: the party relies on the radical members that populate their ranks, but stifle their energy and imagination—channeling it instead into election campaigns that are largely organized at the top and handed down.

Despite policy being voted on through democratic means, what ends up in the party platform at election time is ultimately up to party leadership and unaccountable committees. This often involves more consultants and focus groups than any party activists.

After tasting some electoral success including gaining the role of federal official opposition and winning a few provincial elections in the 1990s and 2000s—fuelled by grassroots agency and a big tent comprising disparate Canadian left movements—the party became a purely “electoral machine,” one that catered more and more to the centre and centre right, with predictably disastrous results. If the party is now moving a little to the left after decades spent pandering to the right, it is not because of increased democratic inclusion, but because the current strategy has proven to largely be one of electoral failure throughout most of the 2000s.

While NDP leadership congratulates itself on introducing new, marginally left policy to its platform, it has yet to acknowledge its own role in silencing its radical factions and left voices.

Supporters of the NDP candidate for the Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo riding take over a stretch of highway in 100 Mile House, British Columbia. Photo courtesy My Cariboo Now.

The New Politics Initiative

The New Politics Initiative, launched in 2001, followed historic examples of left wing insurgencies within the NDP, such as the Waffle. The idea was to reintegrate the party within social movements and democratize its internal workings. “Our thinking,” economist Jim Stanford wrote in Rabble, “was that social change does not come solely, or even primarily, from electoral campaigns. It comes, rather, from deeper shifts in popular consciousness, ideology, and organization. That’s why progressives must be campaigning on progressive issues, and working to build progressive structures of engagement and democracy, all the time, not just during elections.” The Waffle, over 30 years earlier, had taken a similar position: without building a socialist consciousness, little would be able to change. Making note of the NPI’s impact, labour studies professor Simon Black wrote in 2006 that the movement had made what he calls the “official” party—the leadership and bureaucracy—“shudder.”

With endorsements and momentum, the NPI resolution was floated at the 2001 convention in Winnipeg. But following a concerted campaign questioning party loyalty and the possibility of the NPI “splitting the left,” NDP leadership and bureaucracy won over delegates and strengthened its entrenched position.

The resolution was defeated by delegates—as it happens, by the exact same margin as socialist challenger James Laxer’s leadership bid was defeated during the Waffle insurgency (63 to 37 percent). Commanding nearly 40 percent of a vote is significant, and represents a major schism within the party’s left and right. But these defeats are heavy and totalizing, leaving almost no organizational path forward. The NPI dissolved in 2004 amidst a lack of focus. The campaign of Jack Layton for leader the previous year (a self-avowed democratic socialist) was seen as an extension of the movement’s project, attracting many NPI activists to his campaign.

In the long run, this was not the case. Nothing the NPI advocated for was embedded in party policy. Under Layton, the typical electioneering, bureaucratic behaviour, and rightward shifts persisted, co-opting NPI activism and suppressing the movement. The NPI is an often-forgotten but crucial example of the party machine in action, and the paralyzing nature of insurgency defeats. Unlike the Waffle, which was ordered to disband, the NPI was simply sucked up into the party brass and disintegrated, leaving nothing behind.

As it does with most radical policy propositions and leadership contestants, the party brass mobilizes itself to crush movements, too, whether by decree or co-option.

Today, Courage—an organization plugged in McLean’s article—is allegedly one of the most prominent organizations working to pull the NDP left since its 2017 inception (it has earlier roots in turfing Mulcair). However, the Courage coalition is currently extremely atomized, and quite quiet. With chapters in most major cities, it hasn’t coalesced into something greater. When it launched, there was much fanfare around what Courage could achieve, but it hasn’t yet expressed itself in a manner that’s pushed the NDP left in any meaningful way, like Momentum was able to do for the UK Labour Party. It’s also worth considering that Courage itself has the same anxiety around optics that the NDP grapples with, namely the total avoidance of the word “socialism” in its materials. Purporting to be a movement, Courage has quickly been outgrown and overshadowed by other formations that both achieve more and have little to nothing to do with the NDP.

Which road to justice?

Questions about socialists diverting energy and resources to the NDP beget a larger question about what brings about change. Does transformation happen in parliament—what Bush ironically calls “the parliamentary road to justice”—or in the streets? McLean’s answer is to participate in both.

But in an atomized, increasingly precarious world of capitalist extremity, that is a luxury many do not have. This is particularly clear amidst a pandemic that accelerated wealth inequality and called into question the fundamental systems of liberal democracy.

There have never been more accessible alternatives to party organization, with a renewed rise in tenant organizing, unionization, socialist organizations, and other nascent movements including the one for police divestment that exploded over the summer. Many of these organizations commit to a belief that organized collectives, not parliamentary representatives, enact change.

These organizations have been on the frontlines of the present crisis. Meanwhile, the NDP contented itself with half-measures or outright toed the line on corporate bailouts amid the pandemic.

While many organizational efforts have their own different structures and sometimes contradictory goals and methods, most recognize that power is gained through building confidence, constant organizing, and direct action that directly challenges power as it is. These organizations understand that politics is what happens between elections, and that left electoral and policy outcomes are a punctuation mark on longer term organizing efforts.

While the case for having a parliamentary wing of the socialist movement is legitimate, the NDP can’t be “it” for many, as it is now. But building this capacity on a mass scale may actually put leftward pressure on the NDP and force it to accommodate growing militancy.

There may even be surprises on the horizon. No one can prove conclusively that insurgency is impossible. It’s just that the odds remain stacked against it. The prospects of a hard break with social democracy, the weakening of the bureaucracy, and a reinvestment in the constituencies from which the NDP derives its real base are all bleak.

Socialists believe that out of organizing, things can change—and accordingly, that the problems outlined above could be changed, too. But in charting a course forward, socialists must also use their energy strategically.

Transforming the NDP, for many, might simply prove to be too costly or too pointless to manage in a time of great upheaval and greater opportunity.

With so many trains leaving the station, is the NDP’s the right one to jump on?

Dan Darrah is a writer and editor living in Toronto. He is a member of Spring.

Abdul Malik is a writer and photographer based out of Edmonton, Alberta. His work has been featured in publications across the world, and his first written studio feature film is currently in post-production, coming to a theatre near you when it’s safe to do so. You can follow his work on Twitter @socialistraptor, look at his photography at abdulymalik.photo, or read his personal essays at abdulymalik.com.

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