Can we really fight for a left agenda within the NDP?
We must recognize the limits of working within electoral parties to achieve progressive outcomes
As electoral cycles go, this one felt even more wasteful than usual.
An early election, triggered by a hubristic Liberal Party during a pandemic, thinking it could max out into majority territory—instead, the Liberals underestimated the impact of their own cynicism and broken promises from previous campaigns. The outcome was another minority and a parliament almost entirely unchanged by the $600 million operation.
Thus, Justin Trudeau remains prime minister, having garnered the support of around 20 percent of eligible voters. More than double that number of people—over 40 percent—did not participate in the vote. That this passive boycott of the election more than doubled the popularity of any party should give us pause to reflect on the political and electoral process in Canada.
For those of us committed to building a better and more just society, elections can really bring out the worst in us. Liberal and NDP partisans accuse one another of being the ‘fake’ progressives and stealing votes away from the ‘real’ progressives, especially once the polling gets started and the spectre of strategic voting enters the chat. Right-wing forces are invariably described as the greatest threat we have ever faced—a claim that is arguably always and never accurate—and we are told that even if we have criticisms of the Liberals or the NDP we must vote for them to defeat the right.
To reject this logic is often framed as a manifestation of ‘privilege,’ as though it were just a few wealthy dilettantes and armchair Marxists who refused to vote, when in fact it is nearly half the country and predominantly poor and working class people. To be sure, there are systemic barriers to accessing the electoral process which must also be factored here: not all of the 11 million non-voters did so by choice. Long lineups at polling stations when people only have a short break from work, for instance, need to be taken into account. But such factors do not add up to 11 million people.
The stark reality is that a massive swath of working people who live here did not see anything in this election that made them want to go out of their way to cast a ballot. Most Canadian Dimension readers will not need to be reminded of the reactionary record of the Liberal Party, but it is the energy and resources poured into the NDP that needs taking serious stock.
For how long will we continue to be sucked into backing a party whose leader panders to small business and can’t commit to obvious social democratic positions like shuttering the Trans Mountain Pipeline? A party whose previous leader is an admirer of Margaret Thatcher? A party which marginalizes those voices within it, like Niki Ashton’s, that push the most progressive positions? A party which, when it gains power, governs in a manner indistinguishable from the Liberals (BC’s John Horgan siding with logging companies at Fairy Creek) or the Conservatives (Alberta’s Rachel Notley embracing the fossil fuel industry)?
Those of us who reject both parties as ruling class stooges in different costumes are often unpopular, even among the left, at election time. The Canadian mythmaking machine will often go into overdrive to tell us it is a privilege that we are allowed to vote, a sacred right that soldiers died to protect and immigrants to Canada cherish. There are multiple flaws in this claim. For one thing, the Canadian representative electoral system offers people far less direct impact on policy than many other countries and, as I illustrate comprehensively in Canada in the World, no Canadian soldiers have ever died for the limited voting rights we do have. In truth, Canada has most often fought against democratic rights around the world, from El Salvador to Spain to Congo to Haiti to Afghanistan.
The most obvious, striking, and rarely-spoken example of this is the colonial soldiers who created Canada in the first place. To build this country, the settlers who became Canadians had to destroy the societies that already lived here, many of which had robust and complex democratic systems which gave people significantly more control over their lives than working and poor people have in Canada today. From this standpoint, Canadian electoral democracy is not a privilege, it is a weak imitation of what we could have if this place were truly decolonized.
And here I do not mean adding a land acknowledgement at the start of your meetings, I mean the end of colonialism and full Indigenous sovereignty over this land. Such a victory should be the starting point for any serious conversation about building a better and more just society here. The notion that you can build a healthy society on a foundation of genocide is absurd and yet, it is an underlying assumption of any project to try to work within the NDP to achieve progressive outcomes.
We are often told that voting is a form of ‘harm reduction.’ But consider all the energy and resources poured into trying-and-usually-failing to get NDP candidates elected to a parliament where they likely cannot or will not make any difference in the actual policy output. What if we put those resources and energy into the actual harm reduction itself? Helping to hold the line at Fairy Creek? Salting for new union drives and maintaining solidarity with workers on strike? Suing companies that steal wages? Resisting evictions by gentrifying landlords? Blockading the factories that produce weapons of war for Saudi Arabia? Holding Canadian soldiers accountable for the crimes they committed in Afghanistan? Shutting down the tar sands once and for all?
We live in a society doing so much harm. The need to reduce that harm is everywhere and it is acute. To my many friends, colleagues, and fellow travellers endlessly refilling the NDP tank, I ask sincerely, how much harm has that reduced? Could those resources have done more as a campaign to demand social housing? Or as a coordinated and organized strategy to successfully defend homeless encampments in a pandemic? Most importantly, how have NDP electoral campaigns contributed to the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty?
Elections and electoral parties like the NDP serve to re-invest us in the idea of ‘Canada,’ but I would argue that ‘Canada’ will be remembered as a shameful vestige of the colonial past. To paraphrase Nick Estes, Indigenous history is the future—above all else, the left in this place should be putting everything it has into the struggle against Canadian colonialism. A future society in a decolonized Turtle Island would have a wide range of democratic traditions and histories to draw from in crafting a new system that could balance the needs of the multi-racial working classes who live here today and give people meaningful input into the structures that govern their lives.
Perhaps then we wouldn’t be ruled by a small group of silver-spoon rich kids who, despite the massive electoral circus, still barely inspire one in five people to vote for them.
Tyler A. Shipley is professor of culture, society and commerce at the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning and author of Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination.