Defeating Harper from Below

Fast-paced changes over the previous four elections have transformed Canada’s federal political landscape. The Liberal Party’s vote has been halved and the Bloc Québécois suffered nearly as badly. The NDP made spectacular, if still precarious, gains under Jack Layton, with a historically unprecedented showing in Québec. Only the Conservatives’ advance from official opposition in 2004 to majority government in 2011 seemed inexorable.

The swaggeringly pro-capitalist, neoliberal and militarist Harper juggernaut makes enquiring into its limits seem impertinent. So, prima facie, do developments elsewhere. The 2008 financial crisis, the greatest crisis of neoliberalism, appeared to reinforce the power of capital everywhere. Austerity — turbo-charged attacks on welfare, labour and public services — rules throughout the Global North.

However, a longer historical perspective appears more encouraging.

The New Right — exemplified by the Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney governments — arguably peaked in the 1980s. And even then, it never captured hearts and minds. New Right governments were formed on a minority of the vote magnified into a majority of seats by the Anglosphere’s first-past-the- post electoral systems. Of course, the intellectual, political and electoral disorientation of social democratic parties helped enormously.

By the 1990s, however, social democratic governments like those of Blair, Clinton and Schroeder acceded to power, having made themselves “electable” again not by reconstituting a coherent politics of the Left but by stealing New Right’s ideological clothes. They extended neoliberalism’s life at the price of hollowing out their own social base. Thereafter parties of the right returned to power only on the basis of an even shallower electoral achievement. Republicans won only one election of the six held since 1988; the British Tories have failed to win a majority since John Major’s in 1992. And the Canadian Conservatives won one in 2011, their first since Mulroney’s second win in 1988.

The New Right faces two fundamental problems. First, neoliberalism has never worked materially for enough people to consolidate the New Right electorally. It failed to produce growth without blowing asset bubbles which took income and wealth inequality off modern-day charts. This failure has led right parties to deploy all manner of other instruments — notably racism disguised as policy discussions on immigration, and in Canada on aboriginal issues too — to shore up its support and divide the opposition.

The second contradiction of the New Right is between the social conservatives without whom it cannot fight elections and the social liberals without whom it cannot win them. Harper has attempted to deal with this by gagging social conservative candidates, MPs and cabinet ministers, a practice which regularly runs into highly public trouble.

The Harper Conservatives achieved their majority in 2011 as passive beneficiaries of factors not of their making. Even so, the best they could do was just shy of 40 percent of those voting. Nevertheless, until the electoral system changes, Harper can continue to win majority governments with little popular support and a plurality of votes.

It might be tempting for those of us on the independent Left to fiddle with electoral manoeuvring to finally oust the Harper Tories. We leave that to others. This is not our function. Our job is to work with indigenous, environmental and other social movements to campaign against the Harper government’s efforts to dismantle the gains of the past and stifle dissent and to expose the Harperites as a class government representing only the interests of the 1 percent. This is the main reason Canadian Dimension has not been among the advocates of an electoral coalition aimed at defeating Harper — an initiative which was in any case dead in the water with the election of Justin Trudeau as Liberal Party leader. Rather than fighting Harper on the thin turf likely to be mounted by the NDP and the Liberals, we on the independent Left need to organize ourselves to join vigorous fightback mobilizations while pushing forward for structural change toward a more just society. That can mean campaigning door-to-door with flyers, holding teach-ins or organizing public assemblies or mass meetings, and using various forms of social media. It can also mean taking part in walk-outs or other forms of civil disobedience, or work-ins such as protesting closures or cutbacks in hospitals. And it can mean joining strikes against mounting user fees, such as the courageous Québec student strike against tuition hikes, or organizing days of action against austerity similar to Ontario’s Days of Action against the Mike Harris government back in the 90s, or like the political strikes going on all over southern Europe. Putting our backs into blockades might be the best tactic to halt environmentally devastating resource extraction. There is a lot to take on beyond the ballot box, both before and after 2015!