Finding a place for politics in the new Parliament?

Through a late surge of support that has redrawn the parliamentary battlelines, Canada’s brand of social democracy has been announced the official ideology of opposition for the first time. It came on the back of an understated election that seemed to dodge central issues, including 10 years of war in Afghanistan, continued bombing of Libya, and the spread of austerity measures.

Instead, a clash of visions was projected through slogans and sound bites inferring political positions and values to would-be voters, while social engagement, rigorous debate and strong positions on key issues were dropped. The Tories couldn’t have had a better approach. They were allowed to not detail or be confronted on the social cost behind their cuts at home and militarization abroad, but there was also room for NDP gains.

With the Liberals unable to sell their brand, the NDP broke through with a brilliant campaign that mixed sharp satire and searing yet playful jabs with Obama-style optimism and potential for change. Jack Layton’s campaign team crafted an image of the antithesis to Harper that emerged as the alternative consensus. It was this image that was put on full display during the party’s electoral celebrations on May 2 at Toronto’s Metro convention center.

“Spring is here and it’s time for change,” Layton told the crowd, eluding to the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East–dubbed “The Arab Spring.” He was quick to highlight his intent to “build a new relationship” with indigenous communities while re-elected NDP MP and Layton’s partner, Olivia Chow, discussed her campaign to give representation to new immigrants, women and other marginalized groups.

The crowd of labour, student, community and party activists responded with cheers, erupting in party chants like “N-D-P” and “Won’t stop until the job is done.”

Speaking to Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan from the floor, he contended that in this election the labour vote was committed solidly to the NDP. “We all believe that giving tax breaks to corporations is not the way to build a viable economy,” said Ryan.

“The NDP is the only party to stand with the Tamil community during the war and the Scarbrough-Rouge River community wanted change,” said Rathika Sitsabaiesan, the newly elected NDP MP from that riding and the first elected Tamil-Canadian to federal Parliament. “The youth came out, but the entire Scarborough community actually mobilized and this was a grassroots campaign from the beginning,” she added surrounded by supporters.

However, beyond the rhetoric distinction, there was little difference on the policies and central issues from the Liberal campaign. There were no firm positions on an alternative to a system that continues to reward those that have built and crashed an economy off the backs of people who have only seen the inequality between rich and poor grow. There were no real alternatives to a Canadian foreign policy based on being the smiling face of a declining American Empire.

Instead of these issues being fought on the national election stage, they were confined to a Toronto courtroom last week where Montreal activist Jaggi Singh pleaded guilty to a charge of counselling mischief over $5,000 relating to his activism against the G20. It was in the speeches, tweets and statements by Singh and other activists read into evidence to indict him that the debate about these issues happened, despite the Crown’s claims that the greater issues of the G20 were irrelevant.

While NDP taglines embraced these issues without committing to defined positions, the people who forcefully pushed into the streets an open and direct message about economic control, indigenous and migrant rights and foreign policy are now on trial. It is a pattern that consistently surfaces, yet for more than a decade, major labour, community and student organizations have put their energies into voter mobilization rather than using collective action to make demands.

The result has been a national politics where the issues addressed and the parameters of the debate are set in Parliament and responded to on the street, rather than people independently setting the political agenda for their governments to follow.

Meanwhile, across the pond in the UK, and following a bitter experience of betrayal of the Labour government and the emergence of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the lesson being learned is that only aggressive, independent, popular action can be relied on to force the hand of governments. These lessons were taken to heart in London on March 26 when 250,000 people took to the streets against the biggest cuts to public-sector jobs and services in a generation.

Thousands gathered in the city’s shopping district for demonstrations called by the UK UnCut coalition, where corporations notorious for avoiding and resisting tax responsibilities were broken into and occupied by protestors. While the new British Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke to crowds in a park about the buzzwords of his brand for the party, the real action to see was downtown–where the city was stopped and discussions about building for a general strike were batted around.

The emboldening of Harper’s government should be a moment to take stock of Canada’s political landscape, to remember the recent weakness of parliamentary opposition and the Tories’ virtual free reign through a minority government. It is a time to remember the shortcomings of the social democratic promise. After all, it was during Ontario’s NDP government that OCAP led some of its first campaigns. Finally, looking at the UK, it is time to realize that not all lessons need to be learned the hard way and that modern politics is not about the division in parliament but about the division between parliament and the street.

Jesse Rosenfeld is journalist currently based in Toronto. From 2007 to March 2011 he was based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv. He has published with The Nation, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al Jazeera English, The Irish Times, The National, The Guardian–Comment is Free,,, The Lebanon Daily Star, Haaretz English and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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