Canadians hoping to see bold ideas and a more radical orientation emerge from the federal New Democrats’ February convention in Ottawa are surely feeling disappointed. Four months after Jagmeet Singh’s first ballot victory, a party still struggling to regain its balance following electoral demolition in 2015 again failed to capitalize on a historic opportunity to distance itself from and challenge the Liberals with a transformative left-wing vision.
While the convention saw Singh endorse progressive policies, including publicly-funded infrastructure, tax reform and paid sick leave, he didn’t take the “big ideas” far enough. Ultimately, the party sided with a “less timid” (Singh’s words) form of centrism divorced from the demands of systemic economic and social change.
This is all the more frustrating considering the appetite for more far-reaching social change is palpable and growing. Polls released in January by Nanos and the Institute for Research on Public Policy reveal that more Canadians than ever dislike the Liberal government. In fact, Justin Trudeau’s approval ratings are nearly identical to those of Stephen Harper before the last election.
Part of this undoubtedly stems from the growing contempt for the PM’s superficial image politics. More often than not, his lofty rhetoric has failed to align with reality. From betraying the promise of electoral reform to squaring the climate circle on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the sheen of faux-progressivism is dissipating. How many Canadians buy the claim, for instance, that expanding tar sands production will somehow reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Particularly for young people, whom Finance Minister Bill Morneau blithely relegated to a future of “job churn” and precarious work, Trudeau’s seemingly impermeable PR facade of “sunny ways” is, by now, little more than a bad joke.
A year of blunders — including the Prime Minister’s unprecedented violation of four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act — has left a wide opening for an unapologetically radical reimagining of Canadian politics, the type of genuine left populism incarnated by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.
The moment was ripe for the NDP to go beyond taking “little steps in the direction of progressive change,” as Leap Manifesto co-author Avi Lewis cautioned against on the eve of the convention.
Yet it was little more than little steps that the NDP offered up in February, positioning itself less as a viable Left alternative to the Liberals and more as a meek tweak on many of the current government’s policy pillars. Even one of the NDP’s braver proposals, a national pharmacare program, is already slated for adoption by the Liberal Party in advance of the 2019 election.
Perhaps most tellingly, an opportunity to outflank Trudeau on the fight against climate change and in efforts towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples by adopting the Leap Manifesto was squandered for a second time (it had been rejected once before at the party’s policy convention in 2016).
Meanwhile, the night before the convention, 500 youthful activists attended a rally organized by Courage to Leap. Scarcely 100 of them were NDP delegates — a telling indication that young radicals either do not see the NDP as a likely vehicle for social change or eschew parliamentary politics altogether.
Of course, it would be unfair to characterize the convention as wholly unsuccessful. It was significant that Singh spoke to the party’s social democratic heritage when he called for expanded health care, closing tax loopholes, building affordable housing, and bolstering environmental stewardship. But he fell sadly short on other issues, notably energy and foreign policy.
The convention saw not a single anti-pipeline resolution, and on the subject of Palestine, often a sore spot for party members, tensions raged over a resolution aimed at putting diplomatic and economic pressure on Israel to end the Occupation. The resolution was ultimately defeated.
As Andrew Mitrovica wrote in Al Jazeera, “for Canada’s pretend socialist party, its supposed ‘values’ are all too malleable and, as such, human rights for Palestinians appear to be an optional extra and are indeed deployed selectively.”
For those of us with long memories, it comes as no surprise that the party establishment held firm control, beating off all efforts to debate any resolution that might prove controversial. Yet without a bolder, more courageous message, the NDP will always come up short. If nothing else, it should remember its radical roots and strive to represent a credible alternative to status quo neoliberal politics.
It is worth recalling the pledge of the NDP’s forerunner in the 1933 Regina manifesto: “No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the [a] full programme of socialized planning….”
Canada is now sorely in need of sound democratic investment planning for the future needs of its citizens. The Liberals are forging ahead with an Infrastructure Bank that prioritizes projects that will yield profits for domestic and foreign business and financial interests and sets the stage for the privatization of vital assets, from ports to hospitals. While the NDP has sounded the alarm on the Liberal P3 model, it has not spelled out its proposal for a system of democratic investment planning. Nor has it taken a clear stand on the urgency of transitioning away from fossil fuels or reducing our dependency on extractive resource development. There is little to suggest, finally, that the NDP is committed to transforming the economy from one revolving primarily around production for profit and the quest for export markets to one geared above all to satisfying local needs.
In order to win, the Left must match the ambitions of its adversaries. It must provide a more egalitarian and radical emancipation from the past. It must transform, not reform, society. So far there are too few signs that Singh’s NDP is up to that task.
Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.
This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension (Whiteness & Racism).