The federal election is emerging as a climate referendum. However, the NDP is marginalized because of its failure to establish a distinct profile by embracing a Green New Deal. The mass defection of former NDP candidates in New Brunswick to the Green Party is a grave indicator of this imperative. Without such a bold unifying theme that will stick in voters’ minds, the NDP’s electoral proposals are seen by many as an echo of the Liberal Party’s promises. They are indistinguishable except for minor details and degree, and therefore a vote for the NDP is seen as wasted by those wanting to stop a Conservative takeover.
Climate justice must be more than just one item on a long list of justified demands. Instead of presenting an integrated vision (remember the Leap Manifesto?) to millennials who now constitute a majority of the electorate, the NDP has wrapped its electoral program in a New Deal for People (coinciding with the NDP’s acronym) while forgoing any serious effort to put forward a radical vision of a Green New Deal for which public action in favour of climate justice and a massive public green jobs campaign would be its foundation. Dropping the word “Green” before New Deal not only sent the wrong message to our voter base and climate justice advocates; it also took the heart out of our vision. We are left in an election where waffling on our core values counts for zero and where we have virtually no defining identity to inspire voters other than a list of fragmented, although important, reforms.
It is not the fault of Jagmeet Singh. At the 2019 ONDP convention, his speech offered an inspiring version of an alternative society. He started with a vision that all humans have social and personal rights. He proposed that every resident of Canada was entitled to head-to-toe health care for free without limit, including eye care, hearing care, mental health care and universal pharmacare. He reiterated a plan to create 300,000 green public jobs and to withdraw all subsidies on the polluting industries. He projected additional taxes, albeit modest, on the vast corporate profits that are sucking Canadian workers dry. He promoted a vision of free education up to and including universities and colleges. Regretfully, these bold promises fade and fragment in the public mind unless presented as part of a forceful and focused vision.
As of early September, the NDP is lingering at 12.8 percentage points in the polls above the anti-labour Green Party at 10.7%. 34% of sitting NDP members have declined to run again. In Quebec, once a bastion of strength, the NDP is now tied with the Green Party at 9.5%, with most ridings shockingly lacking candidate nominees at this late stage. Political pundits are warning that the NDP “is in danger of posting one of its worst performances ever” and that it “might be lucky to finish third”. This is happening despite the fact that Angus Reid reports in one of its polls that 37% of millennials claim climate change will be the first or second factor influencing their vote. That drops slightly to 30% for Generation X voters and even is the top issue for 25% of baby boomers. Angus Reid’s polls reveal support for the NDP drops off sharply among voters aged 35 and older.
So why is this happening? What’s the cause for the NDP’s poor showing in the polls and what solution is there that can bring it back as a serious contender in the electoral contest?
First of all, the NDP strategists have failed dismally to project a crisp, visionary plan of an alternative Green New Deal applicable to Canada that could inspire disgruntled voters fed up with the corporate parties to march to the polling stations on October 19. This failure has deep roots in the decision of the Party brass over the last two years to torpedo the debate on the Leap Manifesto and to waffle on climate justice issues. Remarkably, the federal NDP leadership at the 2018 NDP federal convention refused to support a resolution to come behind the BC NDP’s government’s efforts to protect its coasts from the Kinder Morgan pipeline extension project. Not only was the issue completely ignored by NDP executives, but the Party was silent about the BC NDP government’s subsequent endorsement of a multi-billion dollar LNG natural gas project that locks us into climate-destroying fracking for years to come.
The refusal to frame our own program in the context of a Green New Deal has proven disastrous to the NDP. It has drained us of financial support contributing to unreasonable delays in vetting candidates in the current election and causing some to withdraw. It has resulted in an electoral strategy of concentrating on “winnable” ridings that has marginalized a number of regions where the NDP’s electoral presence has been rendered symbolic. It has given the Green Party an opening to scoop young environmentalists and a sitting Quebec NDP (and now, tragically New Brunswick) into their fold while eviscerating the NDP’s own credibility among a surging number of newly politicized youth who should be the target for our appeal. They are likely to vote in unprecedented and escalating numbers in the current election, especially if we inspire them. From their perspective, we are silent or muted on the emerging key electoral issue.
The election comes at a time when large numbers of especially young voters are looking for a fundamental socialist alternative vision in Canada and around the world. A Forum research poll released August 28 indicates that 58% of Canadian respondents said they had a positive view of socialism, a word that still causes our expert advisors to cringe. Admittedly, the NDP, for the first time in years has attacked the Liberals and Tories as serving the interests of multi-billion dollar corporations and even used the term “working people” to describe its own base. But such messaging is only a first baby step. It is clearly made out of desperation. There is no integrated bold alternative vision counterposed by the Party that it will implement when it takes power such as the one, for example, set out in the 17-trillion-dollar 10-year Green New Deal fashioned by U.S. Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. Most of the NDP’s electoral messaging has been about how the NDP would do more of this and more of that. It is all a matter of degree. There is nothing empowering in this type of messaging that can grab hold of voters and motivate them to shed their cynicism about electoralism and mobilize to elect the NDP to power.
The decision of the NDP bigwigs to reject the concept of a Green New Deal is unforgiveable. The 109-page New Deal for People contains numerous proposals for important reforms of which climate issues are only the third listed item in six different policy topics. It is lost in the impenetrable verbiage of a document no one will read. Our “big tent/don’t offend anyone” electoral strategy opens the door for Trudeau to win critical youth votes by adapting pseudo-left anti-establishment memes. It permits Trudeau, who attended the pre-election UNIFOR convention and is the first Prime Minister to address a Canadian Labour Congress gathering in 50 years, to attract votes that waver between the Liberals and NDP. It allows Trudeau to get away with portraying the Liberals as the last bastion of resistance against the marauding band of Tories who would repeal carbon-pricing, so that a vote for the NDP would play into the Tories’ hands. It sends an insipid and out-of-touch message that is ignored by voters.
The possibility of integrating these demands into the core of a vision based on and developed within the framework of climate justice has been finessed out of existence by the Party mavens. In place of such a vision, the Party’s message has been reduced to disparate and unrelated planks of such a program. The remnants of the vision that the Party’s tops felt safe enough to allow Jagmeet to verbally promote at the last ONDP convention are scarcely discernible in its current electoral messaging. While such messaging has not hesitated to characterize the Liberals and Conservatives as instruments of the corporate elite, that is not enough. The alternative vision of a Green New Deal as elaborated and promoted by us and many others and which has attracted widespread support and a commitment by the ONDP to explore its dimensions with the public through a listening tour, are barely articulated in the NDP’s election ads. Housing and health care are key issues but should be treated as integral to an overarching plan that pierces through the pre-election noise. People need something to vote for, not only something to vote against. The failure of the Party leadership to promote such a vision amounts to a recipe for disaster.
What is to be done? We still have weeks to reorient the Party. Support for the Liberal Party is shallow. The Green Party’s recent popularity can be met with a real, justice-based and working-class-based GND. Our electoral platform needs to resonate as part of a bold and inspiring Green New Deal. Stopping environmental devastation in the context of a climate justice vision is essential. Fully integrating the protection of the planet with a social justice alternative is the key issue for this election. We need a strategic orientation to this priority issue with proper emphasis reflecting its urgency. We need to refocus our campaign while there is still (a little) time left. Universal pharmacare is important, but we need a planet to live on to benefit from it.
A simple step can start placing our party back on the electoral map. Remember the almost 3,000 Oshawa GM workers who will get their last paycheque next Christmas? Imagine the dramatic impact on the electoral dialogue of a call by Jagmeet Singh to promote public ownership of the Oshawa GM plant infrastructure and use it to develop the production of electrical vehicles with the same unionized workforce that has now been terminated and under their democratic control. And imagine how he can pose such a takeover as the cornerstone of a Green New Deal with massive numbers of new public green jobs that will be created to establish and maintain charge stations and parts productions for such a public enterprise. Such a proposal is consistent with a unanimous resolution passed at the June ONDP convention in Hamilton.
The writing for the NDP is on the electoral wall. We used to be the Party of vision and imagination. Our predecessor, the CCF, was committed to create a new world which placed human solidarity above profit and greed. And now we are lost in the cacophony of electoral noise that does not even show us as visible on the voters’ radar screen.
While the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are fiercely challenging the great U.S. imperium with a dramatic and persuasive vision without even the merest existence of a labour party, our own NDP, with its superior connection to organized labour and social justice activists, treads softly in confronting the corporate agenda. Why can’t the visionary boldness of a Tommy Douglas inform the NDP in this critical moment? Our survival, both in this election and for years to come is at stake.
Time is short. We need to act now.
Harry Kopyto lives in Toronto. He works as a legal activist focusing on cases promoting movements for social change.