The State of Manitoba’s Activist Left

Photo from Solidarity Winnipeg Twitter page

This is the first piece in a three-part blog series. In this post, I give a brief overview of Manitoba’s activist left. In the second entry, I will explore reasons why the Manitoba activist left is in its current state. In the final piece, I offer some modest proposals on a way forward. This is all written in the spirit of building a collaborative, activist left that can fight to win.

The Manitoba Progressive Conservatives under premier Brian Pallister have been implementing harsh austerity since their 2016 landslide victory, imposing emergency room and clinic closures, wage freezes, significant budget cuts, job cuts, harsh anti-labour legislation and more.

Yet responses from the left have been largely muted and ineffective. Anyone who would suggest otherwise is lying to themselves. Two years into his mandate, Pallister’s popularity is actually increasing in the absence of popular opposition.

The consequences are serious. Insufficient fightback is giving the PCs a free pass to implement their agenda with minimal resistance. This is resulting in job losses, cutbacks to healthcare and public services, and the subsequent fallout to public well-being and the livelihoods of Manitoba’s most vulnerable citizens.

More serious and concerted efforts from the activist left are necessary.

I use the term “activist left” broadly to identify those who believe that engaging in public protest and movement-building is a necessary means of challenging those in power, winning battles, and building toward democratic and egalitarian alternatives.

In order for the activist left to move forward, we first need some understanding of where we stand.

Social Liberalism & The Manitoba NDP

Social democracy — or more accurately, social liberalism — remains the dominant tendency on the left in Manitoba. This tendency finds its most prominent expression in the Manitoba NDP, which governed for the previous 16 years from 1999 to 2016, but it is prevalent throughout the Manitoba left from unions to community organizations and NGOs.

Unlike social democracy in Europe or “democratic socialism” emerging in the US and UK, social liberalism under the Manitoba NDP takes the form of a far more moderate “Third Way” model. For example, former NDP Premier Gary Doer explicitly fashioned his work around the policies of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In Manitoba, the NDP adopted a mixture of neoliberal Progressive Conservative policies from the 1990s like tax cuts and balanced budget legislation, regressive policies like adopting Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda, modest progressive policies and avoiding more aggressive neoliberal policies implemented in other provinces in the 2000s (sharp austerity, budget cuts). This policy mixture came to be known as the “Manitoba advantage.”

Even this form of social liberalism is weakened and on the defensive today.

An internal power struggle within the Manitoba NDP bubbled to the surface in 2014 with resignations by the “Gang of Five” MLAs prior to the 2016 provincial election. This resulted in a deep rupture within the party, bitter internal factionalism, and widespread public disapproval.

A split also festered in the union movement, with factions aligning behind incumbent Greg Selinger, while other unions and officials gathered behind the “Gang of Five.”

Stemming from this very public feud, the NDP were decimated in the 2016 election (their worst defeat since 1988), handing the Progressive Conservatives one of the largest majority governments in the province’s history.

The NDP experienced a significant drop in membership and are now attempting to rebuild under their newly elected leader, Wab Kinew. The election of Kinew to leadership has seemingly quelled internal tensions to a significant degree within the party, but the political orientation and success of the party will be another question.

Solidarity Winnipeg aims to unite people who support transforming society to achieve social and ecological justice on a nation-to-nation basis in the spirit of the Leap Manifesto and to mobilize for social and ecological justice and against austerity regardless of which party wins the provincial election in 2016.

What About the Unions?

Harsh as this may sound, the first two years under a Pallister government have been quiet on the activist front and ultimately inadequate to meet the challenges posed by his administration.

This Spring brought a welcome wave of public protest with the Manitoba Nurses Union holding a Rally for Safe Patient Care on May 2, described as a rally against cuts to health care, followed by a Manitoba Teachers’ Society Rally for Public Education three weeks later to denounce cuts to education and, finally, a Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) rally after their convention on May 27.

A bright sign is the newly created CUPE Manitoba Local 204, one of the few unions with a visible “Stop the Health Care Cuts” campaign that actually engages members in their workplaces and on the ground in communities. Campaigns with active rank-and-file membership organizing in their communities are few and far between.

According to MFL President Kevin Rebeck, union members affiliated to the MFL are starting to organize and get involved because many are affected by what’s happening in the province.

“Our membership is waking up to the importance of political action, and we know there is a fight brewing,” Rebeck said. “We’re going to be at odds with the government and we expect that,” he says.

The MFL held its convention from May 24 to 27 with the theme “solidarity.” Some 200 resolutions were been brought forward. The internal political dynamics of the MFL and the substance of these resolutions, however, are unclear.

Grassroots Organizing

Outside of the unions, there are small activist groups and community organizations that have held educational events and actions. The overall picture is of a weak activist left, and a PC government that is getting its way.

Communities Not Cuts (CNC) is a fledgling attempt to get unions, community groups, and the general public organizing against the budget cuts, but capacity in the CNC is limited.

Public transit and the upcoming municipal elections are potential leverage points for organizing but that remains to be seen.

Indigenous grassroots and community organizing has generally provided the most promise for fight-back in the province, along with energetic climate justice organizing through the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition.

The general picture is of a weak and fragmented left that is on the defensive and losing battles. The next article in this series will examine how we got here.

Matthew Brett is community organizer who helped create campaigns and organizations including Communities Not Cuts (Manitoba), People for Posties (Winnipeg), Solidarity Winnipeg, and Stop the Cuts (University of Manitoba). Read his website here or follow him on Twitter @mattbrett_1984.