Will failure teach the NDP anything?
(June 11, 2016)

For Canadians desperate for a national alternative to pipeline politics and general corporate stoogery, the NDP’s calamitous showing in last year’s federal election was devastating. The conditions were nearly perfect for victory: Stephen Harper’s detested dictatorship was headed for the dumpster, and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair had consistently upstaged the feckless Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. Once the smoke had cleared, however, Trudeau’s Liberals had a whopping majority and the NDP ended up losing seats. We got rid of Harper alright, only to end up with the continuation of Harperism by other, gentler means.

Putting the blame for the NDP‘s shellacking on Canada’s undemocratic electoral system assuages the grief somewhat, but it’s also a form of denial. It papers over internal problems that should have been addressed long ago. In short, the NDP is uninspiring, inept and obsolete. If it couldn't pull off a win against the loathsome Harper, what chance does it have now against the shallow but charming “Harper lite?” The answer: “none,” which is why the party needs to reinvent itself if it ever hopes to form government.

1. Rebrand

After 55 years, there cannot be much “New” left in New Democratic Party. and “Democratic” is an empty vessel that progressives and regressives alike fill with their own self-interest. “NDP” might as well stand for “No Definable Party” since it doesn’t say what it stands for. Furthermore, “NDP” is freighted with decades of trade-unionist baggage, identity politics, and parochial Marxist/socialist verbiage that it alienates more than it unifies.

When labour/management conflict was a major issue in this country, a labour-based party had some measure of relevance. Now, in the age of neo-fascist, metastasizing corporatism, when Canada’s management and labour are political allies more than they are enemies, “NDP” is an anachronism that depicts a party fighting yesterday’s war.

The party needs a new name, one that serves as a clear rallying standard to voters who want their government to stop the corporatist betrayal of Canada’s sovereignty. A good choice would be the National Party of Canada. Although such a party contested the 1993 election, the name was deregistered in 1997.

Under its new banner, the former NDP could give voters across the country a genuine political option that stands for national interests like environmental protection, well-funded public services, respect for the rule of law and the supremacy of persons over artificial persons. Unlike the NDP, the NPC would differentiate itself in the political marketplace from the leading brands, which have distinctly non-national (foreign) priorities.

2. Commit to a set of principles

Every party has internal fights, but progressive parties have a habit of taking theirs public. As these factions contend against each other, the establishment parties appear to offer voters a more stable option by default. Respecting differing views is healthy, but allowing these views to undermine party unity and voter confidence is a self-inflicted blunder. We saw such a blunder at the recent leadership convention in Edmonton.

In advance of a leadership review, a motion was put forward to debate The Leap Manifesto, a document issued last September that proposes, inter alia, to adopt aggressive economic, political reforms, particularly abandoning fossil fuels for nation-wide renewable energy. The manifesto is promoted chiefly by the husband-and-wife team of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, two of Canada’s best-known and respected economic and environmental activists. Inasmuch as the document contains a couple of sound ideas, the decision to entertain it at a leadership convention was monumentally stupid.

The manifesto should not have been debated because the only purpose of the convention was to deliver a vote of confidence or non-confidence in Mulcair’s leadership. In the end, he received only 48% support. The decision was harsh, but Mulcair was damaged goods and needed to be replaced. Now, however, wrangling over the manifesto could easily overshadow the next leadership convention and leave the party hopelessly divided.

It’s unfortunate that Lewis and Klein didn’t learn from President Woodrow Wilson’s inappropriate idealism at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. As with all such conferences, this one’s sole purpose was to deal with practical matters of post-war reparations and compensation. This is what the governments of Great Britain and France expected; Wilson, though, had no interest in such real-world matters. He believed that any peace had to be based on his idea of a “League of Nations,” which he said would put an end to war by doing away with the practice of alliances and secret treaties.

Leaving aside the fact that history showed Wilson’s scheme to be dangerously naïve, a peace conference was neither the time nor the place to discuss reinventing world government. Wilson’s pet project was counterproductive, divisive and time wasting. In the end, Wilson had to sacrifice his precious but undefined principle of “self-determination” to meet tangible territorial and financial demands. Any discussion of a new world government should have been brought up after the conference.

The Leap Manifesto is a similar example of idealistic posturing at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Most obviously, it put Alberta’s NDP government in an impossible position. Since Alberta is Canada’s greatest polluter and source of fossil fuels, Premier Rachel Notley could not endorse the manifesto without committing political suicide. Given the national party’s crowing over the province’s first NDP government, it’s hard to believe that the manifesto’s advocates would bring the issue up right under Notley’s nose!

Ostensibly, its authors thought it was necessary to pull Mulcair back from the liberal centre, but who asked them to? Who gave them permission? Who do they speak for? Reaction from within the party’s ranks was, predictably, far from respectful:

  • Alberta Federation of Labour president and former NDP candidate Gil McGowan denounced Lewis and Klein as “downtown Toronto dilettantes.”
  • The NDP’s sole Alberta MP Linda Duncan called the manifesto “a faulty document.”
  • B.C. NDP leader John Horgan said the manifesto does not (ugh!) “reflect the values of British Columbians.”

Lewis expressed incredulity at the manifesto’s hostile reception. Woodrow Wilson would have been proud.

The manifesto needed to be debated before or after the convention so that any disagreements could be worked out in private. Now, instead of focusing on selecting a new leader, the NDP is in damage-control mode and has to decide to what degree if any the manifesto will be bastardized to keep Notley and Alberta happy.

But does the NDP really think it can have its manifesto and Alberta, too? B.C. MP Nathan Cullen thinks so and is busy playing peacemaker. On the one hand, he spouts bromides about how the party is “bridging” the public divide behind closed doors (too late!), yet on the other he denounces the need for further extractive infrastructure projects (read: pipelines). He says the NDP must declare itself to be unapologetically progressive (read: pro-renewable energy) yet says the pipeline issue must be dealt with respectfully.

Cullen is the poster boy for what’s wrong with the NDP: morally upstanding but vacillating and timid. Cullen won’t support the manifesto outright lest he give offence or seem “disrespectful,” so he seeks to reconcile opposites. It’s a no-win scenario: backsliding on tar-sands/pipeline policy will alienate the party’s national support base, but sticking rigorously to its principles will alienate Alberta’s NDP government. Thanks to this new bout of self-inflicted public squabbling, voters have even less reason to abandon the Liberals for the NDP.

One might have thought that Cullen knew that a party that tries to please everyone pleases no one. The father of power politics, Niccolò Machiavelli, warned that adopting half measures perpetuates instabilities and leaves one open to attack. Indeed, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has debunked the pro-pipeline argument so thoroughly that any compromise over this issue would be untenable. What, therefore, does Cullen expect to achieve? How can the NDP continue as a credible party if it cannot take a stand on something as fundamental as pipeline politics?

3. Learn to lead

Contrary to popular myth there is no political “majority”—just an agglomeration of many competing minorities that happen to agree on this or that issue. For this reason the mass public can never be the engine of reform. For better or worse, the public wants to be led, not burdened with the responsibility of government. This was proven in the 2011 election.

Finding good leaders in this age of conformity is bad enough, but an even bigger problem is that progressives—for want of a better term—are not interested in leading. They cleave to the stale gospel of democratic populism and expect the public to take the lead. Somehow being decisive and authoritative has become equated with anti-democratic. Thus, the thinking goes, the NDP acts as if politics must be returned to the people as the remedy for corrupt party politics, much as Wilson presumptuously preached his League of Nations as the necessary antidote to power politics. In neither case was the analysis valid, and the utopian remedy made matters worse.

Cullen also epitomizes the NDP’s fundamental misunderstanding of how elections work. If political success were simply a matter of being right and polite, the NDP would have formed a government ages ago, but most Canadians don’t vote based on reason. In the recent election, the NDP ran on a platform of climate change, national job creation, environmental protection, health care reform and other weighty issues. It was good enough to win, but it was mundane and leaden compared to Trudeau’s shallow showmanship and shameless photo ops.

Trudeau won almost solely on image—he had nothing else—and it was that image the NDP had to demolish. Mulcair’s job was to expose Trudeau as Harper Jr., someone who would betray Canada with a smile instead of a sneer. He needed to frame the election for the voters as a stark choice between Canada or corporations, economic policy or economic determinism, democracy or servitude, and he needed to use unambiguous, bold language that channeled voter anger.

Voters have the sense to realize that their country is being sold out from under them, which makes their anger a healthy, natural response. By not channeling and reflecting that anger, the NDP effectively played into the hands of the corporatist parties, whose greatest fear is a mobilized and organized popular movement.

In contrast to the NDP, undemocratic movements have a deep appreciation for leadership and know how to take advantage of popular disgust with establishment politics. Nazis, Bolsheviks, Zionists and neo-conservatives each started out as a small nucleus of committed radicals that possessed a clear vision of the sort of change they wanted. They did not care whom they offended, and they did not water-down their principles in a vain search for popular approval. Although criminal and repugnant, they were dynamic and articulated a unifying ideal: respectively, German nationalism, a worker-ruled state, a Jewish national home and anti-statist economic individualism.

Sufficient numbers of people found something attractive and rallied to them; ironically, each of these movements could have been stifled before it reached critical mass, yet the “majority,” allowed them to grow.

Leaving aside the sociopathic nature of these movements and the violent means by which they attained power, their success in getting to power reveals a fundamental political truth. A reformist movement can either lead the masses or be led by them: one path leads to possible success; the other, to certain failure. If totalitarian groups can bring about repressive reform, is it so unreasonable to expect a democratic group to use effective leadership, organization and discipline to effect positive reform?

The Future

The NDP must fall on its sword so that new political life may grow. The Leap Manifesto, weaknesses notwithstanding, represents a test of principle that the NDP was unable or unwilling to meet. Canadians and current NDPers who want to follow the lead of environmental sanity, economic sovereignty, lawful foreign policy and intelligent taxation will unite under the new banner of the National Party of Canada. Those who are compromised by self-interest and Big Oil must be jettisoned.

For their part, Canadian voters deserve better than a party of lovable losers. They deserve a party that has a chnce of winning led by a champion who is not afraid to denounce the corporate stooges in Parliament as traitors and a danger to the welfare of Canada and its people.