2008 Canadian Elections: Class Polarization and Missed Opportunities

Canada has another minority government. Both the Conservatives and the union-supported New Democratic Party increased their support at the expense of the Liberals. However, none of the parties were able to give any answer to the current financial crisis. Faced with a lack of real solutions, workers stayed home in historic numbers with only 59% coming out to vote. The polarization in the electorate is an indicator of increased class struggle as the world heads into economic turmoil.

After a nasty 6-week campaign, Canada has another minority government. Both the Conservatives and the union-supported New Democratic Party increased their support at the expense of the Liberals, who suffered their worst level of popular support since 1867. However, none of the parties were able to give any answer to the financial crisis that dominated the last 2-weeks of the campaign. Faced with a lack of real solutions, workers stayed home in historic numbers with only 59% coming out to vote. The polarization in the electorate is an indicator of increased class struggle as the world heads into economic turmoil.

2008 Canadian Election Results
(numbers in brackets represent change from 2006 election)
PARTY SEATS % VOTE
Conservative 143 (+19) 37.6% (+1.3)
Liberal 76 (-27) 26.2% (-4.0)
Bloc Quebecois 50 (-1) 10.0% (-0.5)
New Democrats 37 (+8) 18.2% (+0.8)
Green 0 (0) 6.8% (+2.3)

On 7th September, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper broke his own fixed election dates law and dissolved Canada’s 39th parliament. He saw an opportunity to gain a majority government by taking advantage of a weak Liberal party under Stephane Dion and falling support for the Bloc Quebecois, as the debate in Quebec moved away from separatism/federalism. The Conservatives also wanted to call the election on their terms before the economic slump started to bite – they were about 2-weeks too late!

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper

The last two-and-a-half years of Conservative minority rule have been one of incremental cuts to programs such as arts, women’s groups and legal aid while billions of dollars have been given away in tax cuts for corporations and to fund the war in Afghanistan. The cuts were dictated more by ideological considerations than economic necessity. While it has been no holiday for the working class, the increased government revenues from oil and gas meant that the Conservatives could not justify a wholesale attack on the social wage in a minority parliament. Nonetheless, upwards of 400,000 jobs in manufacturing and forestry were lost in this period as the US market for these products dried up and the high Canadian dollar made Canadian exports uncompetitive. This hit Ontario, Quebec and the North particularly hard as better-paid unionized jobs were replaced by low wage, part time, service sector employment.

During the period of economic boom the class divide in Canada has been steadily increasing. Real family incomes in Canada are about $5,000 lower than they were in the 1970s, despite a greater than 50% increase in GDP and productivity over the same period. While unemployment is at a low level of just over 6%, the ranks of the working poor are ballooning. Poverty levels in major cities like Toronto have doubled to 30% of the population. This has even led to riots in Montreal North and occupations of shuttered factories – and all this at the height of the boom. Just imagine what will happen in the coming slump when workers lose even their service sector jobs. With two or three part time jobs these workers do not qualify for unemployment benefits, they have no savings and large credit card bills.

Liberal crisis

The polarization in society means a collapse of the so-called “centre.” The Liberal Party, traditionally the natural governing party of Canadian capitalism, is facing an acute crisis. Two years ago at their leadership convention they were so split that they could not decide on a leader. They therefore decided not to make a decision and chose Stephane Dion, who’s only redeemable quality was that he wasn’t one of the major candidates. The pathetic figure of Dion can be seen as an accident of history; however, as Marx explained, sometime necessity expresses itself through accident.

Canadian capitalism has enjoyed the luxury of two parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, who have swapped power back and forth without having to risk any input from the working class. The Marxists have always predicted that this situation cannot continue indefinitely. The class forces in society eventually push the ruling class to coalesce around one party that faces the party of the working class and the trade unions. This is what occurred in Britain in the 1920’s when the Labour Party kicked the British Liberals into the dustbin of history, from where they have never returned.

Dion pinned his hopes on a carbon tax, where revenues would supposedly be dedicated to corporate and income tax cuts. If implemented this would have resulted in a transfer of wealth away from the poor, who would have to pay increased prices, and towards the rich who always benefit disproportionately from tax cuts. Combined with his poor English and an aloof and academic manner, this policy platform was an unmitigated disaster.

Within minutes of the election defeat the knives were already being sharpened behind Dion’s back. The corporate media were not even so polite to keep the knives behind his back – they want his head right now. The right-wing press know that they are in danger of losing an important tool in their arsenal against the working class. They need a viable second party to make sure that the discontent in society can go down safe avenues. To use an analogy from hockey, they want to have a backup goalie for when the starting tender is tired or losing his edge. They are in danger of losing this second option so they will use all their power to put a strong leader at the head of the Liberals. This is especially important for the capitalists, given the coming slump and class struggles on the horizon.

Lost opportunities for the NDP

The New Democratic Party under Jack Layton began the campaign with an anti-corporate message. “We’ll support the kitchen table and not the boardroom table” said Layton. And against all recent NDP history they actually backed this rhetoric up. In previous elections the Liberals were able to siphon off NDP votes as the party platform was just an extension of the Liberal platform. If the Liberals proposed implementing a reform in a few years, the NDP would propose it be implemented now. If the Liberals propose a reform valued at $1-billion, the NDP would propose the same reform at $2-billion. During the Liberal-NDP coalition government of the 1970s, Pierre Trudeau labeled the NDP as “Liberals in a hurry” and this was a fairly accurate representation of the party leadership. Faced with such options, voters who looked to the NDP but were afraid of a Conservative victory would switch their vote from NDP to Liberal, as “they are proposing pretty much the same thing anyway.” The fact that the Liberals never implemented any of their campaign promises always seemed to be forgotten.

NDP Rally for Federal Election 2008
NDP Rally for Federal Election 2008, on Oct 12 2008, Montreal

However, in this election the NDP proposed a redistribution that the Liberals’ corporate masters could not allow. The last Conservative budget contained $50-billion in corporate tax cuts which were supported by the Liberals. Layton proposed canceling these tax cuts and instead spending the money on reforms such as a national childcare plan, a $1-bllion homecare plan for seniors, a catastrophic drug plan, a student grant of $1000 and a $400 a month child benefit. The NDP’s call to bring Canada’s 2500 troops home from the war in Afghanistan would also lead to a “peace dividend” of several billion dollars which would help fund these reforms. Even though the NDP’s platform was hardly radical, corporate Canada screamed! The NDP merely proposed to freeze corporate tax rates at 2003 levels, which is lower than the rate in the United States.

Dion’s response that the NDP was adopting a “far-left socialist approach” helped solidify the dividing line between the two parties. Half-way through the campaign the Liberals and NDP were neck and neck in the polls; one poll even had them both at 21% support. If this continued any further it could have led to the destruction of the Liberals as anywhere between one-third to one-half of Liberal voters would rather support the NDP, but see no alternative. These votes would rapidly move over if the NDP surpassed the Liberals. Marxists have repeatedly argued that many workers are in fact looking for socialist solutions and this “attack” by the Liberals merely served to solidify the NDP’s base, including many who do not vote. Just imagine what could have been achieved by a genuinely socialist policy. But two weeks before voting day, world events served to turn the campaign on its head.

Financial slump

The stock market crash, which began at the beginning of October, changed the entire dynamic of the campaign. The only question on people’s minds was which party could protect their savings, their homes and their jobs. All parties were found wanting.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper started with a line of “don’t worry, be happy. The fundamentals are sound.” He then went on to advise people who feared for their livelihood that they should look for bargains on the stock exchange! This was the tipping point that likely robbed the Conservatives of the majority they hungered for. Their cuts to arts funding and proposals to criminalize 14-year olds as adults also destroyed the Conservative vote in Quebec, despite these points being a relatively minor part of their platform.

The NDP leadership was presented with a fantastic opportunity to give an alternative to the crisis of the capitalist free market; unfortunately they failed to meet this challenge. When confronted with the fact that in a slump government revenues would fall and leave no money for his reforms, all Layton said was, “We don’t deny that there is a financial crisis, but we will be much better off if we stick together and take care of each other.” This complete absence of an answer was in glaring contrast to the main slogan at Layton’s rallies. “STRONG-LEADER-STRONG-LEADER-STRONG-LEADER” was the slogan on the banners handed out by the party bureaucracy at a time when the party gave no leadership.

The reformist leaders of social-democracy are so wed to capitalism that when the system enters inevitable crisis they are completely lost. They have no faith in the ability of the working class (or “working families” to use the politically correct term) to run society for the benefit of everybody. The current economic crisis is proof that capitalism does not work and that we need socialist solutions. Even George Bush and Gordon Brown have been forced to use the tool of nationalization – except they are using it to bail out the capitalist system and their corporate buddies. Faced with hundreds of thousands of lost jobs in manufacturing, a call by the NDP to use nationalization to save jobs and rationally plan the economy away from capitalist anarchy could have captured the imagination of millions of workers looking for answers.

The actions by western governments to save the system have been labeled “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.” The NDP could have exposed this fraud and turned it on its head. Implementation of socialist policies now, such as nationalization of the banks, oil and gas, agriculture and the major industries under democratic workers’ control is the only way by which Canadian workers can avert the coming economic catastrophe of unemployment, bankruptcy and homelessness. Venezuela, which has nationalized some banks and industries, is projected to enjoy 5% growth in the coming year – despite the reduction in the price of oil.

After looking intently for an answer to the crisis, the Canadian working class realized that none was on offer. The NDP leadership’s inability to capture the imagination and build a movement against capitalist anarchy led to a further slump in turnout. Only 59% of the population bothered to vote, the worst turnout record in Canadian history (except for the 1st election when most voters were not aware that Canada was a country). From polling upwards of 22% and being in sight of supplanting the Liberals, the NDP only registered 18%. This is a historic missed opportunity. However, we do not believe that this is the end of the story.

Class struggle on horizon

Before the Conservative vote slumped into minority territory, Harper spoke of the need for a “strong mandate” to direct the country through troubled times. Reading between the lines this was an appeal for a majority government that could push through wholesale attacks on the working class to carry the burden for the crisis created by the capitalists. The recent past of small cuts and factory closures will be viewed as a golden age when compared to the attacks to come. However, the minority government makes this plan of the capitalists harder to implement and endangers the future of the Liberal party.

The Canadian capitalists are faced with a dilemma. They cannot just implement their attacks through a minority government. Do they crack the whip and insist that the Liberals fall into line “for the sake of the nation”? This would decisively discredit the party in the eyes of the population and make the NDP the real voice of opposition. Alternatively, if the Liberals vote down the austerity measures the country will be forced into an election during a period of acute class struggle and before the Liberals have had a chance to rebuild and pick a new leader. Now is not a good time to be a member of the ruling class!

Fightback supporters at Montreal NDP rally
Fightback supporters at Montreal NDP rally

The Canadian working class is not going to just take these attacks lying down. A period of bitter defensive struggles and even political strikes are on the agenda. Any attack on Medicare is likely to meet widespread opposition. There are also rumours about the coming privatization of Canada Post. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has a strong and militant tradition and the rank and file would not allow such a privatization to go ahead without a fight – even including illegal political strikes. Other general strike action by public sector workers is also on the cards in response to cuts and attacks. The combination of the economic slump and political attacks can only have a radicalizing effect on the consciousness of Canadian workers. This radicalization must eventually have a reflection in the mass organizations of the working class, the unions and the NDP.

While the NDP results were disappointing from what could have been achieved, they were also a step forward. It is indicative that the gains of the NDP were concentrated in areas that have faced the brunt of the manufacturing and forestry crisis. The NDP swept the North of Ontario and managed to seize the South East Ontario riding of Welland that recently suffered the closing of the John Deere farming vehicle plant. The NDP even managed to win a seat in Edmonton, the heart of oil country! Many polls put the NDP as the most popular party for the youth and for those earning less than $40,000. This opens up the possibility for the NDP to become the channel by which youth and workers fight back against the coming crisis. Under the impetus of events, existing leaders can be pushed further to the left than they want to go, or be replaced by leaders more reflective of the rank and file. The positive example of Venezuela and the Latin American revolution can begin to gain an echo in the movement. Socialist ideas that were previously only discussed in rooms of a few dozen can become seen as the only option for millions – especially when contrasted with the failure of the present capitalist system. What is needed is for socialists to be organized to boldly present these ideas in the organizations of the working class before winning the fight in the whole of society. Canada, like the rest of the western world, is facing a new period of class polarization and turmoil. This election is just another step along the road.

Source: Fightback


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