Canada: A socialist view from the NDP convention floor

With the watering down of the federal NDP constitution the party has taken a step to the right at its Montreal convention. This step mirrors similar developments within the social-democratic labour parties internationally, and is a tragic irony given the ongoing crisis of capitalism. However, disappointing as it is, the removal of a constitutional preamble that nobody had ever read does not fundamentally change the character of the NDP. Because of the crisis, mass movements are inevitable; these in turn will have their reflection in the mass organizations.

Convention of the New Democratic Youth of Canada

The main NDP convention was preceded by the convention of the New Democratic Youth of Canada (NDYC) on Thursday. Socialist youth from Toronto and Montreal were well represented at this event, with about 25 present at the convention. Unfortunately, the conduct of the youth convention mirrored that of the adult party, with a focus on narrow electoralism and the shutting down of opportunities for debate. The convention chair, in particular, set a very hostile tone; anybody coming from genuine activist movements, such as Occupy or the Quebec student strike, would have been incredibly alienated by the rigid interpretation of “Robert’s Rules of Order”. If a young delegate did not know the exact correct procedure, they were immediately shut down as opposed to having their requests facilitated. For new people attending their first NDP convention, this was incredibly off-putting.

ndp-convention-farshad-azadianFarshad AzadianFarshad Azadian, a Fightback supporter and candidate for Policy Representative on the NDYC executive, launched a proposal to amend the agenda to include a debate and consultative vote on the preamble of the NDP constitution. This proposal got considerable support, from people on both sides of the issue. The meeting started 30 minutes late and then the vote on the agenda did not occur until 11:00am, after two lengthy presentations. The organizers were perfectly aware of this proposal in advance, but in essence conspired to shut down debate on the most interesting issue of the week. If the organizers had so desired they could have easily adapted the agenda.  When the amendment was put forward to alter the agenda, it was argued that we were already running late and a barrage of arguments were presented on why it was impossible to change anything. It was clear that this was just a cynical ploy to do everything possible to not allow a debate that could have led to a result embarrassing to the party brass. Without the free exchange of ideas, genuine youth will not be attracted to this body and will not feel free to present their ideas. One suspects that some parts of the party are just fine with a dysfunctional youth wing.

The debate on policy at the NDYC was limited to 60 minutes, and with procedural wrangling only two items were actually voted upon — two resolutions for an event that only occurs once every two years! The rest of the time was taken up with hours and hours of talking heads explaining different techniques for electoralism in a completely apolitical manner. One of these presentations was from representatives of the Obama Democrats in the US; this was too much for the socialist delegates. Atefa Akbary, a Montreal delegate of Afghan descent, asked why we were inviting representatives of a party and government that is sending drones to kill people in her homeland. The presenters answered that you could use their tools to build any political movement — completely ignoring the link between ideas and political action.

About 80 were present for the convention during the day, but an additional 70 turned up at the end of the day just to vote in the elections. A candidate for co-chair supported by the left got a clear majority of the morning delegates and gave a much better speech. Unfortunately, with the late-comers, a candidate supported by the right won the vote, and this was reflected in most of the elections with any mention of political convictions noticeable by their absence. This mirrors the elections in 2011 where party-brass loyalists won most seats. However, the “loyalists” never seem to accept responsibility that the NDYC has been completely dysfunctional with no real life existence. Nobody could even find the minutes for the 2011 convention!

Bankers and Obama bombers at NDP

Former World Bank chief economist and advisor to Bill Clinton, Joseph Stiglitz, kicked off the main NDP convention. Stiglitz is credited as being an early proponent of the Blairite “Third Way”. Having a banker initiate the convention of North America’s only labour party is indicative of where the NDP leadership is looking.

However, this rightward trajectory was not necessarily accepted by all the delegates. In the corridors, many entered into lengthy discussion with socialist activists. Over 300 copies of the Marxists papers, Fightback in English and La Riposte in French, were sold. Hundreds of people supported the campaign to oppose watering down the party preamble. In addition, the ideas of socialism were well represented in social media and the mainstream press.

Over the course of the convention, the party brass was increasingly becoming concerned about losing control of “the message”; journalists were highlighting the debate over socialism and ridiculing the attempt to make party leader Tom Mulcair appear more human. This was exacerbated when on the Saturday of convention, the Socialist Caucus, a left-wing group within the NDP, unfurled a banner opposing Obama’s drone wars. This was timed for the same day that Jeremy Bird, Obama’s campaign director, was to speak. The media were all over this and the bureaucracy scurried to shut it down. Later, the party apparatchiks made a bad situation worse when delegates started booing the Obama representative; socialist delegates were removed from the hall and Socialist Caucus leader Barry Weisleder had his credential undemocratically removed. After realizing they had massively overstepped their bounds, Weisleder had his credential returned. The NDP should have nothing to do with the US Democratic Party, the party of wars and austerity against workers in the USA.

The debate on socialism

The final day of convention culminated in the debate around removing references to socialism and a commitment to social ownership from the party’s constitution. This was the main focus of the convention — would the party stick with its socialist traditions or would they be watered down to the vague concept where  “governments have the power to address the limitations of the market” and references to the eradication of poverty are removed?

The debate was launched by party grandee Bill Blaikie. Significantly, Blaikie was forced to argue from the left and deny that this was a rightward turn. He called for a left-wing government and a left-wing Canada (while arguing in favour of a preamble that would achieve neither).

Atefa Akbary, a Fightback supporter, was the next speaker and made a powerful contribution in French (See video). She said that she was a participant in the Quebec student movement and that moderation would cut off the NDP from these mass movements and youth seeking fundamental change. The NDP must not be seen as part of the establishment.

Farshad Azadian also spoke (see video to the right) and said that the only way to oppose the corporate ideas of the Conservatives was with bold working class and socialist ideas. His contributions won loud applause. It is significant that despite all the talk of “modernization” that it was the youth who stood up to defend socialism in the party, something that was noted by several mainstream journalists covering the event.

Unfortunately, at this point, the debate was cut off. After all the coverage and attention to the issue, only two speakers were allowed to present a different viewpoint. NDP MP Libby Davies said that this was incredibly disappointing, given that some had lined up at the microphones as early as 6:00am. Yet again this was an example of stifling debate. One can argue that going to an early vote was not against the rules, but then the Conservatives can say the same thing when they enact closure on an omnibus motion in the House of Commons. How can the NDP seriously oppose the undemocratic actions by the Tories when they adopted the same tactics in internal discussion? This shutting down of debate is in fact not a sign of strength, but of weakness. If you are confident in your ideas then you can afford to be magnanimous and allow people to let off a little steam. Tight control from above tends to be very brittle, and the entire edifice can come down when there is a real challenge. This is analogous to the fall of dictatorships like Mubarak’s in Egypt.

The final vote was 960-188 in favour of the new preamble, a disappointing defeat for the left in the party, although it is possible that the “no” vote count was depressed. There were several rounds of re-voting with procedural appeals and some may have decided to give up when the final count came, seeing which way things were heading. In total, there was over 2,000 registered delegates and the vote to cut short debate was 987 to 271. To their credit, MPs Libby Davies, Niki Ashton, Alain Giguère, and Jean Rousseau, voted for the socialist wording. However, none of them actually organized against the rightward turn. This was a serious mistake and the amendment could have been defeated if prominent left-wing figures got behind a “No” campaign. If you don’t fight now, you will be forced to fight on worse ground down the road. This is a lesson that can be learned from the experience of the lefts in the British Labour Party against Tony Blair.

Notable by their absence, and silence, were representatives of the labour movement. Only the UFCW, who supported Thomas Mulcair in the leadership campaign, were there in significant numbers. The Steelworkers and CEP, traditionally big NDP supporters, were almost entirely absent. We do not know why this was the case. It appears that labour, in the main, supported the new preamble and possibly this even includes noted left-wing trade unionist and Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan. Perhaps this was done in return for a deal with the party leadership to oppose the investor-state provisions in CETA, the proposed Euro-free-trade deal. All of this is speculation, but regardless of the true story, the inability of labour to mobilize around the defence of social ownership is very short sighted and opens up the party to support for privatizations in the future.

Despite the disappointing outcome, it is important to maintain a sense of proportion. This is a turn to the right, but not in the same manner as Blair’s attack on the Labour Party membership and attempt to break the link with the unions. As well, this is not the 1990s which saw historically low strike levels and the fall of Stalinism. This is the epoch of the capitalist crisis and growing workers’ movements internationally. In reality, prior to this debate, nobody but the most obsessive of political hacks were aware of the existence of the party preamble. This debate is purely of a symbolic importance. Mulcair’s speech on the Saturday of convention was not appreciably different than those of Jack Layton. He hit on typical themes of opposition to cuts in pensions and employment insurance. He opposed corporate tax cuts and attacked the Liberals and Conservatives for blocking anti-scab legislation — all pretty typical NDP fodder.

However, as outlined in Fightback’s April editorial statement, the choice before the NDP is either accept the logic of the market system — and therefore be forced to enact the austerity that goes with it — or alternatively break with the capitalist market and provide real improvements for workers and youth. There is no middle ground. What this rightward shift does in practice is to throw a lifeline to the Liberals who were previously circling the rim of the trash can of history. If the NDP moderates so much that it is indistinguishable from the Liberals, then that is a recipe for defeat. Given the choice between the real and the pretend Liberals, people will tend to vote for the genuine article. While this debate about a rightward turn in the NDP was in the press, support for the NDP dropped to 23.6% while the Liberals surged to 35.4%. The next election is a long way off, but if these results continue, then support for Mulcair’s rightward turn will quickly erode.

The centre of gravity for the mass movement over the next few years moves to the industrial plane. Austerity is coming with increased intensity and this will inevitably lead to explosions. The unions have been playing dead — but this can only last so long. When the dam breaks in the workers’ movement, it will also have its reflection in Canada’s labour party. Whether in government implementing austerity, or losing support due to rightward policies, cracks and divisions will inevitably emerge. The left gains strength from the mass movement of the workers and oppressed. It is absolutely vital that socialists prepare for these events and build the organized revolutionary socialist tendency on the streets, in the youth and workers’ movements, and in the party. In that way we will be able to give workers and youth looking for real change the clear socialist ideas they are looking for.

To see the text of the original preamble and the new changes, as well as our critique, click here.

We need your help to continue the fight for socialism!

The rightward turn of the federal NDP under Thomas Mulcair means that there has never been a more important time than now to build the socialist alternative within the party.  Socialism cannot be “amended” out of the NDP.  It has been there since the founding of the CCF and NDP, and it takes energy from the struggles of the youth, or workers, and of oppressed peoples (such as the Quebec student movement, Occupy, and Idle No More).  Even though we have had this temporary set-back with the watering down of the party constitution, the battle for the future of the NDP is nowhere near over.  We call on everybody who opposed the change to the preamble of the constitution to help us continue the fight!

“Likes” on Facebook groups are good for morale, but we need real support to make real change.  We are asking everyone who supported us in this struggle to take out a subscription to Fightback now, so that we can continue the fight.

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