Canada: Federal NDP convention - Right-wing fails to remove socialism

The New Democratic Party, fresh on the heels of an historic electoral victory, has just concluded its federal convention in Vancouver. Seven Fightback supporters from four different cities were there to intervene in the convention which, even before it began, was set to be a showcase for the balance of forces between the left and right wings of the party.

The historic breakthrough of the NDP in the last election has completely shaken up the Canadian political landscape. Canadian workers’ disgust with the political status quo finally reached a breaking point in a sweeping rejection of both the Liberal Party and the Bloc Quebecois. The political status quo within the NDP itself was also shaken by this victory, and the convention has clearly brought to light the fault lines between the rank-and-file membership and the party establishment. A left-wing is beginning to emerge at all levels of the NDP; the Vancouver convention, has begun to bring these divisions out into the open.

What the top brass expected….

Fightback has often written about a culture of ownership that exists amongst the highest layers of the party bureaucracy. There are people who think the party is an electoral machine, rather than the collective property of the membership and those who strive to solve the everyday problems of Canadian workers. These people only think of the rank-and-file when they are needed to do grunt work during election campaigns.

This attitude comes to the fore during conventions, when the membership is subject to vote stacking, selective application of the rules of order, the undemocratic Policy Committee vetting and reordering proposed resolutions, and a host of other shameless manoeuvres that the rank-and-file delegates have come to see as “normal,” though no less offensive.

The top brass had apparently calculated that the membership would be so wowed by the recent electoral success, that they would faithfully vote for any proposal that came from on high. This idea was the basis for a proposal from the top of the party to change the statement of principals in the federal constitution to remove all mentions of socialism or social ownership, and replace it with watered-down and meaningless generalities.

This inner circle hoped for an apolitical “love-in” that would look good for the cameras. However they were in for a rude awakening.

… And what they got.

The proposal to remove the very principals that the NDP was founded on was thrust on the rank-and-file with almost no notice. This was too much for most party members, many of whom have sacrificed much money and time (in some cases, decades) working towards an NDP victory. The NDP leadership probably thought that the membership would feel that they owed a debt of gratitude towards the leadership for the election victory, when in actual fact (and in the minds of the rank-and-file), it is the complete opposite.

On the very first day a mood of rebellion became evident even before any policies had reached the floor. The chair of the opening sessions attempted to eliminate the usual practice of allowing the reports of the party executive to be questioned by the membership. Though the point was raised more than once by delegates, the chair consistently overrode their concerns until she was finally challenged from the floor. The membership voted to overturn the chair’s decision, and the executive had to get back up on the presidium to take questions from the floor. This would not be the last time the chair would be overturned at the convention.

Throughout the first day of the convention, when separate panels were held on each category of resolutions in order to give delegates a chance to re-prioritize and amend different resolutions, it became clear that the bureaucracy’s plans for the convention were going to be harshly upset. Given higher priority were resolutions that emphasized the necessity for grassroots organizing over electoral campaigning, and, more crucially, a resolution that would ban any merger with the Liberal Party. Both resolutions were moved up in front of the proposed change to the constitution. The constitutional change, itself, barely survived this pre-session (with far less than the 2/3rds majority it would have needed to pass the convention floor).

The idea that the bureaucracy would be able to swiftly “modernize” the Party (that is to say, swing to the right) without a fierce opposition from the base, was totally shattered after the initial sessions. What was also clear was that those who were considered, in one way or another, as party insiders, were no less divided over the proposed changes. Some notable figures rose against the proposed change in the preamble, including the son of long time MP and party icon, Bill Blaikie, who gave a genuine speech on the need to remember our roots. Even long-time party leader Ed Broadbent talked about socialism and the core values of the party at an event on Friday night.

Despite all the talk of unity, this congress revealed the first cracks of a potential future split in the party. An interesting anecdote occurred during the Friday sessions, when the secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour, Irene Lanzinger, stood up at a microphone, flanked by other labour leaders, in order to announce a rally for locked-out postal workers later that day. Before she had even finished a sentence of her speech, one of the two hand-picked chairs ruled her out of order and shut down her microphone. This was a serious slight to the labour leadership; announcements of solidarity (particularly one from the major labour leaders of the province) is common practice at NDP conventions. Whether this faux pas was intentional or not doesn’t gloss over the fact that there is a serious rift emerging within the party — at the top this is expressed as tension between the traditional NDP leadership drawn from labour and political families like the Blaikies, and the current circle dominating most of the top of the party, drawn largely from a non-labour, political “consultant” background, with strong (if sometimes masked) Blairist tendencies. These “leaders” would like nothing more than to dump the party’s left-wing. This in itself would merely be the pre-stage of eventually breaking the ties with the trade union movement in order to transform the NDP into a new Liberal Party. In 2009, they made a clumsy grasp in this direction when they attempted to drop the “new” from the party’s name, while simultaneously bringing in speakers from the (already stale) Obama campaign, in a failed and somewhat embarrassing attempt to remodel the NDP after the U.S. Democrats.

All these attempts at so called “modernization” are supposedly aimed at making the party more electable. This is the greatest irony of all, coming right after the party’s greatest success at the federal level, even though it was supposedly burdened with its “socialist baggage.” These so-called strategies are absolutely muddle-headed; had the membership not showed resistance to these rightward moves over the last few years, they would have done irreparable damage to the party as a political force. Newly acclaimed party president, Brian Topp, was greeted with boos when, during his speech, he welcomed former Liberal leader and MP Stéphane Dion. Topp told Dion what a mistake it was that “he didn’t let us make him Prime Minster.” The room went into a dull roar and some began a chant of “no coalition.” It has become crystal clear to the vast majority of New Democrats that, as Fightback wrote at the time, had the NDP entered a coalition with the Liberal Party after the 2008 federal election, it would have only pulled the Liberals out of their tail-spin and severely harmed the reputation of our party. The great mistake wasn’t that Dion didn’t accept the offer of coalition, it was that such an offer was made in the first place.

The day of debate

The third and final day of the convention was by far the most crucial. Two controversial resolutions were about to reach the floor and their outcome would be extremely telling about where the party stood. The right-wing pulled out their big guns with MPs like Peter Stoffer and Pat Martin respectively leading the charge against the anti-merger resolution and for the deletion of socialism from the constitution. “We only have one problem,” Martin told the delegates, “Our anchor is dragging behind us, our anchor is fouled up on the rusty hull of some old ship that sank in the last century.” This statement was met with jeering and boos, “Well thank you for the courtesy,” Martin scoffed before continuing with softened up language. “We’ve all read Tommy Douglas’ book ‘The New Jerusalem,’ [no such book exists] well I’m telling you, brothers and sisters, it’s on the horizon,.. All we have to do is a few simple things, to change the language so we don’t scare people.” Martin walked away from the microphone shaking his head, angry at the taunts of the delegates.

The reaction was far different for the speakers from the left-wing, “We will have a choice to make — are we going to be Liberals, and stand against the workers because it’s easier for us as leadership, or are we going to stand with the people,” one Fightback supporter told delegates, “It’s never been easy to be a New Democrat, but that’s exactly why we are New Democrats. I‘m a democratic-socialist, and I don‘t care who knows it, and we‘re going to fight against the Liberals, and we‘re going to beat them and the Tories, and be the government of this country!” The comrade walked away from the mic to a standing ovation.

Left MPs, too, took to the floor. In a move that bucked the powers that be, several B.C. activists were able to challenge and overturn a decision from the chair and get a resolution supporting the safe-injection sites onto the floor. This issue was consistently buried by the bureaucracy because of its controversy, but the energy from the floor made it possible to bring it forward. B.C. MP Libby Davis spoke in favour of this to a cheering room. Other MPs like Niki Ashton and Alain Giguere also showed support for the left-wing.

In the end, the anti-Liberal merger resolution was defeated in a 40:60 standing vote because of labour delegates being restricted in their votes by caucus discipline. However, there was clearly large support for the resolution. The right-wing was already shaken by the obvious lack of support for the dropping of “socialism” from the constitution, and a rumour had begun circulating on the second day that a move to table the motion was in the works to avoid a vote. Sure enough, after a fiery debate, Brian Topp stepped up to a microphone and put forward a motion to refer the resolution back to the executive, arguing that there was now time for the NDP leadership to consult with the members and decide on better wording for the future. What this really meant was that the right-wing had misjudged their strength and support amongst the rank-and-file and were now attempting to retreat. The irony of the whole episode is that it was precisely those who wished to rid the party of socialism that ended up catapulting the word into the headlines.

Federal Conservative minister James Moore stated that the NDP was suffering from an identity crisis, and that “half the party wants to be Liberals, the other half wants to be Socialists”. Despite his partisanship, Moore was actually presenting a correct observation. This convention has exposed a deep cleavage within the party. Having smelled power, the right-wing want to transform the NDP into a body that is acceptable to the Canadian establishment and jettison any past left wing policies. The removal of socialism is the symbolic start of this process. The debate over socialism has not ended and while the right was temporarily defeated and forced to retreat they are sure to come back at the next congress in 2013. On the other side there is a left-wing emerging from the rank-and-file that does not want all its hard work over the years squandered so that the NDP can just become another Liberal Party. Rumours of a loose left-wing grouping beginning to form in the parliamentary caucus were circulating at the convention, and there was a conscious realization that the broader left now needs to organize. The real struggle to defend socialism in the NDP and prevent the party from becoming another vehicle for austerity starts now.

It is clear that this congress exposed the first fissures of a future split in the party. In his post-speech interview, Layton said that there was no fundamental difference in principle between the pro and anti-socialist factions, all the debate was about is what adjective best describes the NDP. Nobody takes this seriously, neither those from the left or the right, and everybody understands that this debate determines the future direction of the NDP. The division here is clearly on class lines – with those defending the socialist preamble on the side of workers fighting capitalist austerity while the anti-socialists seeing themselves in Government “making the hard choices” to balance the budget on the backs of workers, just like Bob Rae in the past or the Greek left party PASOK today.

The crisis of capitalism has produced revolutions throughout the Arab world, where unemployment and extreme class divisions led to mass movements that have brought down dictatorial regimes. In Greece, the traitors that make up the leadership of the PASOK are having their government shaken to its core by the courageous movement of the Greek workers. In Wisconsin, we have seen the amazing re-awakening of the US working-class. Here at home, class war (let’s call it what it is) has already begun, with the Harper government’s disgusting and authoritarian use of back-to-work legislation against striking CAW and CUPW workers in order to enforce cuts. We are set to see an intense period of struggle open up. It is not a coincidence that the NDP saw itself propelled forward at this time in history. We are moving towards a crucial point where the NDP will hold the key to the situation, which makes a fight for socialism in the party all the more crucial. Will we be a party that, like Bob Rae, like Tony Blair, like the leaders of PASOK, side with the capitalists, the banks and corporations, and drive through cut after cut and attack after attack on the daily lives of working people? Or will we be what we were created to be: a party that fights against the exploiters; that defends working people from the ravages of profit; a proudly socialist party opposed to capitalist austerity?

Source: Fightback (Canada)

Farshad Azadian speaking on Free Education at 2011 Federal NDP Convention from Fightback on Vimeo.

2011 Federal NDP Convention. Fighting Back for a Socialist NDP. from Fightback on Vimeo.