Eyewitness report from NDP Federal Convention: Rank-and-file push leadership leftwards

From 8th September to the 10th, the New Democratic Party (NDP) held its biennial federal convention in Québec City. The NDP’s youth wing, the New Democratic Youth of Canada (NDYC), also held its convention in Québec just prior to the federal convention.

From 8th September to the 10th, the New Democratic Party (NDP) held its biennial federal convention in Québec City. The NDP's youth wing, the New Democratic Youth of Canada (NDYC), also held its convention in Québec just prior to the federal convention. As a youth delegate, I attended both of these congressional bodies for the first time.

Going into the week, I had expected important changes to occur inside the NDP. Before leaving, I had read the resolution booklets and had seen the vast array of socialist policies that were being submitted by large numbers of NDP members. NDP leader Jack Layton had also given me reason to expect big things as the week prior to convention, he had called for a withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan. However, by the time I left the convention, I had gained a new understanding that there is a top-down bureaucracy that controls the party, but amongst the rank and file there is a growing urge to fight back.

The NDYC convention took place on the 7th, one day before the federal NDP convention officially opened. While we spent the beginning of the day in workshops and seminars on party building and campaigning, it was the policy debates in the afternoon that set the tone for the week.

Many of the youth resolutions were radically to the left of the main party's political platform. Resolutions included calling for the NDYC to support the Hands Off Venezuela campaign, to call for the nationalization of Canadian oil assets, and for the NDP to endorse workers' control as an alternative to the capitalist economy.

The nature of these resolutions polarized the room, with impassioned speakers on both sides of the ideological divide. However, it quickly became clear that the left held a majority of those present. As one fairly irate right-leaning speaker addressed to the room, "If we pass this ultra-left policy, people are going to think that we're communists!" Barely before the words had escaped his mouth, he was drowned out by a wave of cheers and applause in favour of such "communism." All of the left resolutions passed with large majorities. It has been a long time since the youth have been so vocal in their support for socialist policies.

The increased radicalization of the youth is a sign that the party is experiencing a growth in its active membership. The NDYC convention set a record for attendance with over two hundred delegates from every province in Canada. Historically speaking, such a boom in activity goes hand-in-hand with a turn to the left in the party. The Waffle, the Campaign for an Activist Party (CAP), and the New Politics Initiative (NPI) are examples of this phenomenon. This convention was no exception.

The policy binders of proposed resolutions at the main convention, given out to every delegate, showed clearly in what direction the membership was orienting. The overwhelming majority of the membership's new policies were, like the youth convention, well to the left of the parliamentary party's line. Even the mainstream press realized the overt shift in the membership's mood. The Globe and Mail's Bill Curry, covering the convention, wrote "The vast majority of the roughly 600 proposed resolutions would move party policy dramatically to the left of what the NDP advocated in the 2006 election. Among the resolutions are calls for the party to criticize Israel and the United States; calls for all industry to be taken over by workers; and calls for Canada to show "solidarity" with the socialist governments of Venezuela and Bolivia, as well as communist Cuba."

Not all of the momentum was to the left. The bureaucracy of the party remained hostile to the radicalism of the membership and this was first seen in the policy panels set up to vet and prioritize resolutions. The procedures for dealing with policy in the NDP have always been slanted toward giving party insiders a disproportionate voice in party policy. The overtly formalistic and bureaucratic system blocks most of the resolutions submitted by the rank-and-file from being discussed on the convention floor, and puts the resolutions of MPs and other higher-ups first.

The right-wing had also organized a group of 40 or so insiders with pagers and Blackberries who could, at a moment's notice, be summoned in to vote down a left resolution in one of the 6 policy panels. While no rules were technically broken, many delegates were upset at the tactics and the Right revealed how it organized itself. The Left needs to be even more organized if it is to win support for socialist policies. Also, in the future, if the Right attacks any organized Left tendencies in the party, they should be made aware of their hypocrisy.

This convention was no different in terms of bureaucracy. The resolutions from the ordinary members, particularly the more left ones, were sidelined and the party brass got their own policies into places of priority. Normally, as many veteran delegates explained to me, the lead of the bureaucrats is accepted with little opposition or criticism from below. But this year was notably different with the grassroots winning a number of victories.

The NDP membership had, long before convention, demanded the party take a concrete, anti-war stand on Canada's intervention in Afghanistan. Under incredible pressure from below, Jack Layton announced that the NDP was doing exactly that a short week before convention. The Canadian Labour Congress, representing 3 million workers, also adopted an anti-war position. This policy, itself the subject of countless resolution proposals, was met with great popularity in the party's ranks and can rightfully be seen as a victory for the Left.

However, while the bureaucracy was willing to allow a change to an anti-war stance, it was set out to limit the solidity of this policy as much as possible. Defence critic Dawn Black and International Affairs critic Alexa McDonough both attempted to alter the proposed resolution to the point that it would hardly be an anti-war policy at all. Black was the mover of an amendment that would call for the withdrawal of Canadian troops only from "the anti-insurgency war in Kandahar province." In effect, the amendment would keep the NDP in a pro-intervention position and simply call for soldiers of other nationalities to take over Canada's role on the front lines. McDonough spoke in favour of this resolution, suggesting that this is what the NDP should be standing for.

While the party brass was clearly trying to dilute this resolution, the party membership actually stood up against the administration and asserted itself. A trade unionist from Sault Ste. Marie spoke passionately for a comprehensive anti-war stance, "Where does it stop? First it was Kabul, then it was Kandahar. It's very clearly a war, no matter what we're doing in it. We don't need another war party, we need a peace party."

Many other rank-and-file members spoke out against the amendment and it seemed the only ones speaking, repeatedly, for the change were in fact the NDP MPs. In the end, the membership voted overwhelmingly to submit a resolution to the plenary floor that called for the "immediate" withdrawal of Canadian forces from Afghanistan.

On the convention floor, another member of parliament, Peter Stoffer, tried again to sideline the Afghanistan resolution. He called for the motion to be referred so that the party could "consult" with Canadians and find out if this was a policy they actually supported. Again the membership rallied behind a "troops out" position. Speakers brought up the mass rallies against the "war on terror" over the past four years and the polling numbers that show half of Canadians opposing the war (and a further number who have serious doubts about the Canadian mission). The membership cheered and applauded for those who spoke against the war. The Afghanistan resolution passed with over 90% being in favour.

While the NDP taking a stand against the war is incredibly significant, perhaps even more significant is the fact that there is a growing leftward mood amongst the party membership that reflects the discontent amongst the wider working class. As further proof of this shift, let us look to the political barometer of the party - the youth.

On the final day of the convention, many youth were disgruntled that none of the left-wing resolutions that they had adopted and proposed to the larger party had made the floor. Upset that they were being ignored and unwilling to accept the bureaucratic nature of the convention, the youth decided they would make themselves heard.

Nearing the end of the last day, mere minutes before the leader's closing address, the co-chairs of the NDYC approached the microphone. The leadership of the youth had been put under pressure from their members to take up an independent political line that would stand up to the party apparatus. The co-chairs made good on their promise. Making a point of order, co-chair Jen Hassum began speaking about how the youth were frustrated that they had been ignored. The chair of the convention began to call her intervention out of order, but the youth would have none of that. As a bloc, the two hundred youth delegates present stood and cheered on their co-chairs, drowning out the objections from the podium. Soon, the whole convention floor had joined in cheering for the youth, as most adult members too felt very dissatisfied with the bureaucratic roadblocks that had been put it the way of party democracy.

The whole incident showed that there is a large reservoir of support for a new direction for the party. It showed that the rank-and-file are coming to a point when they will no longer accept the dictates of the party brass, but rather want a party built from the bottom-up. However, at the moment, there is no organized political expression by which this mood can be channeled towards a new leadership.

The NDP is the political representation of the working class. The crisis of capitalism is causing a great deal of distress amongst the workers and youth in Canada. The days of being able to find gainful employment right out of high school are long over and the jobs that the baby boomer generation relied on for their well-being are being systematically destroyed. All of this is causing working people to turn to their traditional party, the NDP, for answers and leadership. The NDP's share of the vote in the last election was an historic gain for the party and shows that it does indeed form the leadership of the working class.

It is this new activism amongst the workers and youth that made the 2006 Federal NDP Convention such an important event for Canadian politics. The party's ranks have been mobilized by recent events and are flooding the party with a new enthusiasm. After the January 2006 election, many were dissatisfied with the rightward turns made on the Clarity Act, mandatory minimum prison sentences, and an economic policy drafted by Paul Summerville, a Bay Street banker. During the election, Layton sounded like a robot under the control of the bureaucracy. But the convention turned this around by adopting a new policy defending Québec's right to self-determination while Summerville was forced to go back home to the Liberals. The "Troops Out" call lifted Layton's leadership vote from a likely 60-70% to a historically high 92%.

The leftward turn of the NDP is correctly seen as a threat to the aims of the ruling class. From the National Post to the Toronto Star, all the corporate mouthpieces said that anti-war policies would make the NDP unelectable and, conversely, that the policy was just electoral opportunism. Sometimes they even made these claims in the same article! One particularly vitriolic piece in the 10 September edition of the Calgary Sun even had hints of fascism, "In a sane society, we would round these people up with cattle prods as the danger to society that they are, and put them behind barbed wire in the High Arctic and put them to work drilling oil wells in protected wildlife preserves... New Democrats are socialists and socialism is Communism-Lite."  Such bile is an expression of the fear that the powers-that-be have of a leftward moving NDP that is gaining support.

This convention stands as an indictment to those on the Left who refuse to work inside the NDP. For almost a generation, the NDP has been moving rightwards. However, it remains Canada's mass party of labour and is organically linked to the working class. Now, in answer to those who said the NDP could not change, the party is moving leftwards. How does anybody with an ultra-left world view explain the NDP's stance against the war in Afghanistan? This is a significant change. If the working class can force this change on the party, then they can also force much greater change in the future. Over 50% of the population opposes the war and these numbers will only increase as more body bags come home. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has recently released a report on how Canadians should expect 140 deaths in Afghanistan by the end of the two year mission, and that Canadian soldiers are six times more likely to die in Afghanistan than US soldiers in Iraq. Another report detailed that NATO deaths in Afghanistan are occurring at almost the same rate as deaths during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. This can only lead to increased NDP support.

Fightback has been critical of the delayed nature of the NDP leadership's anti-war stance (see "Jack Layton comes out against the war in Afghanistan, finally").  Layton leaves himself open to accusations of collaboration with the Taleban because he does not adopt a socialist and anti-imperialist position against both the present (the Northern Alliance) and the past (the Teleban) puppets of imperialism. However, while having the correct position is important, the vast majority of the working class will not notice the difference between an anti-imperialist and a confused reformist "Troops Out" call - the party will gain support both electorally and in terms of recruits.

The youth can, and must, play a vital role in channeling this new optimism. The new NDYC executive has been critical of bureaucratic careerism in the past and they must put those sentiments into action. The NDP youth must turn away from being a training ground for the next layer of careerists and must become a mass campaign against the war. Literally thousands of youth could join the party on this platform if the youth bodies use their funds and energy to organize demonstrations, rallies and campus educationals. We cannot let the NDP's anti-war stance be watered down by parliamentary maneuvers. There is nothing wrong with raising the issue within the House of Commons, but it will only be effective if it is united with a mass movement of the majority of Canadians who oppose the war. We are facing an exciting time when the party is responding to the anti-war moods in society, and those who join the party on this basis can push the party leftwards. The youth can play a catalyst role in forcing the adult party and the unions to campaign seriously on this and other issues.

The energy of the grassroots, in contrast with the traditionally conservative views of the party bureaucracy, will inevitably lead to a conflict in the party. What the Left needs is leadership and organization. The bureaucracy is not lacking in resources or structure - they have these things in far greater supply then the rank-and-file. What they lack, however, is the strength of ideas. The ideal of socialism can provide answers for a reawakening working class that is begging to look for them. The NDP's left-wing must use that, organize, and lead a movement to turn the party to the left so that it can provide a real alternative to capitalism. Only the NDP can form the mass organization of workers and youth. Only socialist polices can provide the direction needed.