The NDP After Jack
The party’s got a real shot if it welcomes Quebec
by John F. Conway
The federal New Democratic Party (NDP) has achieved its cherished dream of replacing the Liberals as the Official Opposition in Ottawa. Now, the party faces some big, important decisions: a new leader; the consolidation of its support in Quebec (59 of 75 seats; 48.9 per cent popular support in the wake of Layton's death); how to assure big business, the real rulers of Canada, it can be trusted to govern; and whether to merge with the Liberals to oust Harper.
It is truly a defining and historic conjuncture for the federal NDP.
The leadership contest could be ugly. The leading candidates, Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair, already went head to head on two key issues. Organized labour got a guaranteed 25 per cent bloc vote at the last leadership contest and wanted the same privilege this time. Topp, a labour leader, supported this. Mulcair, along with many party activists across Canada, did not. Labour has been denied, and the contest will go ahead based on one member, one vote.
Score one for Mulcair.
Topp and Mulcair also had very different views on how soon a convention should be held. Topp, party president and seen by many as Layton's death bed choice and hence the establishment candidate, wanted an early January 2012 convention. Mulcair, House Leader and point man for the freshly aroused NDP forces in Quebec, wanted a much later convention.
Here's why: the NDP has a mere 1700 party members in Quebec and 85,000 in the rest of Canada. A late convention would give Quebec's NDP wing time to organize and sell memberships to give it bigger clout. This is clearly in the interests of Mulcair.
On the other hand, Topp wanted an earlier convention to minimize the opportunity for Mulcair's Quebec supporters to mobilize.
The compromise reached was March 24, 2012. Mulcair's supporters are not completely happy, preferring a much later convention.
The danger here for the NDP is that a Topp vs. Mulcair battle, if it heats up, could become a nasty English Canada vs. the Québécois nation confrontation.
Quite frankly, the federal NDP has not had a lot of sympathy for the national aspirations of the Québécois nation. Even so, it's seen in Quebec as the least anti-Quebec federalist party. Still, some of the NDP's provincial wings have proven virulent in their anti-Quebec attitudes. One only has to recall the francophobic hysteria whipped up by NDP premiers Bob Rae (Ontario), Roy Romanow (Saskatchewan) and Mike Harcourt (B.C.) during the 1993 federal election, the 1994 Quebec election and the 1995 sovereignty referendum campaigns.
Then there's the roles former Saskatchewan premier Blakeney and Attorney General Romanow played in stabbing Lévesque in the back during the 1981 negotiations that brought Canada's constitution home (and which Quebec still refuses to support).
For all these reasons, this leadership battle could become deeply divisive - especially if NDP forces in English Canada try to block the Quebec NDP from taking its proper organizational place in the party machine. So could an anti-Quebec campaign against Mulcair (a sort of "English Canada will never accept him" whisper campaign) develop? After all, Quebec sent the biggest single bloc of NDP seats to Ottawa, and any hope of winning government rests with consolidating that base in Quebec.
Given Mulcair's combative style, it is unlikely he will go quietly into that good night if the Topp forces, and a cabal of the English Canadian NDP organizational elite, play dirty.
This could destroy the NDP in Quebec, quashing the party's hopes to form a future government.
But don't write the NDP off just yet.
There is a manufactured consensus among media commentators, and most political scientists allowed on TV, that the NDP's showing in Quebec will disappear quickly. Some argue it was all about Jack. Others suggest it is a brief "vote parking" gesture to punish the usual players, including the Bloc.
Such shallow analyses ignore key historical evidence about Quebec federal politics.
Quebec politics are certainly volatile - and will remain so as long as the national question remains unresolved - but they are hardly erratic. When the Québécois nation decides to support a federal party it tends to stick with it for a considerable time. The Liberals enjoyed hegemony in Quebec from the 1917 Conscription Crisis to the triumph of Brian Mulroney in 1984 (though toying with Diefenbaker briefly in 1958). Mulroney got two majorities thanks to the Québécois nation, his support only melting after failing to deliver meagre concessions on the national question.
When the Bloc Québécois emerged under Lucien Bouchard after the collapse of the Meech Lake deal, the consensus in English Canada insisted this was a minor development and the Bloc would disappear. In the 1993 election the Bloc astonished everyone by winning 59 of Quebec's 75 seats and becoming the Official Opposition in Ottawa.
The Quebec electorate stayed with the Bloc for 18 years.
The NDP upsurge in Quebec was not all about Jack. He was there for previous elections and the NDP platform was virtually identical to that of the Liberal party. But Quebec's well-founded grievances against the Liberal party - plus their gut rejection of Harper's hard right-wing Tories and sense that the Bloc's sovereignty strategy had stalled into office holding - convinced the Québécois nation to go with the NDP.
If the NDP builds a solid organization in Quebec over the next four years and survives the leadership contest without imploding, large numbers of NDP MPs from Quebec could be around for a long time.
Besides, the capitalist rulers of Canada know they have little to fear from an NDP government in Ottawa. Certainly an NDP government would not be as totally obedient as Stephen Harper, but Harper's obedience is filtered through a troubling, right-wing true-believer ideology.
Here's the big picture: neoliberalism, with its corporate-friendly loosening of trade barriers, relaxation of regulations and domination over local interests, is in transition to a model based on more aggressive state intervention to manage the economy in the interests of capital, and an abandonment of blind, free-market ideology.
But Harper resists this - and such resistance can create political problems by provoking unrest and civil disorder.
By comparison, the NDP looks safe. In the 1990s the NDP jettisoned the last remnants of social democratic ideology and embraced neoliberalism. The fiscal records of NDP provincial governments, all of which caved to neoliberalism (starting with Ontario's Premier Bob Rae), give capital few concerns. They've shown that they'll do what they're told.
If the far-right extremism of Stephen Harper and his hobgoblins provoke political turmoil and lose the public's trust, the NDP might just be a necessary fall-back.
The fact is, the capitalist class will accept an NDP government quite easily. All the new NDP Official Opposition needs to do is continue in the tradition of Layton, and the recent and current NDP provincial governments - acting in business' interests but also showing a human face and a ready, helping hand.
And frankly, Harper's penchant for getting lost in the swamp of right-wing ideology on side issues like being "tough on crime", attacking civil liberties and pushing a social and moral agenda out of step with the values of a majority of Canadians, makes the business lobby very uneasy.
If the economy tanks seriously and if Canadians become restive, a newly-minted NDP government in Ottawa might be just what capital needs to weather the storm.
Finally, the growing merger chorus among some prominent figures in both the NDP and the Liberal party will have to be addressed. Presently, officialdom of both parties rejects the idea. But there is growing support among the rank-and-file of both parties. A successful merger of the NDP and the Liberals would end the vote-splitting that could keep Harper in office for years to come, just as vote-splitting on the right between Tories and Reformers allowed the Liberals free reign under Chrétien.
Given Harper's success in uniting the right and achieving a majority government with under 40 per cent of the vote, the idea of an NDP/Liberal merger looks tempting. Agreement, though, is unlikely until after at least one more election. The NDP wants its crack at government, and to see if it at least remains Official Opposition. The Liberals, meanwhile, are convinced they will make a comeback.
But given the state of politics in Canada - with the activist left, including socialists and greens, virtually shut out of political debate - a merger might well be a healthy development. It would open space on the left where a new Red/Green party could emerge and take its place as a movement for change that combines parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activism.
Our politics would be more interesting and lively, certainly more democratic, and, most importantly, the political hegemony of neoliberalism would be broken.
All Canadians have a stake in what happens to the federal NDP over the next four years.