We’re witnessing a changing of the guard, of sorts, voters on the Left seeking leadership not from traditional, moribund political parties and personalities, but from voices that are usually consigned to the fringes. It’s a clear indication of how disenchanted people have become with mainstream politics when you see parties of the far Left and (more worrying) the far Right polling higher than usual, their gains coming at the expense of liberal and conservative mainstays.
In my home province of Saskatchewan, our Left-ish party, the New Democrats, are embarking on a leadership campaign. There’s a growing discussion among party members as to whether the new leader should be more electable and pragmatic or someone not afraid of showing their ideological roots.
As we see some of the familiar faces on the social-democratic scene either retiring or losing popularity, we must ask ourselves: what would it take to reinvigorate the Canadian Left, what policies could we emphasize that would reflect our socialist roots and values, distinguishing us from the candidates stubbornly hugging the middle of the road?
I recently sat down, wrote up my ideas and circulated the resulting mini-essay among progressive friends and associates. Their responses were encouraging so I’ll reproduce my “manifesto” here—needless to say, I welcome your comments and critiques.
* * * *
In light of the upcoming leadership campaign and the electoral vulnerability of the Sask. Party, the question arises: will New Democrats seize this opportunity and seek to renew the Party, embracing a bold, progressive legislative agenda…or will voices within the existing hierarchy and executive council encourage a safer, more prudent approach?
Will we sharply distinguish ourselves from the Brad Wall regime and their discredited policies or will we water down our platform, putting forward the kind of mild, middle of the road initiatives that British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn derisively dubs “Tory lite”?
Do we, as New Democrats, defend or condone a continuation of the status quo (with a few minor tweaks here and there), are we going to choose electability over idealism, pragmatism over passion? Are we willing to sell our principles down the road for a chance to sit in the Big Chair?
Many commentators speak of a “democratic disconnect”, a loss of belief in democracy among voters in Europe and America, and it’s clear a large portion of the blame rests with the major political parties. They have put in place command and control structures that limit policy debate and minimize the opinions and influence of ordinary party members. They’ve created a bureaucracy more interested in maintaining power, raising money and serving their corporate masters than it is enacting reform or making the system more humane and transparent.
Much has been made of rebuilding from the grassroots…but how is that possible without ceding them some genuine power, a say in Party decision-making? Annual political conventions are fine, it’s a great chance to mingle and meet old friends, but what practical purpose do they serve if none of the resolutions put forward by the membership are binding or carry any kind of clout? Rather, they are perceived by the executive and caucus as helpful suggestions, a chance for members to exercise their conscience on the issues of the day.
Surely any kind of talk for renewal must include allowing the Party general membership more input on direction and focus.
I suspect part of the problem is that the membership is much more progressive and socialistic than the Party poobahs would like. That’s why the Party leadership makes such profound efforts to derail or disallow potentially divisive or controversial motions and ensure that any that do pass have little or no impact on overall policy or strategy. I would love to see thresholds set so that when a motion achieves a certain amount of support from the general membership, it automatically becomes part of our platform—a process that would revitalize the grassroots and help address that democratic deficit I referred to earlier.
The Party hierarchy has made considerable efforts to address gender and racial disparity within the NDP governing councils, but they have yet to extend representation to those who are struggling in the “new economy”, working class men and women who have no benefits, no safety net; low income earners and “wage slaves” condemned to debt peonage, with little chance of improving their circumstances. Their kids won’t be going to college or trade schools. We pay lip service to representing and championing such people—but where are they in evidence within our councils of power?
Instead, we have a situation where a class of well-paid, well-educated professionals set policies and priorities for the Party, individuals who have little grasp of the day-to-day reality facing the working people and precariously employed of this province.
And what is the ideology of these affluent NDPers, a bloc that Marx called “bourgeois socialists”? Would they be willing to enact initiatives that harm their own interests, take coin from their purses? Will they support efforts to democratize the Party and, in so doing, lose power and influence?
For most Canadians, government isn’t the problem—but poor governance or governance that favors the wealthy elite certainly is. Government shouldn’t be perceived as an enemy of the people, but a body created to serve them, reflecting their collective aspirations.
We can address this point through ideology. We show the citizens of this province that an NDP administration would protect their interests and remove some of the anxieties and frustrations they must deal with on a daily basis. We offer the reassurance of cradle-to-grave health care and guarantee the highest possible educational standards and the opportunity for everyone, regardless of means, to improve their minds and enhance their future prospects.
The Sask. Party never shied away from ideology, why should we?
And we know from polling and discussions with our fellow citizens that there is strong support for socialistic policies like state ownership of critical resources and services. When Wall and his cronies floated the idea of dumping some of our Crown corporations, the message they received was loud and unequivocal: hands off.
I believe most people in this province would support progressive taxation—the Tories make much of the notion that the economic burden must be shared equally, but I disagree. Why should we speak of proportionality when some of us are living in the best neighborhoods, enjoying the best services, with all the requisite toys…while the rest of us are told we must pull up our socks, economically speaking? Those who have more, must pay more: in income tax, property tax and “luxury” taxes on their expensive vehicles, cabin cruisers, so-called “McMansions”, as well as the “rustic” cabins they own that are more like vacation homes. A levy applied to profligacy and conspicuous consumption—how many here would argue against that?
Finally, let us take back ownership of the vocabulary of the Left. The word “socialist” is not a bug bear, trotted out to scare the children—but that’s the way it’s treated by our counterparts on the Right and their hired media stooges. Even some of us fall prey to it: “Socialist? Nossir, not me…”
We must reclaim that word and numerous others as well, and do a better job at educating today’s work force about the history and tradition of socialism and the labour movement, the great gains made by courageous women and men who put their lives on the line so that ordinary people might live in freedom, security and dignity.
“For the many, not the few.”
Are we, as a Party, prepared to live up to that ideal?
Do we have the courage to act on our high-sounding moral principles and convictions?
* * * *
NDP Election Platform (2020):
1) Raise minimum wage and enact more legislation to protect worker rights and improve workplace safety.
2) Introduce progressive taxation, whereby those that have more, pay more: a higher proportion of their income and a “luxury tax” on high end goods (expensive cars, McMansions, vacation homes on the lake, cabin cruisers, etc.).
3) Dramatically reduce tuition costs so that post-secondary education is within the means of every resident of the province.
4) Ensure, through legislation or an amendment to our provincial constitution, that our Crown corporations and essential resources (like water) are owned in perpetuity by the people of this province and cannot be privatized.
5) Impose tough environmental standards that deter polluters through legislation, punitive fines and jail terms.
6) Begin the immediate transition out of the thrall of fossil fuels, investing in renewable/alternative energy to the extent that within 8-10 years we are national leaders in that field, our dependence on carbon-based fuels dramatically diminished.
(Phase I: Ban on fracking)
7) Improve relations with First Nations/Metis people through partnerships, shared initiatives; the failure to consult with Aboriginal leadership and treat them as equals devalued and marginalized them and we must make vigorous efforts to win back their trust and participation in the decisions affecting them.
8) Develop more subsidized or low-income housing—build quality homes for those in need…
9) …while pursuing and prosecuting slum landlords, anyone who knowingly provides sub-standard shelter to desperate people.
10) Work in partnership with the federal government to provide a “basic annual income” to every resident of the province/country, investing in our people rather than offering billions in subsidies to multi-national corporations that damage the environment, pay low royalties and taxes, while offering their employees as little as possible in terms of wages, benefits and job security.
Trent Wotherspoon has been appointed interim leader of the NDP here in Saskatchewan. I decided to write him a note, reflecting on the disastrous recent provincial election results and the future direction of the party.
Here’s what I said:
For a minimum of five bucks, you bought your ticket and took your chance (I don’t suppose either Messrs. Harper and Trudeau were among the contributors).
I didn’t win and I think that’s a shame.
It would have been a very interesting meal.
First of all, we’d likely be dining in some fancy-shmancy Toronto establishment–decidedly not my type of joint. I’d have no idea which fork to use, the proper placement of a cloth napkin and, as a rule, only wear neckties for weddings and funerals. Out of nervousness, and since the Party would be picking up the tab, not taxpayers, I’d quickly order a ripping good scotch (“a double, please”) and the evening would start going downhill from there…
* * *
Mr. Mulcair’s colleague, Andrew Cash, and my co-winner (let’s call her Mary, a retired art teacher from New Brunswick), try to keep the conversation on safe ground, discussing the weather and Liberal policies (both of which are judged to be too fickle, ha ha), but I’m having none of that. That first-rate scotch is working wonders on my system and, after all, this is my chance to talk turkey with one of the big boys.
First off, I’d want to know Tom’s views on Tony Blair’s “New Labour”. Before he had time to lower his eyebrows, I’d go on a tirade about Blair’s invertebrate ideology (i.e. its utter spinelessness). He purged the party of its leftwing, its visionaries, the folks who carried the red flag and espoused traditional socialist causes like unions, class equality, progressivism, etc.
“Oh, sorry, Tom, I used the ‘S’ word, didn’t I? By the way, do you, in any way, still consider yourself a socialist? Do you believe in a classless society, do you favor universal, state-sponsored health care, a tax regime whereby the wealthy pay their fair share and economic policies that strictly legislate financial institutions and corporations, etc.?” A waiter hovers beside him and Mr. Mulcair raises his eyes hopefully but now I want to know if the Leader is familiar with the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, his book The Price of Inequality. I remind him that even the IMF now says that “trickle down economics” (priming the pump at the top of the human food chain) doesn’t work and, in fact, only institutionalizes inequity. Those bastards at the Chicago School of Economics must be chewing the furniture in frustration. Decades of neo-liberal horseshit discounted in one press release…and hardly anyone noticed. Too busy following Caitlyn Jenner’s hijinks. What a bunch of fucking monkeys we are.
“I’m wondering, Tom, if you’ve given much thought to the level of taxation North Americans, particularly Canadians, are willing to absorb in order to guarantee the kind of ‘cradle to the grave’ protection they deserve. The highest income tax bracket in France is something like 70%, isn’t it? Must be the same with those Scandinavian countries leftists are always trotting out as their idea of Utopia. What is it here in Canada? Nowhere near that kind of threshold, I’m afraid. Are you willing to follow the lead of your socialist brothers abroad?” The waiter drifts away and the Leader slumps in his chair.
“And don’t you think it’s time to forget about the PST and GST and instead come up with a GCT—that is, Grotesque Consumption Tax. Targeting those greedhead, hedonistic assholes who spend more than forty thousand dollars on a vehicle or a million bucks on a house. McMansions, fancy boats, lakefront properties; conspicuous consumption far beyond what this planet can possibly sustain.”
The Leader’s eyes light up. He has a set patter on the environment, a power point presentation he’s learned by heart. But does his plan involve:
“…extraordinarily high fines for polluters and serious jail time for the most grievous offenders. Anyone embarking on an enterprise that could be potentially harmful to the environment must put aside a significant pool of money so that after the logging/mining is done, all the environmental damage must be fixed and the land fully rehabilitated. And the transition away from oil, gas and coal (which should have started immediately following Kyoto) must be made official, with a hefty carbon tax, higher fuel taxes, higher plane fares, etc.”
The Leader is turning green, and I don’t mean in the David Suzuki sense. But I know the numbers and one of the guys I absolutely revere is Bill McKibben over at 350.org. He says this planet is already in the red, environmentally speaking, way past the point of no return, and if we want to mitigate the damage for our children and grandchildren we need radical, profound solutions today, rather than mealy-mouthed liberal-democratic claptrap about “improving sustainability”.
I’m furious that the closer the NDP has come to power—and, to be fair to Mr. Mulcair, his predecessor Jack Layton was equally guilty—the less it has reflected its leftwing, progressive roots. I believe that Canadians are looking for a true alternative to the depradations of capitalism they witness every day, locally and internationally. They want the elimination of entrenched power elites and a more egalitarian society where the rule of law is equally applied and citizens pay their fair share.
The alternative of capitalism is not libertarian economics–that merely preserves the cruel philosophy of the survival of the richest, the most cunning and ruthless continuing to have their day. No, the only viable, credible ideology for a near future of shrinking resources, economic uncertainty and the perils accompanying climate change, is socialism. Undiluted and unapologetic, reflecting its root themes: class struggle, equality, human rights.
Socialism demands that we confront our problems together, none among us allowed to shirk responsibility—it’s a way of approaching the world that requires local cooperation, participation on a grassroots level. Councils and bodies created to deal with pressing concerns, the membership constantly rotating to avoid the accumulation of power and influence. The purest form of democracy I can envision.
I see little of that in the NDP platform. I see a lot of talk meant to placate the business and financial communities, letting them know they have nothing to fear from Tommy Mulcair and his crowd. They’re the “new” kind of New Democrats, hugging that yellow streak in the middle of the road, virtually indistinguishable from the Liberals (except for Justin’s commendable stance on marijuana).
At the conclusion of the meal, the Leader politely shakes my hand…then grabs an aide from a nearby table and as the two of them hustle off, it appears “our next Prime Minister” is savagely berating the poor man. I hear him growl “….and be sure to fire whatever dumb sonofabitch thought up this stunt in the first place.”
Ah, well. I tried.
The night is still young and Toronto offers some fine book stores.
Think I’ll go looking for a biography of Rosa Luxemburg.
Remember her, Tom?
There was a gal with the courage and integrity to match her convictions.
Can you, in all conscience, honestly say the same?