COVER

Protest or Politics?

The NDP faces a rough ride on the road to renewal

Robert Sheppard March 12 2001
COVER

Protest or Politics?

The NDP faces a rough ride on the road to renewal

Robert Sheppard March 12 2001

Protest or Politics?

COVER

The NDP faces a rough ride on the road to renewal

Robert Sheppard

Alicia Barsallo has a three-year-old law degree from the University of British Columbia, but she has been too busy helping people to even think about setting up a legal practice. Since she arrived in Canada in 1974 from her native Peru, Barsallo has run a human rights magazine, established two immigrant help groups, and counselled those who are trying to grapple their way out of poverty—all of it for free, she laughs. To support herself, she has gone back to teaching part time at a North Vancouver high school. Recently, she set her sights on a new career: with a provincial election only weeks away, she is one of three New Democrats seeking the nomination in Vancouver Kingsway, a long-held NDP fief. “This is something I never thought I would do,” she confides. “I

always felt the electoral process is for people in public positions.” For many on the left, Barsallo is a postcard candidate for the new NDP—a committed activist with deep roots in her adopted community and the class struggles of another land. That was certainly the view of former Vancouver MP Jim Manley, a United Church minister, who invited her to run. When the talk turns to ideal candidates, however, others prefer a Tony Blair, the urbane Brit who wrenched the British Labour Party back to power, dazzled the Canadian Parliament recently with a guest appearance, and speaks the body language of the boardroom. Somewhere between these poles the Canadian left is swinging like a piñata, offering a free whack to believers and critics alike.

Time to re-brand. The co-operative socialist movement that forged itself on the anvil of prairie radicalism in the Dirty Thirties, faltered spectacularly when Tory John Diefenbaker roared out of the West in 1958, and then reinvented itself as the New Democratic Party with labours muscle in 1961, is once again looking for a remake. British Columbia may be a special case: after 10 years in power and the kind of scandals that would fell an ox, the provincial NDP is, according to opinion polls, fighting for its very survival—and polarizing the electorate in stark left-right terms. But elsewhere the party is clearly casting about for new direction.

In Saskatchewan, the NDP recently changed leaders and clings to power in a coalition with Liberals —a taste, some say, of a Blair-like “Third Way,” a centre-left party that prefers power to activism. Similarly in Manitoba, NDP Premier Gary Doer has introduced legislation to ban union (and corporate) contributions in the province, a provocative move that cuts right to his party’s lifeblood. At the federal level, national leader Alexa McDonough and the heads of the country’s biggest unions—the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Auto Workers, the Steelworkers and the Ontario Federation of Labour, just to name a few—are all engaged in a major rethink of their historic relationship.

“Oh yes,” says Nancy Riche, the CLC’s number 2 and an NDP stalwart of some renown. “I think this is 1961 all over again.” But with a twist. By this time next year, say some of those leading the renewal process, the federal NDP could have a new name. (The Social Democratic Party of Canada is the front-runner, the long-held preference of former national leader Ed Broadbent.) It will almost certainly have a new way of choosing its next leader (one member, one vote—no special executive or voting rights for trade unions or provincial wings). And it will likely have taken a giant step—maybe even the ultimate one —towards severing its dependency on union bucks.

Will that be enough to reinvent the left? “Who knows?” says longtime party strategist Gerry Caplan. “No one takes us seriously anymore.” Meaning no one in the media, academic circles and especially those in the advocacy groups who are storming the barricades and leaving the elected members talking to an often-empty Parliament. The renewal debate, begun formally last week, has already opened deep schisms in the party. The entire federal caucus sat on its hands when Tony Blair visited but has decided to go en masse to Quebec City next month to join in the much-hyped protest against the Summit of the Americas. This as other influential voices—former NDP premiers Roy Romanow and Bob Rae among them—argue that globalization

issues ought to be dealt with in a more constructive way.

Labour leaders have been egging on the party for some time to adopt a more activist stance—on poverty, social housing and the environment, among other things. To get the NDP back to its roots, as many see them. No one seems unduly perturbed by the notion of a bunch of middle-aged parliamentarians trying to get down with cyber-sawy college-age protesters. But activism on its own may not be enough to salvage labour’s continuing support. “I think there has to be a break between labour and the NDP,” says the most outspoken of the renewalists, CAW leader Buzz Hargrove. “There is a whole new political mood out there. This marriage has run its course.”

A whole new mood. One of the ironies of all this soulsearching on the left is that it comes as much of Europe— Britain, France, Italy and Germany—is being run by social democratic regimes. It also comes in the wake of the 1990s, a decade when the NDP basked in electoral success. At times it was the government in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon and (surprise) Ontario; plus, it came oh-soclose in Nova Scotia in 1998 during the great leap forward.

“Look, we’re not in that bad shape,” argues Ross McClellan, an OFL executive and one of Bob Raes key advisers in Ontario during the NDP’s period in office from 1990-1995. “We’re still the government in some provinces, we have the capacity to generate huge amounts of money and we have more than 100,000 active members across the country. That’s much better than Joe Clark and the Conservative party.”

But at the same time, even McClellan allows that the party lost its blue-collar base—to the Mike Harris Conservatives in Ontario and to Reform-turned-Alliance in the West. And the federal NDP fell like a rock. In the 1993 election that ousted the Conservatives, the NDP had its worst showing ever (nine seats and seven per cent of the vote, down from a record 43 seats in 1988). Last November’s outing was its second worst (13 seats and 8.5 per cent of the vote). The election in between provided only a modest dead-cat bounce. Welcome to Ottawa, Mr. Comartin.

Joe Comartin is the new NDP MP from Windsor-St. Clair, the first and only federal New Democrat from Ontario in three elections. He, too, is something of a postcard candidate. At 53, Comartin waited until his kids were grown to throw himself into elected politics. But from his university days, protesting against the Vietnam War, arguing for student democracy, he knew he would enter the fray. He won on his third try.

Recendy a lawyer for the CAW’s legal services plan in Windsor, Comartin ran the team that bailed out those who were arrested during the protest there last summer against the Organization of American States, another of the international trade bodies that, its critics say, are tilted in favour of corporate ex-

ploitation. So for him, heading off to Quebec City next month is a no-brainer, a necessary re-energizing of the parliamentary left. He just didn’t expect the renewal of the party to include the possible severing of the NDP’s links to organized labour.

For MPs from blue-collar ridings, like Comartin, or election organizers like the OFL’s McClellan, losing labour’s muscle would be suicidal—“sheer organizational lunacy,” says McClellan. And Comartin says the party can’t just go uncritically arm-in-arm with those, like activist Naomi Klein or the Council of Canadians, who have little time for the parliamentary process. But the CAW’s Hargrove has also had it with Parliament and the NDP’s fixation on the institution. “Governments in Canada just aren’t listening to working people anymore, and until they do we are going to have to practise street politics,” he says. “And frankly I’m not sure the NDP can do that anymore. I’m not sure they are not so stuck in their ways.”

His may be an extreme view, but as the CLC’s Riche says, union leaders can’t go on ignoring the political preferences of their own members. “We give a lot of bucks to the NDP at election time,” she says—at least $2 million in direct donations from labour and as much again in organizational help and loan guarantees. But she notes that only about a quarter of unionized workers—at the very most—vote NDP “It may be time to say the emperor has no clothes,” Riche says.

The NDP and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, have always been caught in the loop between protest and power. Political scientist Alan Whitehorn, at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., is one of the NDP’s closest chroniclers. He says the Broadbent-led party took off in the ’80s with the focus on Parliament and the national unity debates, but at a cost: “It came to be seen as one of the old-line parties.” And so it lost the alienation march to Reform in the West. “We became too comfortable,” admits former B.C. MP Jim Fulton. “There was a reluctance among a lot of the sitting members to get out and do a lot of local, informal politics.” The House of Commons was such a great forum then, he recalls: “We’d take the big issue of the day—remember, we had those big plywood crows when we were fighting against the Crow Rate changes. Well, those days just sort of melted away.”

So what to do? Changing the name of the party and the leadership rules looks like a slam dunk and should be worked out at the convention planned for November in Winnipeg. The final shape of the new left will probably only emerge at a lead-

ership convention, likely the following year when Alexa McDonough is widely expected to step down. Banning labour donations at the federal level—a policy roundly supported by former leader Broadbent among others—is a harder sell for many, but that may be out of the NDP’s hands if the big unions truly come to grips with how their members vote. How activist—how anti-Blairist—should the federal party become? Well, that’s an issue with considerable nuance.

Maureen MacDonald, 46, is the NDP MLA for Halifax Needham in Nova Scotia. A former social worker and professor of social work, MacDonald was first elected in 1998 when the NDP came within a whisker of forming the government. It was her third try in the same riding, in a province that never had much of an NDP tradition. “I was a young PC when I was growing up,” she laughs now. University changed her.

Thoughtful and articulate, MacDonald is looking forward to participating in the federal party’s renewal debate and would like to see a provincial version in Nova Scotia as well. But she has reservations about the plan to show up at the big trade protest in Quebec City. “It just strikes me as being a little kneejerk,” she says. Globalization is not the big issue in her riding. “I deal with a lot of middleand low-income people who have just been hammered throughout the 1990s—because of prescription drug prices, the availability of home care, or quality of education. For them, that is what’s important.” And for her, the politics of the left is “a lot like social work.” It’s about helping individuals with specific problems with government, and it’s about connecting the dots between disparate community groups to help them take advantage of available resources. A less heroic form of activism, perhaps. Still, it is part of the old co-operative way the party used to lift itself up in the past. For some, it remains the road to the future. ED