re-run: give me a mouse to vote for

Bumped up from Friday, August 14

The Mark is running a series of pieces on the NDP, in advance and during the party's convention in Halifax. I was pleased to be invited to contribute. This is running today at The Mark.

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I Want To Vote For A Mouse

When I immigrated to Canada from the United States in 2005, one of the things I most looked forward to was a new political system. Tighter controls on campaign financing, a fair election system overseen by an independent agency, and, most of all, more than two major political parties. I told friends in amazement, “There’s a political party in Canada that represents my interests – and they actually hold seats and have influence in Parliament!”

That party was the New Democrats. Now, on the eve of the party’s convention, I hope it still is – but I’m really not sure.

I count on the NDP to support peace, to work for a green economy, and to represent the working class. Coming out of their 2009 convention in Halifax, will Jack Layton’s NDP do any of those things?

What I’d Like To See

Peace. In 2006, the peace movement was a welcome and active participant at the New Democrats’ convention. The NDP emerged from that convention calling for a full, immediate, and safe withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

Now Jack Layton is saying Canada should have a role in Afghanistan beyond the planned 2011 withdrawal date and the anti-war movement is finding a chilly reception.

Faced with Stephen Harper’s plan to spend $480 billion on the military over 20 years, the NDP should be asking why Canada supposedly has no money for a comprehensive childcare plan, for pharmacare, for implementing the Kelowna accord, for investing in infrastructure and green jobs. Jack Layton should be calling for the de-militarization of the federal budget. Instead, in Halifax, he’ll be spending a night on a warship.

Labour. During the recent fractious strike by public workers in Toronto, most of the media, public, and area politicians were united in anti-worker rhetoric, much of it gratuitously harsh. I waited to hear a response from the federal NDP – but they were completely silent.

One could argue that a garbage strike is outside the purview of a federal party. But a municipal strike in Canada’s largest city during the worst economic crisis in a generation is a bellwether – an issue for all municipal governments, unions, and working people. Doesn’t the federal NDP have an opinion on that? I understand it’s a highly-charged, controversial issue with delicate political implications. But if the NDP won’t speak out in defence of workers, who will?

EI. The NDP should have been out front on the fight to fix Employment Insurance. They should have put forth a bold plan that would include contract workers, part-time workers, and the self-employed, with benefits that begin immediately and offer adequate support. Obviously the entire package wouldn’t have been adopted, but you can’t get what you don’t propose.

The global recession is a gift of opportunity for the NDP. A Prime Minister whose first reaction was denial and a spelunking Opposition Leader are the wrapping and the bow. But Jack Layton’s NDP ceded the issue to the Liberals.

Forget the Swing Vote

In the U.S., when the Republicans took a sharp right turn under Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Democrats began their ill-fated strategy of chasing the supposedly centrist voter. As the political landscape moved steadily rightward, so did the Democrats. The Republican Party became dominated by the radical right, the Democrats became moderate Republicans, and “liberal” became a dirty word. The Democrats didn’t have to court liberal voters, because those voters had nowhere else to go – they would always “hold their nose and vote Democrat,” as the saying goes.

In Canada, it could be – should be – different. With a viable progressive party, if the Liberal Party wants progressive votes, they have to earn them. Instead, we see the Liberals chasing conservative swing voters, and the NDP seemingly chasing liberals. Where does that leave the working class?

Give Me a Mouse to Vote For

I urge the NDP to stay true to its roots. The party may never form a federal government, but there are other ways to influence policy. Offering a bold vision of a better way, the New Democrats can be an essential part of the dialogue, potentially changing the terms of the debate.

I urge the New Democrats not to waste time on foolish trivia such as their proposed name change, a pathetic attempt at mimicking the current ascendant party in the U.S. That party did everything wrong for decades. Barack Obama might be a rock star, but the Democrats are not the party – and the U.S. is not the country – we should seek to imitate.

I urge the NDP: be yourself. Be strong, be left, be the party of the working class. While the other federal parties represent business interests and the middle class, the NDP should be a voice for working people.

To paraphrase the great Tommy Douglas: I don’t want to vote for the other cats. I want to vote for a mouse. Give me a mouse to vote for.

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Non-Canadian readers, in case you are mystified - wtf mouse? - you might want to see watch this (fictional re-recreation from CBC drama) or read this.

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