the ndp: so sad, so frustrating, so maddeningly predictable

Where oh where has the NDP gone?

One of the most wonderful things about Canada, for me, has always been the presence of a viable third party on the left. When we first moved here, it was so amazing to hear Jack Layton, Libby Davies, Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, Olivia Chow, Linda Duncan, and many others defend the rights of working people, speak out against war, stand up for democracy, and in general represent the interests of average Canadians. Sometimes I would hear a speech and think, that's an elected MP speaking! People say things like that in Parliament here!

I feel strongly about the limits of electoral politics on its own to create real social change. Change originates from people's movements; without our movements, there is no counter-weight to corporate and industry interests. But in our present system, our movements need a voice and a vehicle in government. The NDP is supposed to be that voice.

The late Jack Layton led the NDP to its greatest victory and the height of its power. He lived just long enough to see his party become, for the first time, the Official Opposition. And he didn't do it by pretending to be a Liberal. He didn't do it by nibbling at the edges. The NDP of Jack Layton wasn't truly a socialist party. It was a party of reform, to be sure. But it knew which side its bread was buttered on. Layton knew he needed to offer a clear alternative to both the corrupt, anti-democratic Conservatives and the wannabe-Conservative Liberals.

After Layton's death, the party had an opportunity to choose its direction, and choose they did. They dropped the word "socialist" from their constitution, and they elected an MP from the right-most end of their party. And now we have the predictable outcome. Murray Dobbin writes:
On February 22nd, in the aftermath of a “boring” budget Thomas Mulcair’s NDP undertook a National Day of Action – a welcome idea that’s been long in coming and has the potential over time to be a political game changer. If developed more and replicated it could be the beginning of moving the NDP away from being simply a campaign machine to actually being, like its CCF predecessor, a movement party engaged in communities year round.

And yet the potential in this first experiment of engaging Canadians between elections seems to have been squandered by the focus of the day of action. How is it possible that the NDP would finally understand the importance of this kind of engagement and at the same time completely abandon any substantive ideas with which to start a conversation? The whole day of action is one huge political contradiction – engaging citizens but only after you have redefined them as consumers.

The theme of the day of action consists of a handful of consumer issues, some of them almost pathetic in their level of triviality. The Big Five issues that the NDP presents are ATM fees, interest rates on credit cards, the usury of the ‘payday lending’ industry, the collusion of the oil companies on gasoline prices and finally – and this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel – the fact that companies add a couple of dollars to the invoices they mail out to customers each month.

The campaign is billed as helping “make life more affordable” for Canadians but these measures do almost nothing to accomplish that goal. The banks’ ATM charges amount to an average of $21 a year per adult Canadian. The extra $2 charge on hydro and cable bills amounts to just over $100 a year. Credit card interest rates are outrageous – but surely a progressive party should at least raise the question of the wisdom of racking up tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards while living beyond your means. If you are going to have a day of action and national conversation why not talk about the real causes of poverty and inequality in this country?
On the provincial level, the situation is even worse. While opposition leader Tim Hudak tries to rewrite the rules and bust unions in Ontario forever, Andrea Horwath stays mum. She has refused to join the fight for the $14 minimum wage, instead talking about tax cuts for small business owners... who are not even really that. Michael Laxer:
...the ONDP's apparent reluctance to take a strong stand on this issue consistent with its alleged social activist and labour allies.

To date, while some of its caucus members have been slightly more outspoken, the leader driven party has not strayed from its message of boutique appeals to minor consumerist middle class issues and its pandering to the fiction of the small business "job creator." While it is true that small businesses create many jobs, it is also true, especially in the absence of an industrial or neo-industrial state job creation strategy, that the jobs they create are often not even worthy of the term "McJob." They are, overall, without any question the lowest paying jobs and rarely have any benefits of any meaning.

The ONDP also distorts what a "small business" is. When it calls for a reduction in the small business tax rate, as it does, it fails to mention that this applies only to incorporated "small" businesses, which are often not even the romanticised vision that some have of "Mom and Pop" businesspeople toiling away long hours for their "community." Many incorporated "small businesses" are professionals attempting to minimize taxes, small landlords, etc. It is a designation that is about liability and tax law; nothing else. Many, many, small retail business people, like corner store owners, small coffee shops, independent online retailers, etc., are not incorporated at all and function instead as self-employed sole proprietorships or partnerships under tax law.

Not only does the ONDP's proposed "small business" tax cut not cover them (not that they actually need a tax cut, given that round after round of personal tax cuts have them covered), the party disingenuously claims to represent them with this policy when it does not.

Never mind that despite holding the balance of power, the ONDP has done nothing to force the minimum wage issue. Horwath and the ONDP have also been working for many years, however, to distance themselves from being seen as a programmatically leftist party backing systemic changes of any meaning, and have instead focused on traditionally right wing ideas of placing emphasis on the "cost of living" in a consumerist sense as opposed to on the traditionally leftist notion of alleviating poverty and social inequality through comprehensive social programs.
Even the Liberal-loving Toronto Star gets it, in this editorial criticizing Horwath for a complete lack of punch.
...Horwath has adeptly advocated micro-policies like the 15-per-cent auto insurance reduction that the minority Liberals adopted last year in exchange for NDP support in the minority legislature. But unlike Wynne and Tory Leader Tim Hudak, Horwath has done everything possible to avoid having policies on tough issues that require political bravery.

Indeed, defying all expectations, Horwath has been silent on minimum wage increases – a social justice issue that might have benefitted from NDP support. After all, the Wynne government recently raised the basic wage to $11 an hour after a four-year freeze but that won’t do a lot to help the working poor escape poverty.

Horwath’s recent suggestion of consulting with business on wage increases is clearly redundant, given the fact that a panel of business and labour leaders just filed such a report — after months of discussion.

In the absence of ideas, it’s unclear what the so-called party of the people favours....

So far, Horwath has rejected Wynne’s bold suggestion of taxes to fund a massive improvements in public transit (the premier later abdicated idea that to an advisory panel) in favour of corporate tax increases. While that idea could be part of the mix, the NDP still hasn’t shown it’s prepared to offer serious solutions to the region’s biggest – and most divisive – problem. Ontarians should have time to evaluate the solutions put forward by all three parties, not guess what they might come up with.

And what about Horwath’s response to Wynne’s push for a made-in-Ontario pension plan? Silence. Or her plans for a sustainable provincial energy plan? The NDP has expressed opposition to nuclear energy and gas plants, but hasn’t offered a vision of its own.
The absence of daring ideas hasn’t hindered Horwath. Astutely, she has avoided the controversy that followed Wynne’s suggestion of toll roads or Hudak’s frankly anti-union stance.
The Star is thinking in terms of elections, but I'm more concerned with policies. As Ontario's unions have been mobilizing against the union-busting threat, Hudak claims to have backed off. We can believe him just long enough to relax and return to business as usual, and Ontario will become the next Wisconsin. [More on this in a subsequent post.] But where is the party of the working class when we need it?

* * * *

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail, Jared Diamond explores cultural practices that are extremely harmful to the environment. Although I read the book many years ago, I recall the stories of how the Norse culture tried to settle Greenland as if it were European, and destroyed themselves, and how colonists treated Australia as if it were Britain, and destroyed the land. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt tries to prove how conventional wisdom is often completely wrong. And while I didn't like the book, I do agree with that premise. "The way it's always been done" or "everyone knows that" is not a good reason to pursue a course of action.

All my life I've heard that a left-of-centre party must hide its liberal tendencies, must move to the centre - that is, must move to the right - in order to broaden its appeal. The left, it is said, will continue to vote for this party, because it has no choice, but those all-important centrist voters must be won at any cost.

In the United States, this has been an unmitigated disaster. The Democratic Party's abandonment of its liberal roots is surely not the only reason for the collpase of liberal policies in the US: being a corporate puppet while claiming to be the party of the people is a clear conflict of interest. But the ongoing, decades-long quest for the coveted swing voter - that mythical centre always just out of reach, a moving target, moving ever rightward - has left the Democrats a party bereft of principles. US liberals vote for them, cynically and dutifully, them blame fringe parties and actual leftists for their own demise.

Please, NDP. Don't go there.

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