Whither Jack Layton and the NDP?

Tuesday 4 February 2003, by David BERNANS


NDP parliamentarians say they will unite behind their new leader, Toronto municipal politician Jack Layton. But does he have what it takes to unite his party membership, and more importantly, to inspire voters and activists with a leftwing vision of Canada?

Layton’s leadership campaign was based on renewal and change. As a municipal councillor who has never held a seat in Parliament, he was seen as a party outsider. His only support from within the present NDP federal caucus was from maverick MPs Svend Robinson and Libby Davies - the only two sitting parliamentarians to back the New Politics Initiative (NPI).

The NPI is explicitly geared towards building a grassroots movement for social and economic justice both within and outside the NDP. Its goal is to encourage greater and more meaningful political participation from all sectors of society, especially among young so-called "anti-globalization" activists. Layton’s leadership campaign managed to sign up about 8 100 new party members, who presumably identified with this participatory approach.

Will Layton be able to bring enough of this energetic new element into the party fold to fundamentally change the NDP and Canadian politics? "Probably not, although he may drag the party a bit closer to the NPI on some issues just because we may have some thoughts in common," said Elise Moser, an active member of the NPI coordinating committee who is not herself a card-carrying New Democrat. In Mosers estimation, the NDP’s problems are deeper than anything that can be fixed by a new leader at the top. "The NDP is suffering from inertia which is partly institutional in nature," complained Moser. "As soon as you start pouring resources into maintaining your institution you draw them away from your stated goals, and the NDP power structure is very entrenched. There’s too much politicking and not enough genuine consensus-building."

It will come as no surprise to anyone that anarchists of the "anti-globalization" and anti-war movements like Jaggi Singh are unimpressed with Jack Layton’s NDP. Singh joked that NDP stands for "No Difference Party." He claims "the NDP is the status quo of Canada, and I have big problems with that status quo." He noted the poor records of provincial NDP governments in BC and Ontario on issues ranging from Native sovereignty claims to collective bargaining rights.

NDP’s agenda

Jamey Heath, the communications director of Layton’s successful leadership bid, defended the records of NDP provincial governments. The Ontario NDP, for instance, built social housing and increased the minimum wage. Heath also emphasized concrete objectives that the NDP could accomplish from the opposition benches: "We need to shift the debate back to things that matter." Poverty alleviation, a national housing program, concrete measures to reach Kyoto objectives, elimination of tax breaks for the wealthy, and reconstruction of a truly public health care system are all on the NDP’s immediate agenda.
Nevertheless, Heath noted: "We need a change in the culture and the attitude [of the NDP] so that Parliament does not become the sole focus." Building bridges with extra-parliamentary social, labour and environmental movements will be key to the future of the New Democrats.

Creating a strong extra-parliamentary left was the explicit goal of the Rebuilding the Left conference, organized in the midst of the 2000 federal election campaign that saw the NDP drop to thirteen seats in the House of Commons. David McNally, a York University professor and one of the conference organizers, remains skeptical of the NDP’s chances of bringing about positive change.

"The NDP is a victim of its own electoral success," McNally argued. Once in office, NDP provincial governments have been forced to abandon electoral promises made to their constituencies in labour and social movements while implementing neoliberal policies in their place. The problem is what McNally called "the most powerful and best organized interests in our society, namely corporate power." Corporate power is able to use the threat of capital flight to gain concessions from leftwing governments. The Ontario NDP may have been able to increase the minimum wage, but "when it tried to fulfill its election promise of public auto insurance, it very quickly caved in to pressure from the private insurance industry."


According to McNally, the historic lows the federal NDP has recently hit in public opinion surveys are the result of disillusionment with recent NDP provincial electoral successes.

If the federal NDP somehow manages to overcome voter skepticism to win power, history will likely repeat itself. Social democratic governments of the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed a certain degree of success because, in the context of global economic growth, the resources were there to allow them to fulfill some of their egalitarian election promises. In the current context, social democratic governments are forced to take the path of Tony Blair’s Labour Party in Britain.

"When social democrats think they can avoid these problems it is because they confuse office with power," said McNally who credited the German Social Democrat (and later Communist) Rosa Luxemburg with this observation. "Winning office does not mean you can fulfill your agenda," warned McNally. "Capitalists still hold a lot of power." McNally sees only one way to seriously challenge that power create a "mobilized and explicitly anti-capitalist" extra-parliamentary left.

Heath rejected any suggestion that corporate power would dissuade Layton’s NDP from its social democratic agenda. When asked if trade agreements like the FTAA could be changed to reflect social democratic values, he replied: "Of course they can!"

David Bernans, Alternatives Newspaper

À propos de David BERNANS

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