Big gains for New Democratic Party (NDP) – But is it an alternative for working people?

Canada’s recent federal election heralded a political sea-change. On 2 May, the country learned that the fourth federal (national) election in just seven years had returned the Conservative Party to power. The Tories, led by Stephen Harper, ran a minority administration from 2006, but now hold 166 out of 308 seats in the House of Commons.

Now Harper will most likely press ahead with right-wing, pro-market policies, such as an assault on Medicare, privatisation of social services, a harsh ‘law and order’ crime bill, cuts in corporation tax and the procurement of F-35 fighter jets. The re-election of the Tories is also a blow to environmental protection. Under pressure from powerful big oil interests in Alberta, western Canada, Harper is likely to block measures to curb carbon emissions. He may also attempt to roll back some social measures, such as abortion rights.

Yet the federal election results were anything but an endorsement of neo-liberal policies. With just 39.6% of the vote, the Tories benefited from the first-past-the-post system to win a clear majority. The Liberals, for decades the ‘natural governing party’ of the ruling class, suffered a big collapse in support, falling from 77 to 34 seats and only 19% of the vote. The party’s very existence is now up for debate. Similarly, the pro-independence Bloc Québécois (BQ), which won a majority of seats in Quebec in federal elections over the last two decades, was nearly wiped out, plummeting from 49 to four seats.

In stark contrast, the New Democratic Party (NDP) made big gains, leaping from 37 to 103 seats, to become the official opposition for the first time, as its vote rose by two million to a national total of 4,500,000. The lion’s share of the NDP gains was in Quebec where the party won 42.9% of the vote, garnering 59 of the province’s 75 seats, seeing its vote jump from 441,000 in 2008 to 1,628,000. Previously, the NDP had held just one seat in Quebec. Across the rest of Canada, the NDP vote increased from 17.5% to 26.8%, although it only got an extra five seats. This means that, of the total of 103 NDP seats, 60% came from Quebec.

Voter volatility and frustration

The outcome reflected voter volatility and frustration, and a search by millions for an alternative. Yet the entire ‘political class’, including the NDP leaders, did not expect the electoral earthquake; one victorious NDP candidate did not visit her Quebec constituency during the election campaign. The election was triggered when the opposition NDP, Liberals and BQ joined forces to bring down Harper’s minority government on 25 March, after a row over the federal budget. But there was little to distinguish the main parties during the election campaign.

The NDP is regarded by many as a ‘leftist’ alternative to the Liberals. But on key issues – support for NATO attacks on Libya, environmental issues, the economy and the national question in Quebec – there is little difference between them. On some issues, such as ‘law and order’, the NDP ran to the right of the Liberals, promising to increase police numbers.

The NDP was formed 50 years ago, as a social democratic party, bringing together left organisations and union affiliates. But over decades the party ceased to espouse reforms on behalf of working people. In power in several Canadian provinces, the NDP has followed pro-market policies, attacking social gains of the working class, passing ‘back-to-work’ legislation and even violating collective bargaining agreements with public-sector workers to carry out budget cuts.

Following the federal elections, newspaper columnist, Thomas Walkom, commented: “We know that the NDP isn’t a socialist party. It hasn’t been for decades. But is it a social democratic party? Certainly, there were few hints of either labour or the left in the party’s 2011 election platform… In fact, the central economic theory behind that platform was a very conservative one: the best way to create jobs is through tax cuts for business”. (Toronto Star, 12 May) The NDP argues that favouring small and medium businesses is the way to create more jobs.

The NDP’s huge gains were largely because it was the undeserving beneficiary of a popular wave of protest against the Tories and Liberals. Despite the NDP’s actual policies, the campaign rhetoric of its leader, Jack Layton, calling for ‘change’, led some to hope-against-hope that the NDP really could be a party for change.

Most voters in Quebec wanted to prevent another Tory victory at the federal level and regarded the NDP as the best vehicle to achieve this aim. Many questioned how effective the BQ, a bourgeois nationalist, pro-market party, is in Ottawa at supposedly fighting for the ‘interests’ of Quebec. As the polls showed growing support for the NDP, Layton made overtures to Quebec voters with vague promises about looking anew at the constitution.

Such a dramatic reshaping of the political landscape does not come from nowhere. It signifies overwhelming opposition to the social cuts policies of the Tories and all the main parties. The election results show profound discontent and growing anger at the base of society towards the status quo. Given Harper’s plans to savagely attack the social gains of working people, the election anticipates big class struggles that will convulse Canada.

Despite claims that Harper’s government will be ‘moderate’, the record and hard pro-market ideology of the Conservatives – a merger of the right-wing Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives – indicate the opposite. The economy was not as badly hit as its giant US neighbour, following the 2008 world economic crisis. But Harper aims to make working people and the environment pay for the Canadian capitalists’ aggressive pursuit of profits and markets, and for Canada’s hugely expensive imperialist ambitions.

How to fight Tory policies?

Mass opposition will develop against Tory policies in workplaces and communities, on the streets and campuses. But the NDP cannot be relied on to lead a successful anti-cuts struggle. During the Ontario days of action in the 1990s, against the right-wing provincial government of Mike Harris, NDP leaders and their allies in the union leadership did everything to curtail mass movements. The NDP and union leaders may try to divert or demobilise mass movements again by arguing that the only thing people can do is wait and vote NDP in the next election and that militancy threatens the ability of the NDP to win that election.

This would be a disastrous policy of inaction and passivity in the face of a Tory onslaught. Workers and activists need to prepare to resist the government’s agenda. Millions who voted NDP will have no choice but to engage in militant struggle against right-wing Tory polices that are a direct attack on their living conditions and the environment. This can lead to big debates among the NDP rank and file and opposition to the right-wing path of the leadership.

Already, a group of former NDP members, along with others on the left in Ontario province, including members of Socialist Alternative (CWI Canada), have formed the Socialist Party Ontario. This is a small but potentially important step towards the development of a genuinely independent mass party of the working class.

Quebec

Despite its commanding federal presence in Quebec, the NDP will face big challenges in the province. The consequences of Tory cuts plans can reignite militant working-class traditions and aggravate the national question. Although BQ was reduced to a rump, Quebec ‘sovereignty’ is by no means a dead issue. Support for independence has ebbed and flowed over the last three decades but a consistent 40% or so want sovereignty for the majority French-speaking province.

Furthermore, BQ’s sister provincial party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), is expected to be returned to power in the next provincial elections. The NDP leadership’s half-hearted opposition to Tory polices and its pro-federalist position on Quebec can open up deep divisions within the party in Quebec.

Québec Solidaire (QS), a small, broad left, pro-independence party, formed in 2006, already occupies some of the political space to the left of PQ. But to really develop, QS needs to adopt bold socialist policies, opposing the Tory cuts and campaigning for jobs, homes, a living wage and fully-funded social services, while adopting a friendly, skilful approach to the 100,000s who voted NDP in the hope of finding an alternative. Supporters of Alternative Socialiste (CWI Quebec) participate in QS and campaign for such a socialist programme, as well as calling for workers’ unity and the right of genuine self-determination for the people of Quebec. An independent socialist Quebec, with full rights guaranteed for all minorities, and a socialist Canada – as part of a socialist federation of the Americas, on a voluntary and equal basis – would see living conditions transformed.

The federal election tsunami sets the scene for major class confrontations throughout Canada. The working class and youth will strongly resist Tory attacks and defend their hard won social gains. In the process, the working class will start to develop an independent political programme for socialist change.

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