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A Canadian Corbyn?

Niki Ashton, NDP leadership hopeful

With the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US, the Canadian Left (to the extent it exists) has been wondering what the chances are of the same happening for them. Like the United Kingdom, Canada has a party—the New Democratic Party, or NDP—linked to the unions, so could a left-wing candidate emerge there?

The history of the NDP is not encouraging. When it was founded as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1932 it adopted the radical Regina Manifesto which memorably ends with the commitment that “No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.” However, after forming government in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944, they pursued a classically reformist program, similar to that of Attlee. In 1956, moderates in the NDP replaced the Regina Manifesto with the social democratic and pro-capitalist Winnipeg Declaration. Desiring to increase links with trade unions and further moderate the party, in 1962 the CCF partnered with the Canadian Labour Congress to create the New Democratic Party. Their ambition was to replace the centrist Liberal Party as one of the two parties of government, much as happened in the UK during the 1920s.

While never taking power at the federal level or in most provinces, the NDP could claim numerous achievements procuring an expanded welfare state and increased levels of public ownership. Nonetheless, it became ever clearer that the NDP was not friendly to the Left. The left-wing faction called the Waffle (officially, the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada) was expelled in the early 1970s after its young, unknown, candidate was able to take a third of the votes in a leadership contest against party grandee David Lewis. Since the 1990s, provincial NDP governments have pursued austerity and the party has increasingly tended towards a Third Way stance.

Party democracy is also sorely lacking. In recent years, the leadership has overruled local nominations of candidates who were socialist or critical of Israel. The party hides and even denies the existence of the policy book of conference resolution. Member engagement is even weaker than in the pre-Corbyn Labour Party and though socialist currents do exist they lack the endorsement of any MPs. Like all Canadian political parties, discipline in the NDP borders on Leninist, with MPs always following the party whip and never publicly criticising the party’s position. Although there is mandatory reselection, the membership is generally not active enough for it to be useful.

In 2011, a combination of a weak Liberal leader and NDP leader Jack Layton’s personal charm lead to the party becoming official opposition for the first time. Tragically, Layton died of cancer later that year and was replaced by centrist and former Liberal Thomas Mulcair. Mulcair was seen as someone who could broaden the party’s appeal in one last push to win government. Shortly thereafter, the NDP conference overwhelmingly voted to remove remaining references to themselves as a socialist party from the constitution, which now states that they seek a “rule-based economy”.

In the 2015 election, Mulcair put forward a platform which contained some good policies, but chose to emphasise balanced budgets over all else. The Liberals, meanwhile, pushed for deficit spending on new infrastructure to see off a potential recession, allowing them to portray themselves as a more complete break from the ruling Conservatives. In the end, the NDP went from leading in the polls at the start of the campaign back to their traditional third place. The membership was sufficiently angry to pass an unprecedented vote of non-confidence in Mulcair, prompting his resignation.

The contest to replace him is now well underway, with the vote to be held in the fall. The handful of remaining left-wingers in the party have come together behind 34 year old Manitoba MP, Niki Ashton. Likely due to strong party discipline, she has not stood out as taking a particularly left wing stance in parliament. There were some hints of left wing sympathies, such as expressing solidarity with Syriza and volunteering in the Sanders campaign, but Ashton does not have a track record as a leftist in the way Corbyn or Sanders do.

However, in this campaign, Ashton has clearly cast herself as the Left candidate, explicitly invoking the examples of Sanders and Corbyn. She’s talked about the need for transformative change in Canada in order to achieve social, economic, and environmental justice. Policy highlights include free tuition, expanding the public healthcare system, public childcare, justice for aboriginals, opposing neoliberal trade deals, and expanding public ownership. She has been the only candidate talking about the need for the party to engage with members and to link up with social movements. She has reached out to groups such as Black Lives Matter and appears friendly towards those to her Left. She has given an interview with Trotskyist entryist group Fightback (which has since endorsed her) and even posted a group picture to Twitter with someone wearing a Karl Marx t-shirt.

It must be said, however, that in actual policy terms Ashton is not as radical as her rhetoric would suggest. Although she has spoken positively of the Regina Manifesto, her program would leave us a very long way from having “eradicated capitalism”. She is calling for very little actual nationalisation; the new state enterprises she proposes would be created from scratch in the public sector. When asked whether she would consider nationalising plane and train manufacturer Bombardier (which has been reliant on zero-interest government loans) she was evasive. She indicated that nationalisation may be used as a tool against capital flight, but remained vague. About the only things she’s spoken of actually nationalising are basic pieces of infrastructure, such as ports and airports, in the event that they are privatised by the current Liberal government. Nonetheless she is no worse on this front than Corbyn. Let’s not forget that the only things Corbyn pledged to nationalise in the last election were passenger trains, post, and water, none of which were ever privatised in Canada. Overall she compares well with her international counterparts.

Whether she’ll actually get elected leader is another question. She has not attracted the massive crowds of Sanders or Corbyn, likely due to a lack of press coverage of the leadership election and Canadians tending to be somewhat apolitical. An early July poll of party members put her second out of four, a few percent behind party insider Charlie Angus. However, 35% of respondents remained undecided and it is unclear how ballots would be cast in successive rounds of voting. At the one leadership debate where the audience was allowed to applaud responses she was the best received. She remains solidly in third when it comes to fundraising, however, with the flashy but centrist Jagmeet Singh taking more in donations than the other three candidates combined.

Whatever happens, it is surely a good sign that the word socialism has made a return to english Canadian political life. With any luck, Ashton’s candidacy will start the long process of building the capacities needed to bring about the establishment in Canada of a socialist commonwealth.

11 Comments

  1. Why do you let the right wing own the term ‘social democracy’?

    Social democracy originated as a political ideology that advocated an evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism using established political processes in contrast to the revolutionary approach to transition associated with orthodox Marxism.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Because, in the common understanding, social democracy means reforming, but not transcending capitalism. I’m fully aware of its historical usage (e.g. that Bolsheviks were a faction within the Russian Social Democratic Party) but parties with the title “Social Democratic” have long since accommodated themselves to capitalism. Some people even interpret the word “socialist” this way, but I think that term is still salvageable. We should try to use words in a way people will understand, not insist on archaic meanings.

      1. But this just gives in to words meaning what others want them to mean, a bit like Alice’s Humpty Dumpty telling her just that. The right wing do not use social democracy in a reformist sense, a sense I have no problem with, but have somehow made it into liberal economic and social ideology. There is nothing social democratic about the views of someone like Liz Kendall or even the original SDP gang of four.

        Labour is a party with reformism in its roots. It is not a revolutionary Leninist party of which there are plenty about for those who believe in that dead-end path.

  2. Verity says:

    Good to hear of the ‘glimmers of hope’ that can be salvaged from other nations seemingly locked into market dominance.

    It also reminds us of where we can also be if we fail to convince the newly engaged who lack a grasp of the distinctions ‘liberal/social – democratic’ vision and a socialist one. Nothing remains constant or travels in a straight line.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Very interesting to see left sentiments surfacing in countries where one might have thought that socialist traditions had been all but blotted out completely.

    I guess that it is not surprising that Niki Ashton is evasive on economic questions. Left politicians are in the same situation across the western world. Without the development of a socialist critique of the economy and the development of clear alternatives such politicians, with the best will in the world, are in a difficult position. They can’t do all that by themselves. As we see so clearly with the UK Labour Party significant advance is held back for want of a clear idea of where we want to get to.

    1. Steven Johnston says:

      Where we want to get to?

      Let’s hope it’s not here.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Venezuela

      If it is, call me a cab.

      1. David Parry says:

        Venezuela’s social-democratic, not socialist, but hey, you know what they say: don’t let pesky facts impede a good narrative.

        1. C MacMackin says:

          Not to mention that one of its key problems is over-reliance on oil. This is something which Niki Ashton is campaigning to end in the Canadian economy.

    2. C MacMackin says:

      It will be interesting to see what happens in the fall. At this point it looks like the leadership is a three-way race between Niki Ashton, Jagmeet Singh, and Charlie Angus. Singh certainly has style and it’s thought he could engage well with racialised communities, but his policy is dull and uninspiring. He’s also in favour of further introducing means-testing to Old Age Security (a bit like the state pension), which runs counter to the party’s traditional insistence on universality. Angus has some decent stuff, but is essentially a party technocrat and has been critical of Ashton’s free tuition pledge. The fourth place candidate Guy Caron has been pushing a universal basic income (which I am skeptical of) but does have some interesting ideas around automation and infrastructure. Fortunately, all four candidates are positioning themselves to the left of Mulcair and Ashton’s candidacy has likely helped push them further. Recently they’ve also been paying more attention to the need for member involvement, although I’m not sure how genuine this is.

      Should Ashton lose then it’s hard to know what the left should do. All candidates seem to support continued party discipline, so we can’t expect anything like the Socialist Campaign Group to emerge in parliament. At best we can hope for more open debate within the caucus, even if they do all vote the same way. However, outside of Quebec, there are few obvious openings for the Canadian left. The only alternative to the NDP is to build socialist community groups linking together labour, environmental, student, anti-racist, etc. campaigns. The Nova Scotia party branch has a vaguely left-wing leader, but he’s really just advocating a return to social democracy and even on that he seems to be waiting for progress at the federal level. Under his leadership the party lost votes in the last election, which isn’t encouraging. There are leadership elections coming up in a few other provinces so perhaps something interesting could happen in those. I don’t want to overstate the return of socialism, however; Ashton’s leadership run could end much the same way as McDonnell’s and Abbot’s past ones.

      I agree that its impossible for a politician to do all the work on economic discussions. Despite having a higher level of public ownership than the UK and a general opposition to privatisation (with the possible exception of the public liquor monopolies, which are not especially popular), nationalisation is just completely off the political agenda in Canada. For that reason alone, Ashton’s statements (particularly her challenge to the Liberal government saying “you privatise it, we’ll nationalise it”) are to be applauded. An earlier left wing candidate Cheri DiNovo, a member of the Ontario provincial parliament who had to withdraw for health reasons, went further and explicitly called for nationalisation and workers’ control of firms engaging in capital flight. Unfortunately, the NDP leadership contest is not the best place for having these discussions as the debates seem to have focused more on where the candidates agree than where they disagree. Canada is also less fertile ground for socialism than the UK (and maybe even the US) because we have less inequality, less class consciousness, greater social mobility, a somewhat healthier economy, and any austerity has been done gradually so that people don’t notice.

  4. Steven Johnston says:

    Wait till she gets elected. If it all goes well, then she is a Canadian Corbyn & dontchajustloveher. If she fails, well she was never “one of us” and aren’tyousickofher.

  5. C MacMackin says:

    Thought I’d post a link to an interview Ashton just did for Jacobin Magazine: https://jacobinmag.com/2017/08/npd-canada-niki-ashton-justin-trudeau-first-nations-rcmp-palestine

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