Last week’s New Democratic Party (NDP) convention seems to have alarmed liberal and conservative pundits. The number of left-wing members at the convention was higher than before, and they managed to win support for several important resolutions.
The ensuing reportage told us more about Canada’s media landscape than about the NDP itself. The Canadian punditocracy has scoffed at the influx of left-wing energy, offering patronizing advice or grade-school red-baiting.
For all their bluster and dismissive comments, these establishment voices clearly don’t believe that what happened at the convention was inconsequential. Reading between the lines, we can see they’re worried that left-wing ideas have the potential to catch on, with the pandemic and the economic crisis exposing the failings of the status quo.
A Changing Political Climate
Left-wing members made some impressive advances at the federal NDP 2021 convention, although there were a few glitches and maneuvers to obstruct them as well. Left candidate Jesse McLean won nearly 34 percent in the vote for party president. There were resolutions passed calling for a $20 minimum wage, paid sick days, public ownership of telecoms, the abolition of for-profit long-term care, and an end to trade with Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
Prioritization votes suggest that other left-wing resolutions, including some linked to the Courage Coalition, garnered more support than those that were less ambitious. Resolutions calling for free public transit, migrant workers’ rights, a move to “abolish billionaires,” and the cancellation of student debt all ranked highly.
Reached for comment at his Toronto home, Courage member Jacob McLean argued that the popularity of its resolutions “reveals the growing disconnect between the central party and its membership. Members are hungry for — and overwhelmingly in support of — bold, socialist politics.” The NDP’s party establishment, on the other hand, “rigged the debate process and repeatedly changed the rules to bar most of our resolutions from reaching the convention floor.”
We should remember that none of these votes are explicitly binding on the party’s leadership. Before the votes were in, party leader Jagmeet Singh stated that he didn’t agree with an antiwar resolution to “abolish” Canada’s military. Some of the resolutions that did pass could well be ditched by the leadership — as has happened before in the NDP. Even so, the left activists clearly mobilized a good deal of support and left their mark on the whole tenor of the convention.
In part, this reflects a general move to the left across Canada. A recent discussion panel involving NDP MP Niki Ashton and former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn attracted intense media interest — and resulted in a minor furor.
Outside the NDP’s ranks, an “eco-socialist” candidate, Dimitri Lascaris, garnered more than ten thousand votes in the recent Green Party leadership race — 42 percent of the total vote, and just two thousand votes shy of the winner, Annamie Paul. Lascaris promised to defund the police, slash military spending, and impose a wealth cap on billionaires. And, most importantly of all, there has been a considerable uptick in union drives led by workers in the service sector, who’ve been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis.
The status quo is clearly failing. In Canada and the wider world, the pandemic is putting further strain on health and social services that have been underfunded for years and exacerbating long-running issues of racism and inequality. Increasingly, people are looking for an alternative.
It remains to be seen whether the NDP can offer a vehicle for that alternative. But the mere suggestion that it might do so is enough to set alarm bells ringing in establishment circles.
Jeremiads From the National Post
In 1998, media mogul Conrad Black launched the National Post newspaper, explicitly intending it as a bulwark against what he portrayed as rampant left-wing sentiment in Canadian society and its media outlets. The Post also helped promote a merger between Canada’s big-money Progressive Conservative Party and its rural, ultra-reactionary Reform Party.
Black personally threatened to pull his investments out of Ontario when the provincial NDP formed a short-lived and ill-fated government. The Post’s opinion pages have never been friendly territory for the NDP. But it took a keen interest in the party’s convention all the same.
Columnist John Ivison lamented proposed resolutions would supposedly give rise to a “modern socialist utopia,” one in which the “rich are taxed into insolvency, the military is disbanded and capitalism abolished.” Ivison attributed the rise of this left-wing agenda to shadowy elements who “may work against the party,” while acknowledging, through gritted teeth, that they seemed to enjoy real and growing support: “The sheer number of impractical and preposterous ideas suggests not so much an irrational fringe, as an institution that is in danger of being taken over by its moonstruck inmates.”
Tasha Kheiriddin offered similar warnings in the Post about the peril of letting “extremists” run the show: “The NDP could fall on its sword over a host of issues.” Kheiriddin has long been opposed to any kind of wealth redistribution. She has previously cited the work of notorious figures like the race-baiting pseudo-scientist Charles Murray to bolster her case against social assistance programs.
Another columnist, Terry Glavin, is perhaps best known for penning a shoddy critique of the opposition to NATO’s war in Afghanistan. He also had thoughts on the NDP convention, suggesting that party members had “lost their minds” and succumbed to the influence of the “neo-Stalinist undead.”
In a typical bait-and-switch move, Glavin ridiculed the idea that supporters of Palestinian rights are unfairly accused of antisemitism, before proceeding to unfairly accuse them of antisemitism. He claimed that the NDP’s left wing had an unhealthy obsession with Israel, while devoting more than a third of his article to the subject.
Glavin also railed against motions expressing solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela against US and Canadian aggression. “This pathology,” Glavin complained, affects “broad swathes of the NDP activist base.” Those familiar with Glavin’s work will know he has written variations on this column several times before. In 2017, he did offer slight praise for the NDP’s current leader Jagmeet Singh — but only because he saw him as a bulwark against the party’s “Chavistas” and “anti-Zionist mouth-breathers”
Also for the National Post, pundit Adam Zivo, not to be outdone, alleged: “The NDP is the conduit through which radical activists can undermine Canadian security interests, if the party lets them.”
Not So Fringe After All
The media establishment regularly calls for the NDP leadership to move right on supposedly pragmatic grounds, claiming that this will expand its base. During the NDP’s party leadership race in 2017, the liberal Toronto Star claimed that the most left-wing candidate, Niki Ashton, could lead the party to disaster. The Star, the only major national paper to have ever endorsed the NDP, warned that a party led by Ashton would not be “even remotely electable.”
The Star’s 2011 federal endorsement had also come with a major caveat: the paper wanted the federal party to duplicate the policies of centrist-leaning provincial NDP governments, demonstrating that party leaders could “square their social conscience with fiscal responsibility” when in office. This was an obvious reference to austerity measures that NDP politicians had implemented in British Columbia, Ontario, and the prairies.
But these appeals to electoral pragmatism are a mask for deep-rooted ideological hostility to a left-wing agenda. As Courage’s Jacob McLean observes, whenever NDP members “even attempt to debate issues like nationalization, taxing the rich, or Palestine, they must be labeled as lunatics, lest others question the neoliberal dogma.”
Even John Ivison admits that the COVID-19 pandemic “has ripped up the old social contract between the state and its citizens.” The playing field has changed. There’s a palpable fear running through these media attacks that the ideas of the Left could resonate well outside the NDP convention.
On CBC’s At Issue panel, journalist Althia Raj commented on a move to restore the word “socialism” to the NDP’s constitution. She didn’t think it would be a political liability for the party:
There’s a resolution regarding the word “socialism” which caused a great deal of debate over the last three NDP conventions. But now democratic socialism is like this cool new word. They can sell t-shirts with this on it. This “tax the rich and nationalize everything” bent that the NDP is on actually rings — I think — true for a lot of people at this point because of the pandemic.
Since 2015, polls have shown a steady growth of left-wing sentiment across Canada. In 2019, polling found a majority of Canadians to have a positive view of socialism. A survey in July 2020 found that a small majority — 51 percent — support defunding the police. The political playing field is changing.
The thin-skinned braying of Canada’s pundits betrays their feelings of anxiety. The NDP should continue on the path charted at the convention. Left-wing ideas that have long been dismissed as fringe will continue to find resonance as the failings of the status quo become more and more obvious.