A fracturing of Canada’s social democratic party has opened as party members and much of its electoral base express their dissatisfaction with the conservative economic, social and environmental policies that predominate in the party’s decision-making echelons.
Dissension came to a head at the New Democratic Party’s national convention in Edmonton, Alberta April 8 to 10. Party leader Tom Mulcair was rebuked in a confidence vote on his continued leadership, failing to reach even fifty per cent support of the 2,800 delegates gathered.
In the other key vote of the convention, a majority of delegates gave a supportive reception to a pro-environmental declaration called the Leap Manifesto. A majority of delegates voted to welcome the publication of the manifesto and organize discussions of it through various party bodies in the coming months. Though the convention did not formally adopt the manifesto, the vote was effectively a welcoming of the manifesto’s call for action to confront the global warming emergency.
Leap is a product of a lengthy consultation involving environmental activists, trade union and other social activists, and First Nations activists and representatives. Its lead authors include filmmaker Avi Lewis and author and activist Naomi Klein. They are married and live in Toronto.
Tough election loss in October 2015
The backdrop to the fracturing registered at the NDP convention is the harsh electoral setback suffered by the party in the October 19, 2015 federal election. The NDP entered the election campaign neck and neck with the Liberal and Conservative parties, but ended up in its traditional third place.
Expectations were very high in the election because the NDP made a breakthrough in the 2011 election, winning official opposition status. In Quebec, it won 58 of 75 seats. But in 2015, the party leadership opted to put ‘balanced budget’ dogma at the center of its election platform and was then outflanked on the left by the Liberals, who responded with a platform saying that economic times were difficult and if elected, it would run budget deficits in order to boost the national economy.
The federal setback was preceded by electoral setbacks in a string of provinces, including in Nova Scotia in 2013, where the party lost the government after one term; in British Columbia, also in 2013, where polls had the party with a wide lead at the outset of an election yet it ending up losing badly; and in Ontario in 2014, where the party ran a conservative, ‘no deficit’ campaign later echoed by the 2015 federal campaign (my article on the 2014 loss in Ontario here).
Most recently, the NDP was trounced by the right-wing, incumbent party in the April 4, 2016 election in Saskatchewan, and it lost government in the April 19 election in Manitoba after 16 years of rule.
The only bright spot in this dismal record was the party’s victory in Alberta in May 2015.
The NDP record contrasts with the successes of the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, who handily won the leadership of the Labour Party in the UK following that party’s electoral setback in 2014 under the moderate leader Ed Miliband, and the wildly popular campaign of Bernie Sanders in the United States for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. These two examples as well as others that could be cited challenge the claims of the NDP brass that left wing ideas are losing propositions in the electoral arena.
The NDP will now enter a lengthy contest for a new national leader. Traditionally, a leadership contest is an opportunity for a mainstream political party to renew its standing with the electorate by projecting new faces and ideas. On the minds of many in the NDP is the success of Jeremy Corbyn. As a member of Parliament since 1983, he has been a tireless campaigner against economic austerity and a leading voice against war and militarism.
But there is no Jeremy Corbyn waiting in the wings in the NDP today. The NDP has been drifting to the political right for many years, well before Tom Mulcair assumed the leadership in 2011. Views similar to those of Jeremy Corbyn are discouraged and downright quashed. For example, in the 2015 election, NDP candidates were ruthlessly screened for ‘controversial’ pronouncements in their past, particularly those expressing sympathy for the cause of the Palestinian people.
The most talked-about potential replacement for Tom Mulcair in these early days is Member of Parliament Nathan Cullen. He backed Mulcair’s unsuccessful bid to stay on as party leader. Cullen favours fossil fuel and other resource extraction projects provided they first obtain “social license”, particularly from First Nations. This is hardly an original idea—the Liberal government in Ottawa is presently embarked upon precisely such a course as it prepares to bludgeon Canadians by approving of the two, ‘oil and tar sands to tidewater’ pipelines sought by the oil industry in Alberta—Trans Mountain pipeline to the Pacific coast, and Energy East to the Atlantic coast.
The environmental challenge to the NDP
The sympathetic reception to the Leap Manifesto by NDP convention delegates has provoked a storm of condemnation by Canada’s petro-soaked political and economic establishment.
A leading business columnist in the Globe and Mail daily, Barry McKenna, calls the Manifesto “a prescription for ruin”.
Globe columnist Lawrence Martin, a dyed in the wool liberal if ever there was one, describes the manifesto in these words: “It advocates that all oil be left in the ground and we bounce along happily on moonbeams and other rays.”
International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told the House of Commons on April 12 that NDP supporters of Leap “want to shut down our natural resource industry” and don’t want Canada to engage in world trade.
A particularly foul attack graces the cover page of the weekly Maclean’s magazine of April 25. It features a photo of Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis with orange-coloured backdrop (the NDP’s colour) and the headline ‘How to kill the NDP’.
Some of the harshest condemnation of the Leap Manifesto is coming from the mainstream of the NDP itself. Speaking to reporters on April 11, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said her government “repudiates” the sections of the Leap document dealing with the oil and tar sands industry.
“These ideas will never form any part of our policy,” she said. “They are naive, they are ill-informed and they are tone deaf.”
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan called the manifesto’s proponents “downtown Toronto dilettantes”, a not-so subtle slighting of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein. He told CBC News, “”I’m spitting angry. These downtown Toronto political dilettantes come to Alberta and track their garbage across our front lawn.”
The day after the NDP convention ended, McGowan told CBC Radio in Edmonton, “We had nothing to do with this nonsense [convention discussion of the Leap Manifesto].” He hinted at a split of the Alberta NDP from the federal party if the ideas of LEAP take further hold.
In the neighbouring province of British Columbia, home to coal mining and expanding natural gas fracking, BC NDP leader John Horgan said “We won’t proceed under any kind of manifesto in the next 12 months under my leadership.”
Robin Sears, an advisor to the NDP mainstream and a successful, corporate communications strategist, refers to supporters of Leap as “loony Leapers”.
Other officials of Canada’s industrial unions are also hitting out against Leap. The building trades unions in British Columbia gave a hero’s welcome to the labour minister of the notoriously anti-labour and pro-fossil fuel government of that province at their annual convention in early April. A respected leader of the BC NDP, Carole James, was invited to speak to the convention and as she mounted the stage to speak after the labour minister, she and her party were given a rebuke and dressing down by the convention chairperson. He was incensed that the party had recently sided with concern by First Nations and other environmentalists over a proposed gas fracking and liquefaction project on the northern BC coast.
The slighting of the party came despite John Horgan’s slam against Leap voiced a few days earlier, including saying he wants a “common front” with the Alberta NDP premier to oppose the manifesto.
What Leap says
The Leap Manifesto is a short document, just over 1,400 words. Its central theme is that social well-being and environmental protection are urgently needed and go hand in hand.
The manifesto begins by explaining, “Deepening poverty and inequality are a scar on the country’s present. And Canada’s record on climate change is a crime against humanity’s future…
“We could live in a country powered entirely by renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the jobs and opportunities of this transition are designed to systematically eliminate racial and gender inequality. Caring for one another and caring for the planet could be the economy’s fastest growing sectors…
“We know that the time for this great transition is short. Climate scientists have told us that this is the decade to take decisive action to prevent catastrophic global warming. That means small steps will no longer get us where we need to go.”
The manifesto calls for solidarity with First Nations people. This is particularly timely because of the grim news coming from the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. The community of some 2,000 people on the shore of Hudson Bay is dealing with an epidemic of attempted suicides by its young people and has declared a state of emergency.
Attawapiskat hit the news several years ago as an epicenter of the decades-old housing and potable water crisis afflicting hundreds of First Nations communities in Canada.
Leap calls for an end to austerity policies and says that social as well as environmental progress can be made by taxing the wealthy and cutting military spending. The document sets out a number of social/environmental objectives, including, “The latest research shows it is feasible for Canada to get 100% of its electricity from renewable resources within two decades.”
Leap opposes large, new infrastructure projects related to expanded fossil fuel extraction and burning. This lead is extremely important for residents of British Columbia. The provincial and federal governments are rolling out the red carpet to foreign investors interested in creating a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry in the northern, coastal region, fueled by expanded underground gas fracking in the province’s northeast. The BC government is simultaneously steamrolling a massive hydroelectric dam proposal on the Peace River in the province’s northeast, what would be the third such dam on the river. Much of the output of ‘Site C’ would power the LNG dreams as well as tar sands extraction in Alberta.
Hitting back against detractors
Co-authors of Leap and its supporters are hitting back against detractors. Avi Lewis wrote in an op-ed in the April 15 Globe and Mail:
While much has been said about the Leap Manifesto’s controversial call for no new fossil-fuel infrastructure, the other 14 demands in the document reflect a strong progressive consensus in Canada. The need for a green energy revolution, massive reinvestment in health, education and child care, big spending on transit and housing and respecting indigenous land rights – these may be framed with urgency in the Leap Manifesto, but they are hardly controversial.
Taken together, the policies in the Leap amount to what my father Stephen Lewis, in his NDP convention keynote address, called a ‘Marshall Plan for employment’.
A very informative interview with Lewis is featured in the aforementioned issue of Maclean’s, here.
Naomi Klein, the renowned author of ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate’, wrote a detailed response to an Alberta critic of Leap in the online Rabble.ca on April 14. She addressed the argument that an NDP adoption of Leap could spell the end of the NDP government in Alberta. “The Alberta government has done plenty to assert its political distance from the manifesto. How about changing the subject back to its [declared] plans to diversify the Alberta economy? If it speeds up the transition to renewables, considerable numbers of good unionized jobs will have been created by the next time they have to go to voters, and they can talk about that.”
Toronto Star writer Linda McQuaig hit out in defense of Leap in a column titled ‘Why the ruckus over the Leap Manifesto?‘ She wrote, “As my colleague Thomas Walkom pointed out earlier this week [‘Middle of the road Leap Manifesto hardly loony‘], reports of the manifesto’s scariness have been greatly exaggerated; its call for a transition from fossil fuels to green energy is solidly based in science and widely accepted.
“So the ruckus over the document is the curious thing.”
Vancouver writer and lifetime union activist Gary Engler had harsh words for leaders of Unifor, the largest industrial union in Canada, in an April 14 column in the National Observer:
As a retired Unifor member and someone who first worked on an Alberta NDP election campaign in 1971, I am embarrassed by what [Unifor National President Jerry] Dias and Notley are quoted as saying.
There will be no jobs if our planet is cooked. In fact, I heard Dias say almost those exact words at a union meeting not long ago. The people who live in both Calgary and Edmonton will be at serious risk if all the glaciers in the [Rocky Mountains] disappear. Notley understands this. So, why are they pandering to the climate change deniers and the media pundits who have always hated the NDP and unions?
A powerful condemnation of the Alberta NDP government’s embrace of oil industry ambitions was delivered by Alberta writer and author Gordon Laxer in a speech to a public forum in Toronto on April 7. The talk explained the central ideas in his new book published in October 2015, ‘After the Sands: Energy and ecological security for Canadians‘.
Supporters of the Leap Manifesto stress that its proposals are modest, considering the daunting and downright scary scenarios which scientists say the terrible cycle of rising greenhouse gas emissions is sowing. Considering the high degree of confusion and misinformation still pumped out by the corporate-industrial complex in Canada, beginning with modest steps to counter that is wise counsel.
Alliances for forward motion to confront the climate crisis as proposed by Leap will create momentum that can quickly be built upon as public awareness grows. Such arguments are made effectively by several Canadian writers commenting on Leap, here and here.
At the same time, radical environmentalists, socialists and many others understand that it is the capitalist order itself that needs to be replaced if the world’s ecology is to be saved. Unique contributions along these lines are part of the broad, public discussion that is needed and which the manifesto advocates. Here are some ideas to contribute to that discussion (not at all intended as a critique of Leap per se):
A holistic program of change. Everything in present-day society is compromised and threatened by greed, waste and mindless, capitalist expansionism. An environmental program must propose a holistic response—everything from how society feeds, clothes, educates and houses its members to how cities are planned and how nature and the beings with which humans share the planet should be given their space to survive and prosper.
A program for the needs of working class people. Leap contains very laudable proposals for how an environmental program can win the support of working class people by addressing their specific needs and concerns, for example, the concerns of workers who are directly employed in climate-wrecking industries. Much more is needed to fill out what the manifesto explains. For example, an area of rising concern among Canadians is the sharp rise in the price of houses and apartment rents, which is caused by increasing transfers of global wealth and the failure of successive Canadian governments to assist the building of social housing.
Oppose austerity, war and militarism. War and militarism are destructive and politically disempowering. They serve the related agenda of economic austerity. The environmental movement, including its ‘ecosocialist’ wing, has been woefully poor in recognizing this fact and building antiwar movements. Ecosocialist writings, notably of the Monthly Review school, make an irrefutable case that only socialist society can fully tackle the global warming emergency. But they have too little to say about how we wage that fight. An absolute priority is needed to building broad, antiwar campaigns and alliances. In today’s world, that means opposing imperialism’s ‘regime change’ wars in the Middle East, the NATO gang-up against Russia and Ukraine, and the rising threat of intervention against the democracy and sovereignty of the peoples of Latin America.
A strategy for governmental power: The Leap document infers that the existing economic order of capitalism can be adapted to lessen the assault on nature and the planet’s finite resources. ‘This Changes Everything’ makes similar inferences. Indeed, there are many examples of measures that can and must be won from the present order—lessening the transport and burning of fossil fuels, transitioning to less polluting forms of energy, building more and better public transit, etc. But fundamental change on the scale increasingly demanded by science requires taking political power out of the hands of the petro-capitalist establishment and carrying out radical and holistic transformations.
Curb and curtail capitalism’s relentless expansion dynamic. Whether at the stage of building protest movements or holding political power, progressive humanity confronts the all-powerful and relentless imperative of the capitalist system to expansion. Capitalism entails the production and sale-for-profit of endless quantities of ‘things’, generating endless waste and excess as well as militarism and war. The expansion dynamic is conditioned by the competition between capitalist producers, but its core driving force is the ceaseless drive of capital to exploit human labour to obtain its wealth.
Facing this capitalist agenda are the socially-acquired imperative of workers, farmers, young people, oppressed nationalities and others, which is to resist and to struggle for improvements to the human condition and to end the destructive assault on the Earth’s biosphere.
A new party of the left. The socialist left in Canada has been without effective political voices since the 1970s. Only in Quebec has a partial break been made towards a strong and effective party of the political left, with the formation of Québec solidaire in 2006. Canada and Quebec need a party of the political left which can speak out and organize for socialism. Such a party has a large role to convince members of the NDP and its affiliated trade unions to join the fight for societal transition.
Leap proponents and the rest of the environmental movement need specific themes, or call them ‘demands’, which identify and popularize the key ideas of the movement. Here are some suggestions which can animate Leap or its more radical-minded supporters:
- ‘Leave fossil fuels in the ground!’ is the bugbear of an idea which caused so much consternation at the NDP convention. The demand speaks to the urgency of a transition from fossil fuels. Science demands such a measure if the worst of the global warming emergency is to be averted. Demagogues accuse the environmental movement of aiming to shut down all present economic production, but that false claim merely shows how wedded they are to the status quo.
- ‘End capitalism’s assault on the planet and the humans!’ puts the finger squarely on who and what is responsible for the ecological emergency.
- ‘Nationalize the energy industries under workers control’ and ‘Community control of energy production’ point to the need to break the monopoly control of energy production of the capitalist conglomerates.
- ‘Self-determination for Aboriginal peoples’ places the environmental movement squarely on the side of those whose territories and historical rights are so often the victims of rampant, capitalist expansion.
- ‘Decent, living incomes for all!’ stresses that present-day society has more than enough means to provide comfortable and rewarding lives for all. Particularly important, as Leap argues, are measures to gainfully employ workers who are displaced from climate-wrecking industries.
- ‘For socialism’.
The Leap Manifesto calls for meetings in the coming months to discuss its proposals. The NDP convention agreed to take discussion of the manifesto into its respective bodies. This will be very inconvenient for the corporate juggernaut as the oil industry and the governing Liberals in Ottawa embark on a new round of expansion of fossil fuel and other resource extraction. But it is a very convenient opening for environmentalists and all other progressive people to press for alternatives to the ongoing madness of relentless, destructive capitalist expansionism.
Notes: The Marshall Plan was the U.S.-financed plan to rebuild a capitalist western Europe following the destruction of World War Two. (Wikipedia)  An interview with Gordon Laxer covering much of the same ground as his April 7, 2016 presentation in Toronto is published in Rabble.ca. A review of Gordon Laxer’s new book ‘After The Sands’ can be read here.  Climate & Capitalism website, published in Canada, is part of the Monthly Review Online group of socialist websites.  Here is a review of ‘This Changes Everything’ which explores the creative tension in the book over the limits of capitalism to address the very global warming emergency it has created: Klein vs Klein’, Jan 7, 2015.