Result of Canada’s November 27 Election

Liberals Snatch Minority Win, Labor-Based NDP Just Hangs On

by Barry Weisleder

The following article will appear in the Winter 2000–2001 edition of the Canadian newspaper Socialist Action. The author is federal co-chair of the Socialist Caucus in the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s labor party, and editor of Socialist Action.

The first expression that comes to my mind, in relation to the Canadian federal election race, is “political fraud.” I’m not referring to inaccurate voters’ lists, or late-opening polling places, which were real enough problems. I refer to the false polarization between the Liberal Party and the Canadian Alliance, a polarization manufactured by Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and a compliant big business media. It was the height of political fraud to portray the Liberals as guardians of the “progressive tradition,” much less as left wing. True, the Alliance is unabashedly right wing, although it tried to camouflage some of its positions (backtracking on flat tax and binding referenda policies, disowning the racist remarks of its own candidates, and trying to sidestep the “creationist” religious dogma of its leader, Stockwell Day).

The November 27 vote gave the governing Liberals 172 seats, a third consecutive majority of the 301 seats in the House of Commons, even though the Liberals received less than 41% of the popular vote. The Alliance won 67 seats, failing to make a significant breakthrough in central and eastern Canada, but increasing its share of the vote to 25.5%, mostly at the expense of the old Tory party. The Conservatives retained 12 seats and 12% of the vote. The labor-based New Democratic Party hung on to 13 seats and 8.5% of the vote, down 8 seats and 2.5% from its 1997 federal election results.

Twelve seats is the minimum for official party status in Parliament. The NDP electoral decline expresses what media pundits call the party’s “crisis of identity,” itself a product of the NDP leadership’s adaptation to the global corporate agenda. The NDP’s continuing slide to the right (federally, and in each of the provinces) alienates its traditional working class base, causing the latter to abstain, or to vote “strategically” for the Liberals to stop the ostensibly “more dangerous” Alliance.

Flip Sides of the Same Coin

But in practice, the policies of the Canadian Alliance (former Reform) and Liberal parties are not worlds apart. Like American Democrats and Republicans, they both promote Capital at the expense of Labor, and aim to dismantle the welfare state. The Liberals do it by stealth or dissembling, trying to distract attention from breathtaking social cuts and whopping subsidies to business. The Alliance proposes to do it more openly, brazenly, and rapidly. Privatization, deregulation, and downloading federal responsibilities all figure prominently on the common agenda of all the parties of big business, including the fading Progressive Conservatives of Joe Clarke, and the bourgeois nationalist Bloc Québécois (BQ), led by Gilles Duceppe.

The November 28 Toronto Star editorial put it rather candidly: “Having twice decisively beaten the Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform party), Chretien is now in a position to stop stealing its ideas and set his own pace.”

The fact is that Day and Chrétien didn’t steal from one another. They share a commitment to the same system and the same agenda, which includes tax concessions to the rich, ignoring environmental abuses, and hammering unions, workers, women, and the poor. The difference between Liberal and Alliance is tactical, compounded by regional and cultural factors.

Comparing the Liberals and the old Conservative party, Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom described them this way: “…the Liberals are not really of the left, the Tories are not truly right wing. Both are centrist parties carefully attuned to the needs of the business elites.” He goes on to say that “the Alliance is Social Credit reborn, English Canada’s version of the Bloc Québécois.”

Leaving aside Walkom’s dubious grasp of the Québec national question and misuse of the term “centrist,” he is right to highlight the opportunistic nature of the parties controlled by the capitalist class, and to portray the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance Party (initially known by the acronym CRAP) as an expression of western regional alienation. In fact, the Alliance began in 1988 as the project of a regional faction of the business class, led by Alberta oil barons. The Alliance has since successfully helped to push the boundaries of political discourse to the right, much to the delight of the entire business class, including those represented by Tory Ontario Premier Mike Harris and his Cabinet Minister Bob Runciman, who helped to spearhead the Alliance federal campaign in Ontario.

But the lack of a decisive breakthrough for the Alliance in Ontario (2 seats), Québec (zero), and Atlantic Canada (zero) has internal critics sharpening their knives. In fact, all the party leaders may step down before the next federal race. Jean Chrétien is widely seen as calling the November vote, less than three years into his previous mandate, just to stave off the leadership bid of Finance Minister Paul Martin — whose October federal budget pleased Bay Street (the financial district) with a heavy dose of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Tory Leader Joe Clarke indicates he may soon call it quits. And NDP chief Alexa McDonough, whose wooden performance was a binational embarrassment, doth protest too much at the suggestion she may resign as leader. The fate of the BQ’s Duceppe, like that of his party, is linked inextricably to that of the Parti Québécois provincial Québec government, which is currently suffering a popular backlash against cutbacks and forced amalgamation of municipalities. Support for Québec sovereignty remains fairly constant at about 40% in Québec, higher of course among francophones and working class constituents.

Mandate Without a Majority

In any event, the Liberals captured a majority government. They did this with less than 41% of the popular vote, a mere 2% improvement on their 1997 showing. In our distorted bourgeois democracy, less than 41% of the vote can win a party 57.4% of the seats in the House of Commons. Ironically, little was said about proportional representation during the campaign, although the NDP has a version of PR in its policy book. The Liberals gained 7 seats in the Atlantic provinces, at the expense of the Tories and the NDP. The Liberals picked up 10 seats in Québec, almost entirely due to the collapse of the Tory vote in Québec, which fell by nearly 17%. The BQ percentage of the vote actually went up 2% in Québec. So the Liberals gained a bigger majority of seats federally, not because of greater support in the country, but because of obscure shifts of support between other parties. Chrétien, an old political pro in the worst sense of the term, called a snap election in a period of economic expansion, took full advantage of his opponents’ lack of readiness, and rode a wave of indifference to the finish line.

Lowest Turnout Ever

Only 63% of eligible voters voted. This is the lowest turnout ever for a Canadian federal election, and continues a downward trend from 1958 when close to 80% voted. Why? Many observers blamed the mean-spirited nature of this campaign, its focus on leadership personalities, its vitriolic but issue-vacuous content. But few elections have been polite, or intellectually stimulating affairs, so this misses the point.

With the business media relentlessly pumping propaganda, for years, that there is no alternative to cutbacks, the scope for political debate has been deliberately narrowed. The forest of choices has been denuded. The truth is that the full range of electoral parties has moved markedly in a mudslide to the right, leaving voters on the left with a muted voice.

But what effect will this distortion and growing alienation of the electorate from the electoral process have on the Liberal mandate?

In the short term, my guess is: little, to none. Nothing in the two previous Liberal majority governments suggested a strong sensitivity to the needs of the electorate, the vast majority of which consists of wage earners and their dependents. The exception, in terms of sensitivity pretense, is left to pre-election handouts, which can be later attenuated or reversed. After all, if big business parties ran openly on what they intend to do, none would ever be elected.

Neo-Liberal Agenda Unabated

Thus, this election result clearly signifies the continuation of the neo-liberal agenda. Even implementation of the Liberal commitment to spend 50% of the federal budget surplus on social programs (while the rest is spent on tax cuts and debt reduction) would not alter the deeply entrenched course of policy. Cutbacks, downloading of responsibility, declining standards for health, education, and the environment, and attacks on women, immigrants, the unemployed, and the poor, visible minorities, and other oppressed sectors will proceed as part of the global capitalist agenda.

It is disastrous for the working class and its natural allies that the pro-business onslaught will carry on unabated, and that an opportunity to at least slow down the attacks was missed in this election. The primary responsibility for that failure must be shouldered by leaders of the NDP and the union movement across this country.

NDPers may take solace in the party’s retention of official party status in Parliament. Gaining a seat in Ontario partially offset the losses in the east, west, and far north. But it must be admitted that the party’s campaign was the most lackluster, programmatically impoverished federal campaign in its history. Its lead slogan, “Think how much better Canada could be,” reads like a concession speech in advance. The almost obsessive focus on health care imprisoned the NDP message in a defensive, narrow channel which precluded a vigorous attack on corporate power and discussion of a range of issues that have mobilized workers locally (like frozen wages, insecure jobs, and toxic dumps).

Official denials aside, this was a Third Way (British Tony Blairite) type campaign which carefully avoided class identification and anti-capitalist politics at a time when those ideas are increasingly at the forefront of global social movements. A first or second place Labour party might get away with this in strictly bourgeois terms, but for a fourth or fifth place ex-social democratic party this approach is suicidal. For the third election in a row the NDP vote was well more than 10% below the level of support it demonstrated federally in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s.

Why the Decline of the NDP?

What are the reasons for this sustained drop? Unfortunately, there are many.

First, there is the record of successive NDP provincial governments which attacked the interests of workers. Ex-Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae’s union contract-busting Social Contract is a prime, but not isolated example. Strike breaking, hospital closures, rich concessions and lax rules for private resource industries punctuate the record of NDP provincial governments in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

There is the overwhelming tendency of the party to function almost exclusively as an election machine — to disengage from, and to disavow, the struggles of unionists, feminists, environmentalists, students, seniors, and anti-poverty movements, just to name a few.

And there is party policy which is increasingly pro-business (this was the specialty of now-defeated NDP finance critic Nelson Riis). NDP election materials are utterly devoid of anti-capitalist measures, devoid of proposals to democratize the economy and society, devoid of a job creation strategy linked to public ownership, or even a shorter work week (without loss in pay).

Habitually, NDP electoral campaigns bury left wing policies, and run instead on narrow-focus, defensive demands, like saving medicare. The issue isn’t a bad one. But the actual situation calls for strong measures to reverse the cuts to healthcare by taxing big business, outlawing private health facilities, and abrogating the free trade agreements which block restoration, much less expansion of the public sector.

Of course there are many people, including NDPers, who will say anti-capitalist politics are “unrealistic.”

They need to answer these questions: Do you prefer the realism of growing homelessness, illiteracy, declining living standards, wages, and benefits, poisoned water, and a rapidly deteriorating environment? Do you prefer entrenchment of privatization and downloading of responsibilities, compounded by chronic underfunding of services at all levels? Do you prefer the realism of rising racism and police violence, violence against women, and the alienation of indebted youth? Do you prefer the Canadian state being employed as a tool of a more and more oppressive world ruling elite whose agents slaughter or starve Palestinians, Iraqis, East Timorese, Balkan peoples, Africans, and indigenous peoples everywhere, almost at will?

The NDP central campaign said nothing about the NDP’s commitment to quit NATO. It said nothing about the rights of native fishers at Burnt Church, New Brunswick — although Bob Rae tried to talk them into surrendering their rights last summer, on behalf of the federal government.

Most NDP members of Parliament voted for the Liberals’ Clarity Act. That is a reactionary law which denies Québec’s right to national self-determination by arrogating to Parliament the power to nullify a Québec sovereignty vote if the size of the majority or the clarity of the question is not to Parliament’s liking — after the fact! Most NDP MPs voted for this travesty of democracy, despite being instructed by the NDP Federal Council, the highest party body between conventions, to vote against the Clarity Act. Is it any wonder that NDP candidates attracted less than 2% of the vote in Québec, trailing the Green Party and the Marijuana Party in several Québec ridings?

Endangered Species?

The NDP will not soon disappear, despite persistent predictions by ultra-leftists. But its decline continues, and will not stop unless the party turns sharply and quickly to the left. That is the view of the NDP Socialist Caucus, a cross-country formation to which hundreds of New Democrats and nearly a dozen official NDP federal candidates belong. That view is only reinforced by the election result.

But the socialist position begs the question: if the Socialist Caucus prevails, and the NDP turns sharply to the left, will its electoral fortunes improve quickly and dramatically?

Probably, not. It will take more than a few years to rebuild the NDP, and to restore its credibility with working class militants and social movement activists, which is key to its survival on many levels. The point is, there is no practical alternative to this course other than further retreat of the workers’ movement.

Some NDP leaders criticize Canadian Auto Workers’ President Buzz Hargrove for forecasting NDP decline and blaming it on right wing policies. They’re wrong to criticize Buzz for simply stating the obvious. But Buzz is mistaken to suppose that a new, radical labor party is anywhere on the horizon. A new party is no more likely to arise than a replacement for the Canadian Labour Congress, for which Buzz has also called, since his union was expelled from the CLC on charges of “raiding.”

The NDP Socialist Caucus calls on Brother Hargrove to make common cause with the SC, to fight both for a Workers’ Agenda and a socialist leadership inside the NDP.

Maybe Joe Comartin, a mild-mannered, CAW-linked lawyer and the new NDP MP for Windsor-St. Clair in Ontario, would be a contender for the federal NDP leadership. Or the mercurial, left-opportunist Svend Robinson, re-elected MP for Burnaby-Douglas in Vancouver, British Columbia, who ran for federal leader in 1997. Recall that within a short span, Robinson, the party’s external affairs critic, supported, then opposed, NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Or east end Vancouver MP and grass roots anti-poverty fighter and feminist Libby Davies.

But whoever runs for leader, would s/he fight on the basis of a clear socialist platform? One which links the party to extra-parliamentary struggles against cuts to welfare, racist immigration policies, denial of women’s right to equal pay, anti-labor laws, as well as opposition to capitalist globalization, symbolized by such institutions as the IMF and the World Bank. That’s what the NDP needs to survive.

The NDP leadership must be changed. But its current leadership is only one deficit disorder.

The biggest political deficits are in the areas of NDP program, internal democracy, and leadership accountability. This was evident in the federal election campaign, and in the years leading up to it. The Socialist Caucus is part of the solution to that problem. In the context of current examinations of the NDP’s disastrous federal campaign, and the rising stakes for working people under the impact of a relentless corporate agenda, there’s no time like the present to step up the fight for a socialist NDP.