Roger Rashi. This article first published by Presse-toi à gauche.
If 2011 was the year of the Orange wave, 2015 will go down in history as the year of the Orange rout. Ahead in the opinion polls in late August, the NDP found itself in a field of ruins by October 20. Its hopes of forming the next government of Canada dashed, the social-democratic formation led by Thomas Mulcair is now the third party in Ottawa, having lost its official opposition status, with 44 MPs and less than 20 per cent of the votes.
Party strategists will be strongly tempted to attribute the crushing defeat to the niqab debate. But if the Islamophobic card played by a desperate Stephen Harper near the campaign’s end – seconded by Gilles Duceppe in a bad remake of the PQ’s equally xenophobic Charter of Values – had such an effect, it was because the NDP’s descent into Hell was already under way.
When a triumphalist Mulcair, at the end of August, mounted the tired old horse of austerity by promising balanced budgets, the fix was in. The Liberals led by Justin Trudeau, who were just awaiting the opportunity, outflanked the social democrats on their left by committing themselves to massive investments in infrastructures even if it meant running up budget deficits for three years.
In the following weeks, while the Liberals hammered home the nail by declaring themselves the “real progressives,” the NDP saw its support melt like the spring snows until the inevitable outcome on election night. The niqab trickery simply increased the downward trend, as the NDP was already in freefall.
A Foreseeable Defeat
The NDP’s rout resulted from much more than a strategic blunder, although that in itself was a major factor. It reveals once again the profound political bankruptcy of Western social democracy. Since the end of the 1980s social democratic parties have been mired in the ‘third way’ so dear to Tony Blair. The NDP, a pale version of its European big brothers, was an enthusiastic disciple and the neoliberal turn was begun in Ontario by the government of Bob Rae. The result was a disaster, and almost 20 years later the NDP has still not recovered in Canada’s most populous province.
The financial crisis of 2008 saw the international social democracy turn even further to the right, adopting harsh austerity politics everywhere in the global North. The NDP followed suit and its provincial branches in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario were outflanked in the last three years by their Liberal rivals – with the notable exception this spring of Alberta, where a very moderate Keynesian program allowed Rachel Notley to beat the local arch-Conservatives.
While the federal NDP benefited from the Alberta party’s victory, and its support grew during the summer, the upturn proved ephemeral. The NDP is now back to where it stood before the Orange wave of 2011.
In Quebec, a House of Cards
His troops in a state of shock as the disastrous results were posted on TV screens, Mulcair tried to console them in his election-night speech by citing the NDP’s encouraging performance – in his view, at least – in Quebec. The reality is quite different, however.
The NDP was unable to consolidate its Quebec breakthrough of 2011. Not only has it suffered a major loss in the size of its Quebec caucus, which is down from 59 in 2011 to 16 today, but its electoral support in Quebec proved extremely volatile. From a peak of close to 50 per cent in the late August polls, it was down to 25 per cent on election night. In simple terms, the anti-Conservative vote in Quebec, which had been placed temporarily with the NDP, ended by finding a niche elsewhere.
There is a very simple reason for this fragility. Under Mulcair, the party had no desire to connect with the Quebec social movements. With the notable exception of Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP stood aloof from the anti-austerity mobilizations in Quebec, both in 2012 [the “Maple Spring”] and in 2014-15. It hurt the environmental movement through its support for the Energy East pipeline project, and came under fire from the Palestine solidarity movement when it censured MPs or candidates who dared to criticize Stephen Harper’s unshakeable support for the Israeli Right. And it is worth noting that not one trade union or social organization in Quebec openly supported this party in 2015. As to the national question, Mulcair’s reputation as a scourge of Quebec nationalism, which he had forged in his years as a provincial MNA and Liberal minister, prevented him from raising this matter with even minimal credibility.
Is There a Jeremy Corbyn in the NDP?
The balance sheet on the election will be painful for the NDP. Mulcair, a defector from the Quebec Liberal party who did not hide his sympathies for Thatcher when he was a provincial MNA, is unlikely to survive for long after this defeat. Elected by a close margin on the fourth round at the party’s 2012 convention, with only 57 per cent of the votes, he had undertaken to consolidate the party in Quebec and to win new support across Canada by moving the NDP closer to the centre. He has failed completely.
Is it possible to anticipate a sharp turn in this party, with the emergence of a left leadership candidate who is authentically anti-austerity, like Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour party? Let’s just say this is not part of the NDP tradition. The left currents that did appear, either in the 1970s with the Waffle or in the early 2000s with the New Politics Initiative, disappeared with little consequence. The time has come for the anti-austerity left to put the final bracket on the NDP parenthesis. •
Roger Rashi is a founding member of Québec Solidaire and presently sits on the party’s Commission on the environment.