Breaking With Austerity

Thomas Mulcair’s ouster provides an opening for left activists inside and outside Canada’s New Democratic Party.

In a surprising result given the party’s history of not forcibly ousting its leaders, delegates at the New Democratic Party’s (NDP) convention this past weekend voted to hold a new leadership election, ending Thomas Mulcair’s reign as NDP leader. Left politics in Canada has now entered a period that could see its reinvigoration or crushing defeat.

The event that occasioned Mulcair’s booting, of course, was the NDP’s disastrous showing in the October federal election. When the race began, the social-democratic NDP — the official opposition party for the first time in its history — sat atop the polls. Eleven weeks later, the NDP lost fifty-one of its ninety-five seats and looked on as its share of the vote plunged 11 percentage points. Recent polls have not delivered any better news. The NDP’s support sits at 12 percent, a seven-point decline from October. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are at a whopping 51 percent.

The NDP isn’t faring well at the provincial level either. The Manitoba NDP, after governing for seventeen years, will likely lose power in the provincial election later this month.

And the Saskatchewan NDP, the party responsible for bringing universal health care to Canada, suffered its second straight landslide loss earlier this month. The Saskatchewan NDP ran a lackluster campaign promising tax cuts and made an embarrassing U-turn on resource revenue sharing with First Nations.

The NDP’s path from perennial third party at the federal level to official opposition goes all the way back to 2003, when the late Jack Layton became leader after one of the NDP’s previous declines.

Layton modernized and professionalized the party when he took it over. A long-time left-leaning member of the Toronto City Council who could point to a record of support for LGBTQ rights, anti-poverty programs, and public transit, Layton was able to steer the party toward the center with minimal rank-and-file grumbling.

In the 2011 federal election, on the strength of Layton’s charisma and emphasis of pocketbook issues  — and then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s abysmal campaign — the NDP finished in second for the first time. Before the year was up, however, Layton succumbed to prostate cancer.

Mulcair was widely expected to win the race to succeed Layton. Well aware of his frontrunner status, Mulcair ran a cautious campaign and made the case he could build on Layton’s electoral success.

He promised to deliver Canada’s first social-democratic government at the federal level and hold the party’s new base in Quebec, where the NDP had never had much success prior to 2011. The measured appeals paid off, and Mulcair ascended to the party’s top post in March 2012.

Under Mulcair, the NDP remained moderate on policy but held the Conservative government to account relatively well.

Justin Trudeau’s election in 2013 to the Liberal Party leadership drove the party’s support down. But the NDP managed to climb in the polls in mid-2015 thanks to re-embracing its classic principles.

First, amid public outcry, NDP came out against Bill C-51, an authoritarian anti-terrorism bill that the Conservatives introduced following the 2014 shootings on Parliament Hill. Second, the NDP expressed its support for a $15 minimum wage in the federal public sector and federally regulated industries. And finally, the NDP pushed a plan for a $15-per-day child care program — clearly setting themselves apart from the Liberal and Conservative call for lump sum payments to parents.

That lead vanished when the election campaign got underway. Mulcair set the tone early for his fatally cautious bid, refusing to answer media questions at his very first press conference. On policy, he positioned the NDP resolutely in the center.

He supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and, in what many viewed as the coup de grace, promised to balance the budget despite sluggish economic growth. In a blow to the NDP faithful, footage also surfaced of Mulcair praising Margaret Thatcher during his days as a Liberal cabinet minister in Quebec — and then he defended the comments.

On Election Day, the question was how badly the NDP would lose — not whether it had a chance of winning.

But if the party’s dismissal of Mulcair last weekend represented a clear repudiation of his leadership, the convention testified to the persisting fissures in the NDP.

The largest fault line appears to be between those who support the Alberta NDP government’s plan to build new oil pipelines and those who want the NDP to endorse the Leap Manifesto, a program advocated by Naomi Klein and others that calls for the rejection of new oil pipeline projects as a first step toward a fossil-fuel-free economy.

On Saturday, Alberta premier Rachel Notley indirectly criticized the Leap Manifesto, saying that that while her government was committed to new pipeline construction, they’d impose regulations to decrease the amount of carbon released.

The majority of delegates weren’t placated. They voted to put the Leap Manifesto up for debate at the NDP’s grassroots meetings level over the next two years, ahead of the party policy convention in 2018.

There is little doubt this tension will feature prominently in the upcoming leadership election, pitting oil versus environment, old base versus new. The NDP’s traditional support is in Western Canada, where resource extraction powers the local economy.

Its new base is in Quebec, however, and the party’s outreach to First Nations has generated a strong anti-pipeline coalition in the party.

Could a candidate emerge to bridge this divide and boost the Left’s prospects?

Among Canadian leftists, both inside and outside the NDP, there’s plenty of speculation about whether Mulcair’s departure could provide the space for a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn–like candidate to run.

One name comes up over and over in these discussions: Niki Ashton, a member of parliament in northern Manitoba. While just thirty-three, Ashton has been a parliamentarian for nearly eight years and has long been active on First Nations and women’s issues. And recently, she’s been raising the issue of precarious work among millennials. That’s exactly the kind of progressive coalition the NDP needs to mobilize people and chip away at Justin Trudeau’s strong support.

Ashton has openly supported progressive movements around the world. She’s lauded Bernie Sanders on social media and was attacked by the Right for expressing solidarity with Syriza after its January 2015 electoral victory and referendum last summer. Ashton (whose mother is Greek) even sent greetings to Syriza’s 2013 founding congress.

The Left outside the NDP is happy to see Mulcair’s lukewarm centrism rejected. But for them, that’s no grounds for rushing into a neoliberalized NDP. They will continue to labor outside the NDP, building extra-parliamentary power and attempting to inject socialist ideas into the public debate.

But there’s some reason to believe the NDP, however compromised, could at least serve as a tactical vehicle to put left policies back on the agenda. While neither has transformed their respective parties — and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest neither party can be radically reformed, particularly the Democratic Party  — Sanders and Corbyn have managed to reach those tuned out or disillusioned with politics by using traditional structures. History counsels us not to rule out a similar development in the NDP.

There are already some rumblings of an alternative in Nova Scotia, for instance. The province’s 2009–13 NDP government, its first ever, alienated the party’s base when it tried to combat plummeting revenue with a tight fiscal policy and attacks on public sector workers. Voters also rejected the government’s policies, relegating it to third place in the 2013 election.

When the leadership election finally came around this February, the party base rallied around Gary Burrill, a United Church minister advocating anti-austerity, a $15 minimum wage, a basic income, and the eventual abolition of tuition fees. He won easily.

That Canada could have its own Sanders-Corbyn moment is a testament to the success of the country’s movements over the past few years. Black Lives Matter Toronto has attracted support from unions and community groups, and Toronto City Council unanimously passed a motion calling for action on some of their demands. The Ontario NDP has finally called for a $15 minimum wage in the province after much pressure from activists. And given Premier Notley’s comments, anti-pipeline activists are only going to get more active.

This incipient left politics also underscores Mulcair’s inadequacy as a leader. He tried to please long-time NDP members who were weary of his Quebec Liberal past, tried to appease a media that painted the NDP as too far left, tried to attract Canadian voters who wanted more than the tepid change the NDP was offering, and tried to placate a business class that would be happy to see the NDP never win power. He ended up pleasing no one.

The next test will be whether a left leadership campaign, led by Ashton or someone else, can win control of the party and present a sharp contrast to Trudeau’s Liberals.

As with Corbyn and Sanders, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to turn the tide against austerity and establishment politics. But if the party can’t even meet that modest benchmark — standing against Trudeau’s kinder, gentler austerity — they’ll have consigned themselves to irrelevancy.