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NDP Convention the Best in Decades

By Barry Weisleder

The stunning defeat of Leader Tom Mulcair, and the launch of a cross-country discussion of the Leap Manifesto, signals a shift in the relationship of forces in Canada’s New Democratic Party.

The right wing forces of the party and the union bureaucracy are now on the defensive. The ‘progressive’, soft-left is ascendant. Will the left seize this golden opportunity to fight for an anti-capitalist agenda and make North America’s only mass, union-based political party a weapon in the fight against austerity and climate catastrophe?

As over 1,700 delegates gathered in Edmonton, Alberta for the April 8-10 NDP federal convention, two things were already evident. Firstly, it was clear that Mulcair, who led the disastrous election campaign in which the party lost a million votes and 60 per cent of its parliamentary seats last October, would not enjoy the confidence of a large majority. Secondly, anti-pipeline sentiment was pervasive, at least outside of the Alberta delegation, and the appetite for action against catastrophic climate change would prevail.

The conflict over carbon-based energy came to a head when Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley made a provocative gamble. She went on television the night before the convention to demand that a west-to-east pipeline be built, with the help of the federal government. That put Mulcair, who had been wavering, after initially supporting the pipeline East, in an impossible position. He continued to waver, and was mostly absent from the convention floor, thus sealing his fate.

Former Ontario NDP Leader and U.N. diplomat Stephen Lewis delivered the coup de grace with an electrifying speech on Saturday night. Lewis topped Notley by persuasively arguing that an extensive transition to green energy would be the greatest job creator on earth.

But few, outside of the NDP Socialist Caucus, predicted Mulcair’s precipitous fall. When delegates voted 52 per cent on Sunday morning in favour of launching a leadership race to replace the former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, the convention and the country were stunned. Party honchos and bourgeois pundits forecasted that Mulcair would get over 70 per cent support, which they insisted would be enough for him to stay on as Leader. No one saw the 48 per cent sinker ball coming. But the signs were there.

After the Socialist Caucus launched a national campaign for Leadership Review in late October, a number of prominent NDP leftist figures called for change at the top. Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo and former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour Sid Ryan led the way. NDP electoral district association presidents and local labour council officials added their voices. Then 37 prominent Quebec NDP activists issued an open letter calling for change in the party’s direction. On the other hand, five heads of unions publicly backed Mulcair. And the mass media weighed in, mostly on his side. The party bureaucracy devoted huge resources to conduct highly manipulated telephone Town Halls, and to host scores of events to promote “fighter” Mulcair all across the country.

But that was countered by the President of the Canadian Labour Congress, Hassan Yussuff, who proclaimed that Mulcair would be defeated. In fact, on the eve of the vote, leaders of CUPE and UNIFOR ‘released’ their delegates from an earlier pledge to support Mulcair. This came after the 274-strong Labour Caucus, which met on Saturday morning, took no position on the issue. In the words of Bob Dylan, “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowin’.”

The convention showed Mulcair the door, but asked him to pause at the exit — to stay on as parliamentary Leader until a race to replace him can be orchestrated. That contest will culminate in a one-member-one-vote election, and a policy convention, to be held 18 months to two years from now.

Delegates also voted about 60 per cent in favour of conducting a grassroots discussion of the environmental and social justice proposals in the Leap Manifesto. Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom describes the document as “middle of the road”. Journalist and former NDP star candidate Linda McQuaig asks “What’s with all the ruckus over the Leap Manifesto?” “Reports of it’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.”

This begs the question: why have the capitalist media and bourgeois politicians been pouring abuse on the Manifesto, and on NDPers who backed it and who voted to dump Mulcair?

The reason is simple: they fear that the party right wing will lose control of the apparatus. They worry that the left will gravitate towards radical socialist politics that call into question, not only capitalist austerity, but the system itself. The ouster of ‘balanced-budget at-all-costs’ Mulcair, and the warm welcome accorded Leap’s critique of growing inequality, job precarity, and environmental plunder, greatly disturb the Canadian Establishment.

Will the Canadian left turn up the heat, and work to set the agenda for fundamental change? Well, that would require quite a break in practice — an end to navel gazing by leftists outside the NDP, and an end to nit-picking and juvenile name-calling by some inside the labour-based party.

The answer will come soon as local forums and discussions get underway. The openness to such debates has rarely been so great. The convention in Edmonton, despite its rigged policy priorities process, and dubious guest speakers (like John Ashworth, one of the most right wing members of Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party leftist shadow cabinet), was nonetheless the most open NDP convention in decades.

A proliferation of independent issue campaigns and candidates greeted delegates at registration. This included CUPW members for postal banking, folks who want to abolish the monarchy, and proponents of proportional representation in parliament. One group, with scissors in hand, snipped hundreds of credential-holding lanyards embossed with Mulcair’s name and replaced them with plain ribbons. Soon a huge pile of discarded lanyards accumulated on the Shaw Communications Centre carpet, while a tray of Tom Mulcair buttons sat ignored on the registration counter.

Party officials provided the Socialist Caucus a venue for its meetings, along with a display table in the hallway – but this was after refusing to do so for three months. The SC faced no hassle from officials when it unfurled its huge banner “For Democracy and Socialism Back in the NDP” in the main corridor, and even on the convention floor. Likewise, the SC had no problem distributing nearly 900 copies of its full-colour, glossy magazine Turn Left, nor any difficulty collecting over $850 in donations and revenue from sales of literature and buttons at its highly visible campaign depot.

For the first time the meetings of the NDP socialists were listed in the official Delegate Kit, and the group name was spelled with capitals ‘S’ and ‘C’. Six meetings of the caucus took place, all well-attended.

Over 70 people signed up to join the SC, which worked cooperatively and successfully with Momentum – the NDP’s left alternative to austerity, with RENEW the PARTY, and New Democrats for the Leap Manifesto. A joint lunch time meeting of supporters of Leap and the SC brought together about 60 delegates, chaired by this writer, to discuss floor tactics for the Sunday morning environment debate.

Momentum and Socialist Caucus co-hosted a very popular and enjoyable pub night. In the weeks leading up to the convention, the SC gained wide media attention. This included in-depth interviews on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, CTV’s Power Play Panel, CPAC (3 times), the Globe and Mail, National Post, Le Devoir, TVA and Radio Canada in Quebec, Huffington Post, three talk radio shows (in Montreal, Calgary and London, Ontario), 680 News, several references in the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, the Hill Times, plus an Op-Ed by this writer published in the Ottawa Citizen.

At the same time, venomous attacks by National Post writers and by former senior NDP staffers Gerry Caplan and Robin Sears appeared. They claimed the SC has little influence – before Mulcair was defeated, before the Leap discussion was launched, and before various socialist policies won significant support in policy workshops.

Jointly with Momentum, the SC ran 16 candidates for party executive and federal council posts. Modest vote results, ranging from 5.2% to 15%, revealed a significant hard core radical left base. It also indicated that, while the broad membership wants change, it is not yet convinced of the need for a socialist programme. But the SC will continue to make the case for revolutionary change. That was the essence of my president candidate speech to the convention (see below), which elicited rounds of applause. Toronto’s Marit Stiles, who was elected NDP president, and Montrealer Elaine Michaud, who ran second, refused to say whether they wanted a Leadership Review, and only vaguely indicated that they favoured some kind of “reform” and “renewal.”

Delegates demonstrated significant support for socialist policies on Palestine and BDS, favouring the need to dedicate 80% of convention time to discussion of resolutions (as opposed to less than 32 per cent presently), to establish public Pharmacare, and steeply progressive taxation. These issues were featured in the 4 Ps petition circulated by the SC during the summer of 2015, signed by hundreds of party members. The SC attracted over 30 per cent delegates’ support for an early bid to amend the convention agenda. This was later attempted by the sizable Quebec delegation.

The Persons Living with disAbilities Caucus won an important change that will benefit all members. It requires that resolutions and proposed constitution amendments be posted and circulated weeks before a convention, not just days in advance. The convention also adopted a more open and accountable candidate vetting process. This gain was in response to the outrage provoked by decisions of the federal office to block or rescind several potential NDP candidates in 2015 who expressed pro-Palestinian views.

What’s next? The key tasks facing the party left include:

1. Promote and advance the discussion on the Leap Manifesto.

2. Emphasize the need for public ownership and democratic control of Big Oil and Gas, and the entire energy sector.

3. Demand justice for indigenous peoples. Restitution is the basis for reconciliation. Resource corporations and the government must pay.

4. Explore running a radical socialist candidate for NDP Leader, or support someone like MP Nikki Ashton, Linda McQuaig, or Avi Lewis. Defeat MP Nathan Cullen who argued for a coalition with the Liberal Party in 2011, and who favours fossil fuels and more resource extraction projects provided a “social license” is obtained from First Nations.

The dethronement of Mulcair occurred less than two years after Ken Georgetti was deposed as reigning Canadian Labour Congress President. Two incumbents forced out of top positions by a major body of working class delegates in Canada is unprecedented. It is a reflection of the keen appetite for change. It is testament to the resurgence of socialist ideas in Britain, in the USA, and beyond. It is also a sign of things to come in Canada.

Photo of Mulcair by CP

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