Canada’s Election & the Left

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

Nathan Rao

ELECTIONS PROVIDE A snapshot of the broader political scene and relationship of forces. In the absence of a major domestic or international crisis, the framework of a given election is set well before the campaign even begins. Certainly, a break with capitalism or neoliberalism was on the extreme margins of this past June’s Canadian election, and not just because of the narrow parameters within which the main parties defined their campaigns.

There are only small pockets of support across the country for such a radical break, and they are not gathered in any credible political or electoral force openly promoting this option. This is a product of two decades of uninterrupted neoliberal attacks and restructuring — but also of the radical Left’s weaknesses and failures.

But it would nonetheless be inaccurate to say these elections were “business as usual” as far as the broad Left (including the radical Left) was concerned. At the outset, it was clear that this year’s contest would be different from the federal elections of 1997 and 2000.

The sudden drop in support for the Liberal government soon after Paul Martin was sworn in as Prime Minister [the former PM and longtime Liberal party leader Jean Chretien retired at the end of 2003—ed.] suggested a level of political volatility not seen in the country since the collapse of the heterogeneous alliance around the Tories led by Brian Mulroney in the early 1990s.

Would a revitalized New Democratic Party under Jack Layton and resurgent Quebec sovereignists galvanize the apparently sizeable section of the electorate seeking to punish the Liberals “from the left”? Would they become a real factor in relation to a minority government, building further momentum in the process? After years of stagnation and decline, the broad Left looked to the June 28th elections with considerable enthusiasm and anticipation.

Minority Government

In the end, and after more than a decade in power, during which they pushed the neoliberal transformation of the country much further than the Mulroney Tories could ever have wished or managed, the center-Right Liberals did indeed suffer a partial reversal. They now lead the country’s first minority government in a quarter century [with 135 seats in the 308-seat Parliament, after having enjoyed crushing majorities in the previous three elections —ed.]

This is cause for some satisfaction, and it is significant that a large segment of the diffuse hostility toward the Martin Liberals was expressed through a revitalized NDP and the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), both of which improved their results substantially over the 2000 elections.

Another cause for celebration is the renewed failure of the hard-Right — this time under the banner of the Conservative Party and Stephen Harper — to make a major breakthrough, in spite of having formally overcome vote-splitting at the polls and being the object of a reported surge in voter intentions midway through the campaign.

Taken together, the reversal of Liberal fortunes, the ongoing difficulties of the hard-Right, and the improved scores of the NDP and BQ, have created a little breathing room for the broad Left. Nonetheless, except perhaps in Quebec, the Martin Liberals are nowhere near as vulnerable as the media storm around the sponsorship scandal led many commentators to conclude.

There is a strong likelihood that this will only be a temporary reversal in Liberal fortunes, a product of the difficult transition within Liberal ranks from the Chrétien to the Martin team.

Volatility and Liberal Resilience

Many of us predicted that the transition from the Chrétien to the Martin team would not be a smooth one. Chrétien’s recipe for success was his ability to push the neoliberal transformation of the country much further than the Mulroney Tories could ever have wished, while incarnating a measure of continuity with the populist Liberal Party of the Trudeau years.

This was the Third Way adapted to local conditions, in a league with the Clinton Democrats in the United States, the Blair Labour Party in Britain and, more recently, the Schroëder SPD in Germany. [See Bill Smaldone’s essay on the crisis in German Social Democracy in ATC 112, September-October 2004—ed.]

But this very recipe for success throughout the 1990s contained the ingredients of its own undoing. For one thing, the project of aggressive neoliberalism with a populist face was held together by the increasingly authoritarian and erratic figure of Chrétien himself, who could not remain head of government for all eternity.

Yet no one else could play the role Chrétien had played, all the more so since his government’s aggressive neoliberal agenda had itself eroded what little remained of the political and social base of the old welfare-state “Just Society” party of yesteryear.

For another, the Liberals had drawn strength from the weakness and division of their opposition and a relatively favorable economic and international climate. The expectation was that economic difficulties, international pressures, Western regionalism, shifting corporate allegiances, Quebec nationalism and Left resurgence would undo Liberal fortunes sooner or later.

In the event, it has been rather later than one might have hoped or expected, and the Liberals have been able to hang on once again despite a slight drop in support in Ontario, the country’s vote-rich service and manufacturing heartland, and thanks to more or less stable scores overall in the rest of the country outside Quebec.

Even in Quebec (where the BQ gained enormously from the anti-Liberal backlash), the Liberals have hardly collapsed, in spite of the perfect storm that raged over their heads there. The Liberals retain considerable margin for maneuver, facing again a divided opposition whose different components will support this or that government initiative.

It is tempting for a Left in disarray to see Liberal resilience as an expression of the strength of left-wing and progressive opinion, a last line of defense against hard-Right victory. It would probably be closer to the truth to say that the federal Liberals, though perhaps lacking the organized extremist fringe one finds in the Conservatives, are the capitalist party best suited to the country’s complicated conditions and Canadian capital’s place and aspirations in the world.

If Bay Street [Canada’s “Wall Street”—ed.] and the decisive southern Ontario middle-class electorate one day feel otherwise, they will turn to the Conservatives or some successor formation of theirs.

Quebec, the Weak Link?

The BQ’s strong showing signals the return of the “Quebec national question” to the center of Canadian political life, especially when one takes into account the recent mass social protests against Jean Charest’s Liberal provincial government by the trade unions, social movements and other traditionally sovereignist sectors.

Once again, news of the death of Quebec’s national aspirations has been greatly exaggerated. The result is certainly gratifying for the largely sovereignist and independentist Left in Quebec, and for those outside Quebec who stood firm in defense of Quebec’s national rights during the 1995 referendum and against the Clarity Bill in 1999-2000. [The “Clarity Bill” is federal legislation that was passed to restrict the power of any pro-independence Quebec government to define the language of a future referendum on sovereignty—ed.]

For us, it was not only an elementary question of solidarity and democratic rights, but also a vital strategic matter: no alliance against neoliberalism and its state is possible in this country without a strong commitment to establishing relations of equality and respect among the country’s dominant English-speaking nation, the subordinate Quebecois nation and the oppressed Aboriginal peoples.

This is the necessary starting point; whether this will take the form of separate states or a radical multinational overhaul of the federation is hardly of immediate importance and will be settled through common work and discussion over the long term. There should be no underestimating the huge difficulties that lie ahead of us.

Inside Quebec, despite the broadly Left-progressive profile of the BQ under the former Maoist and union organizer Gilles Duceppe, and the massive street protests against the Charest government, the sovereignty camp has yet to emerge from the neoliberal and conservative-nationalist (as opposed to progressive-sovereignist) impasse of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) governments until their defeat in 2003.

[The PQ is Quebec’s bourgeois-nationalist party, while the BQ runs as the electoral arm of this movement for Quebec seats in federal elections. The PQ includes former Conservative as well as former Liberal politicians. In the complex world of Canadian politics, Jean Charest, a one-time leader of the federal Conservatives, resigned to become the leader of the Quebec Liberals in order to fight the sovereignist PQ—ed.]

Outside Quebec, there is a marked change in tone towards the sovereignists in some Left and left-liberal circles, exemplified by Jack Layton’s initially strong restatement of his opposition to the Clarity Act. But after a decade of “one nation” nationalism in Ottawa, it will still be a long uphill battle against the accumulated forces of bad faith, political expedience and plain misunderstanding within much of English-Canadian opinion, including within the broad Left.

Still, the election result and the ongoing protest movement in Quebec give the Left new opportunities to do serious work around these difficult matters.

The Left’s Impasse

When one takes the long view, it is clear that this election settles very little for the Left. Not since the historic “Free Trade election” of 1988 have such a wide range of forces from the political and social-movement Left mobilized for an NDP campaign, including a number of young people involved in the anti-globalization and anti-war protests of recent years.

While the NDP’s results (19 seats) are an improvement over 2000, they are only marginally better than in 1997 (in the popular vote, though not in seats) and certainly not enough to signal a revival after 15 years of declining fortunes. This is surely a major disappointment.

The point here is not to rub NDP faces in these discouraging election results. (With the Marxist-Leninists scoring 0.07% of the popular vote and the Communist Party 0.03%, the independent radical Left is in no position to lecture anyone on electoral success.) But there is clearly a strong case to be made against relying so heavily on election results and parliamentary horsetrading at a time when mass movements and a strategic project for real radical change are in such dire need of rebuilding, renewal and rethinking.

For the most part, while Layton has hovered over traditional left-right tensions within the party, he has tended to be identified with the left. During the campaign, though, he gave in to sniping from within the party leadership and a corporate-media furor and backed down from his rejection of the Clarity Act and his stance in favor of a timid inheritance tax.

It was clear even before the campaign began that the NDP was angling for some kind of special relationship with, or even inside, a Liberal minority government. Yet the party made very limited gains among the left-liberal urbanites. Target and “message” this “demographic” all you want, but don’t be surprised when they run into the arms of the Liberals at the slightest hint of an invasion of reactionaries from the West.

Indeed, most NDP gains were not made among such people but in places with a longer tradition of trade-unionism and working-class politics: Hamilton, Windsor, Sault Sainte Marie, Skeena.

Even in relation to its own moderate electoralist approach, then, the federal NDP is clearly quite confounded within the new neoliberal dispensation. It is an electoralist party unable to achieve significant electoral success, let alone victory. Conceivably the party will carve out a comfortable niche within neoliberalism, as a parliamentary rump in Ottawa on the center-Right Liberals’ left flank, added to a handful of like-minded provincial and municipal governments.

By rights, a wide-ranging debate should now open up in and around the NDP. But there continues to be a near absence of grassroots activity and discussion in the party, in spite of the recent huge influx of new members. If this debate takes place at all it is just as likely to herald a further shift in the direction of electoralism, parliamentary hijinx and reliance on media and the internet.

In the face of all this, it is important to stress that Left success is ultimately more likely to flow from short-term ongoing resistance to the corporate and military agenda, combined with a strategic-organizational project aimed at breaking outright with neoliberalism.

A revival of the youth-led protest movements of recent years is central to such a project, as is their percolating back up through broader social-movement and class struggles of the kind we have recently seen in Quebec, British Columbia and Newfoundland. At some point, too, we will have to be in a position to challenge the NDP’s monopoly over the party-electoral expression of such developments.

ATC 113, November-December 2004