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Canada: Political crisis exposes national, class divisions; left debates Liberal-NDP coalition

Rally in favour of a Liberal-NDP coalition, Toronto, December 6, 2008.

By Richard Fidler

OTTAWA -– December 8, 2008 -– In a classic 19th century work, English journalist Walter Bagehot divided the constitution into two parts. The “efficient” part — the executive (cabinet) and legislative — were responsible for the business of government. The “dignified” part, the Queen, was to put a human face on the capitalist state. Bagehot noted, however, that the Queen also had “a hundred” powers called prerogatives, adding: “There is no authentic explicit information as to what the Queen can do….”[1]

On December 4 Canadians learned, many to their dismay, that those prerogatives, borrowed from England in its constitution,[2] included the power to shut down the elected parliament. Using her discretionary authority, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, the Queen’s representative, allowed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to “prorogue” or suspend the proceedings of parliament until January 26, 2009. This enabled the minority Conservative government to avoid certain defeat in the House of Commons in a vote scheduled for December 8. At the same time, the governor general rejected a formal request by opposition MPs from two parties to form a new government which, with the promised support of a third party, would have a clear majority in the House of Commons.

As one wit commented, Canada has now become a “pro-rogue state”. It is no laughing matter, however.

No recession?

The parliamentary hiatus means that Canadians enter a deepening financial and economic crisis without even the promise of early government assistance that might provide emergency relief from mounting unemployment, vanishing credit and evaporating private pensions. Employment statistics released December 5 revealed the loss of 70,600 jobs in November alone, the biggest monthly job loss since the 1982 recession.

The economic crisis is now a political crisis — and threatens to become a “national unity” crisis — as government and opposition parties fan out across the country to rally public opinion behind their respective agendas.

The crisis was touched off two and a half weeks earlier when parliament met for the first time since the October 14 general election. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented an economic statement that incredibly predicted that Canada would avoid a recession, projected a budget surplus, promised to privatise and sell off government buildings and other assets and imposed significant cuts in government spending. The government also announced it would drop pay equity measures for women in the federal public service, reduce the overall wage bill for federal government employees and ban their right to strike. And to add insult to injury, state funding of political parties was to be cut back sharply.

The Harper government had already earmarked $75 billion to take mortgages off the books of the banks and is providing tens of billions in other forms of support and liquidity to the financial industry, with few conditions.

It seemed the right-wing Tories had forgotten they were a minority. Less than two months earlier, they had been elected in only 143 seats, 12 short of a majority.

NDP beds down with Liberals

Flaherty’s statement caught the opposition off guard, as the government had been hinting for weeks that it would propose economic pump-priming measures even at the cost of a budget deficit. Normally, so soon after an election, a defeated opposition would be expected not to try to overturn the government. But to the government’s surprise, the two major opposition parties now moved to defeat the Tories in a parliamentary vote and form a coalition government to replace them.

Within days, Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion had cobbled together a deal with the New Democratic Party, Canada’s traditional social-democratic party. Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton agreed to form a joint government “built on a foundation of fiscal responsibility” to rule for at least three years. Liberals would hold the key positions of prime minister and minister of finance as well as 18 of the 24 cabinet posts, the other six going to the NDP. It began to look as if the NDP had rescued the Liberals, which only six weeks earlier had emerged from the election with its lowest voter support since confederation in 1867.

Since the Liberals, with 77 seats, and the NDP, with 37, could not muster a majority, they got the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois, which holds 49 of Quebec’s 75 seats, to pledge not to support motions of no-confidence in the government for at least 18 months. Voilà, a government with a working majority of 163 seats, to be led by outgoing Liberal leader Dion until May, when he was to be replaced by whoever won the scheduled Liberal Party leadership race.

The political content of the Liberal-NDP coalition agreement[3] was, to say the least, rather modest. It featured vague promises of increased spending on infrastructure investments, housing and aid to troubled manufacturing industries; easier eligibility for unemployment benefits; improved child benefits; pursuit of a “North American cap-and-trade market with absolute [greenhouse gas] emission targets” and unspecified “immigration reform”.

Perhaps more significant were the things it did not contain — most notably, no reference to Canada’s military intervention in Afghanistan. The NDP’s promise to end Canada’s “combat mission” in that country was one of the major planks that distinguished it from the Liberals and other parties in the recent election.

Nor was there any reference to the North American Free Trade Agreement or other trade and investment deals that the NDP had previously opposed or pledged to reform in workers’ interests. There was nothing in the agreement that would in any way mark a Canadian departure from its close alignment with US economic or foreign policy and military strategy.

Best-case scenario?

The coalition proposal struck a responsive chord, however, among many trade union and social movement activists. Online pro-coalition petitions were swiftly organised, attracting tens of thousands of signatures in support. Media talk shows and email discussion lists buzzed with favourable commentary.

Prominent left critics of neoliberalism volunteered their support. Naomi Klein, setting aside her autonomism for the moment, envisaged a “best-case scenario”: “one, you get the coalition, and two, the NDP uses this moment to really launch a national discussion about why we need PR [proportional representation]….”[4]

Socialist Register editor Leo Panitch, while expressing reservations about the anti-capitalist potential of the coalition, hailed the “courage” of the coalition proponents and saw some promise in the NDP’s role: “In Canada, as the New Democrats prepare themselves for federal office for the first time in their history, the prospect of turning banking into a public utility might be seen as laying the groundwork for the democratization of the economy that the party was originally committed to when it was founded….”[5]

Even some Marxists saw merit in the coalition. The International Socialists, in a special supplement to their newspaper Socialist Worker, opposed giving a “blank cheque” to the coalition, but said: “The key question now is what demands we make on the Liberal-NDP Coalition and how we mobilize to win them.”

There were a few lonely dissenting voices. One that attracted some controversy in left circles was that of John Riddell, a co-editor of the web journal Socialist Voice (see appendix below)[6]. Writing in Rabble, a popular web journal of “progressive” opinion, Riddell asked: “Have the advocates of coalition forgotten that it was the last Liberal government that originated most of the hated ‘Harper’ policies, including the gutting of social services, attacks on civil liberties dressed up as ‘anti-terrorism’ and Canada's disastrous war in Afghanistan?” He went on:

“The aim of progressive policy must not be to enhance the power of capitalist governments but to increase that of working people….

“The only force we can depend on is the pressure of independent popular and labour movements. In a situation of social and economic crisis, these movements can become an irresistible force.

“And here is the fatal weakness of the coalition government scheme. Locked inside a Liberal-dominated coalition, the NDP would be unable to campaign against capitalist attacks. Accepting responsibility for the anti-labour measures of such a government could rapidly discredit the NDP and end its ability to continue as the bearer of popular hopes for social change.

“At the same time, labour leaders' current pledges of unconditional support to a coalition will undermine the unions' ability to act independently in defence of workers' rights and needs.

“Tying ourselves down in this manner is particularly dangerous in the midst of an economic crisis that is unprecedented, and shifting rapidly in unpredictable ways.” [7]

This warning rang like an echo of a period — not so long ago, in fact — when there was a workers’ movement that would have no truck or trade with bourgeois parties like the Liberals. The seeming unanimity of support for the Liberal-led coalition voiced by what passes today as Canada’s “left” was a sobering reminder of just how deeply the neoliberal TINA mantra (There Is No Alternative) has penetrated popular consciousness.

Labour campaigns for coalition

Among the leading propagandists for the coalition were political commentators Murray Dobbin and prominent feminist Judy Rebick, who had long fought for closer collaboration between anti-Conservative forces and especially during the recent federal election campaign. They were overjoyed that the NDP, which had previously resisted their pleas, had now come on board.

The organisational clout behind the campaign for coalition government, however, was provided by the peak trade union body, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), and its major affiliated unions. Overnight, the CLC poured money and staff into organising mass “Coalition Yes” rallies in major cities across the country. “The Liberal-NDP Accord would get Canada working again by providing immediate money for infrastructure projects, transit, clean energy, water, housing and retrofits”, proclaimed CLC literature and websites.[8]

For weeks the CLC brass had been labouring over successive versions of a draft “Plan to Deal with the Economic Crisis”.[9] The Coalition Accord offered somewhat less than the CLC’s plan, of course, since its bottom line was what the Liberals were prepared to accept. But now, it seemed, the formation of a Liberal-led coalition held out the prospect of sufficient reforms to relieve the mounting pressure within the labour movement’s ranks for effective action by the union leadership in defence of beleaguered workers.

Few doubts were expressed in the ranks of organised labour. For example, a convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labour voted nearly unanimously on November 27 to support the formation of a coalition government.

The Quebec unions, too, were quick to sign up. The major centrals (FTQ, CSN and CSQ) issued a joint statement in support of what it called “the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition” and urged members to join the Montréal pro-coalition rally. “Let’s let the coalition, which has committed to implement a genuine plan of support to the economy, do the work”, the statement said.[10]

Impact in Quebec

The governmental crisis in Ottawa virtually eclipsed the final week of campaigning in Quebec’s general election, scheduled for December 8. The sovereigntist Parti québécois came out in support of the coalition. “We have a sovereigntist party in Ottawa [the BQ] which has acted responsibly when faced with a Harper who crushes Quebec and denies that Quebec has needs”, said PQ leader Pauline Marois, adding that the political crisis showed that Canada does not function and that it is necessary to leave it. Liberal Premier Jean Charest, in contrast, argued that the instability in Ottawa was cause to turn his minority government into a majority. The top leaders of the left sovereigntist Québec solidaire, Amir Khadir and Françoise David, issued a statement in support of the coalition. The only comment so far in the online journal Presse-toi-à-gauche, the nearest thing QS has to a media presence, has been an article by Pierre Beaudet and François Cyr along the same lines.[11]

Polls show that the coalition proposal is very popular in Quebec, which voted heavily against Harper’s Tories in October. Despite hostility in the corporate media (the pro-sovereignty Le Devoir is the only newspaper to support it), the coalition attracted little criticism even in nationalist circles, despite some grumbling about the fact that the coalition was led by Stéphane Dion, the chief architect of the Liberals’ Clarity Act of 2000 that hamstrings Quebec’s right to determine its constitutional future.

Former labour leader Gérald Larose, now chair of the Conseil de la souveraineté du Québec, a non-partisan sovereigntist umbrella group, issued a statement entitled “A sovereigntist view on a coalition”.[12] It greeted the Liberal-NDP accord:

“In four pages, Quebec recovers the billion dollars that were to be cut in equalization payments (the Flaherty cuts), the millions that were cut to cultural funding (the Verner cuts), the cuts to regional economic development agencies (the Blackburn cuts), commitments for Quebec’s forestry industry, improved benefits for the unemployed, a program for elderly workers…

“Québec’s sovereignty is a political fight. Half of this politics is at Quebec City. The other is at Ottawa. The one in Québec is key. The one in Ottawa is strategic…It is the Bloc that prevented the election of a dangerous majority Conservative government. It is the Bloc as well that allows the formation of an alternative coalition government, ensuring in the process that Quebec maximizes the achievement of a number of economic demands.”

Quebec support for the coalition was bolstered by Harper’s venomous attacks on the coalition as a capitulation to “separatists”, and Tory MPs’ characterisation of the accord as a “deal with the devil” tantamount to “treason and sedition”. Harper even challenged the legitimacy of representation by the Bloc Québécois and its voters (close to 40 per cent of Quebec voters) in Canada’s parliament. The virulence of these attacks aroused some concern among more level heads in the federalist camp, and led the editors of Canada’s leading newspaper The Globe & Mail, among others, to call for Harper’s resignation as Tory leader and prime minister: “Whether he contrives an exit from his immediate travails over the confidence vote, the Harper era appears to be approaching its end. But before that happens, there is danger Canadian unity will be harmed.”[13]

These concerns were reinforced by a surge in PQ support in the final days of the Quebec election, as “soft” nationalists rallied to the party. On election day the PQ won 51 seats with 35% of the vote, replacing the less nationalist right-wing party, the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) as the official opposition and coming within a few seats of the governing Liberals. (Another notable result was the election of Québec solidaire co-leader Amir Khadir as that party’s first member in the Québec National Assembly.)

Real change?

The coalition accord is also being attacked as “socialist”, and indeed the NDP (along with the Bloc Québécois) is widely perceived as the driving force behind it. This in part explains the enthusiasm for the coalition among many working people. They see the NDP as a fetter on the Liberals, a potential restraint on the Liberals’ predictable attempts to implement their own neoliberal program.

That is also a major reason why the corporate rulers on Toronto’s Bay Street oppose the coalition. They know the NDP poses no threat to their system, and they have had little difficulty accommodating to the provincial governments the NDP has administered from time to time. But they also understand that the NDP is the actually existing political expression of the trade union movement and thus, in that sense, it is a destabilising influence in Canada’s politics. They prefer to keep it at one remove from the corridors of power. They don’t see the need at present to call on the NDP as a direct partner in preserving their system.

Above all, however, the popular support of the coalition is a manifestation of how low expectations are among working people after close to three decades of neoliberal assault during which real wages (adjusted for inflation) have stagnated overall and even declined for many. The pro-coalition enthusiasm has expressed a real craving for some kind of change, any change, at the top in government. For many, the modest improvements in the coalition platform over Harper’s agenda are sufficient to constitute change they can believe in.

Tories fan anti-Quebec hatred

This is not Canada’s “Obama moment”, however. The pro-coalition rallies in the immediate wake of parliament’s prorogation mobilised only a few thousand in Canada’s largest cities, while counter-rallies called by Tory operatives were in some cases almost comparable in size. Public opinion surveys indicate a country deeply divided on the coalition proposal, with a majority of those outside Quebec registering opposition. Mass media opposition has no doubt played a role in this.

Some of the pro-Harper counter-rallies staged in major cities were remarkable for their overt Canadian nationalist hostility to the Québécois. Media talk shows featured rants against the coalition as an undemocratic power grab by a cabal of opportunist socialists and separatists. According to polls, support for the NDP and Liberals has declined.

The Tories are mobilising their supporters in the streets and church basements in high hopes of breaking Liberal support for the coalition. And indeed, the coalition looks quite shaky. On December 8, only four days after parliament was prorogued, Liberal leader Dion, the putative PM in the coalition arrangement, agreed under party pressure to resign as soon as the Liberals could choose a new leader.

Although one major Liberal leadership contender, Bob Rae (a former NDP premier of Ontario), began campaigning actively for it, the major contender, Michael Ignatieff, is reported to have serious reservations. Ignatieff, known internationally for his support of Washington’s foreign policy as “Empire lite”, has indicated he would be prepared to support a Harper budget that contained similar measures, but says the coalition is “the only tool that’s got us anywhere” in trying to force concessions from Harper. Call his position “Coalition lite”.

Quebec a destabilising factor

At bottom, the current political crisis is an expression of the deepening dilemma posed to the Canadian political system by the rise of Quebec nationalism and its independence movement since the 1960s.

Until the mid-1980s, the federalist strategy epitomised by Pierre Trudeau of promoting French and English official bilingualism, coupled with occasional shows of force (as in the War Measures crisis of 1970), kept the “separatist” monster at bay. However, Quebec’s alienation from the federal state increased when Trudeau moved in the wake of the 1980 referendum defeat to unilaterally impose constitutional changes featuring an amending formula that seemed to rule out a constitutional path to Quebec sovereignty, while imposing a “charter of rights” consciously designed to override popular legislation in Quebec to protect and promote French language rights.

The Conservative Party under Brian Mulroney replaced the Liberals for a period by forging a delicate coalition of “soft” Quebec nationalists with western provincial rights militants around support of “free trade” agreements with the United States. Most Quebec sovereigntists saw such agreements as a means of lessening Quebec’s dependence on the pan-Canadian market and undermining the economic influence of the Canadian state. However, pro-sovereignty sentiment mushroomed when Mulroney failed to get the other provinces’ agreement to constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Nationalist Quebec Liberals and Tories, in collaboration with the PQ, formed the Bloc Québécois in the early 1990s, and since then the BQ has taken a majority of Quebec seats in the federal parliament in six consecutive elections.

Following the extremely narrow defeat of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, the federal Liberals, back in office, moved to limit Quebec’s right to secede; Stéphane Dion was brought into the cabinet to pilot the Clarity Act through Parliament. Bloc Québécois redefined itself; no longer an intermediary at the federal level to facilitate Quebec’s accession to independence, it now saw itself as simply a promoter of Quebec’s interests within the federal regime.

Although both the Bloc Québécois and the Parti québécois continue to enjoy mass support in Quebec, the sovereigntist project itself has languished since 1995, unable to win compelling majority support for Quebec independence.

The developing economic crisis has put an additional crimp on the neoliberal “sovereignty” promoted by both parties. “Québec Inc.”, the once-vaunted flourishing of Quebec firms and economic institutions owned and managed by Francophone entrepreneurs, has likewise suffered some hard blows in the financial crisis. For example, the Caisse de dépôt et de placement, a financial behemoth that manages Quebec’s public pension funds, is in difficulty today owing to heavy exposure to the meltdown in asset-backed commercial paper investments. With the federal state and its control of banking and money serving as the lender of last resort, it is no accident that the Bloc Québécois now proposes to become a surety for a Liberal-led government in Ottawa!

However, the national question continues to simmer, fueled above all by the weight of the language issue in a Francophone province that represents almost a quarter of Canada’s total population but only 2 per cent of North America’s, as well as the constant tension with the centralising dynamics of Canadian federalism.

Seemingly banal incidents can easily rekindle expressions of Québécois national sentiment. The federal Liberals discovered this in the 2006 election when their remaining support in Quebec was decimated by disclosures of massive illegal spending in the province through a program to “sponsor” federalism. Harper’s Conservatives now seem destined for a similar fate as they vent their anger at the Bloc Québécois (and the rejection of the Conservatives by Quebec voters in the October election) in venomous attacks on the Québécois.

NDP shut out in Quebec

As for the NDP, it has historically proved incapable of relating positively to Quebec nationalism and as a result has never enjoyed mass support in Quebec. A social-democratic party, the NDP favours a strong central state as the vehicle for income redistribution and the administration of social programs. It is uncomfortable with the regional dynamics of a robust, assertive Quebec nationalism, and the party has been reluctant even to accept special status for Quebec within federal programs.

Furthermore, the NDP has from the beginning been seen by its trade union sponsors as a vehicle for potential liberal-labour regroupment that would eventually replace the Liberals as the major federal alternative to the Conservatives. This orientation is not facilitated by any sympathy for Quebec self-determination; as the “natural governing party” in Canada for most of the 20th century, the Liberals are the party of centralist federalism par excellence.

Shunned by progressives in Quebec because of its identification with the federal regime, the NDP has been unable to build a base in that province, although its identification with social democracy has led some to favour it over the BQ.[14] The NDP’s only hope for federal office in Ottawa, then, lies in forging some alliance with the Liberals. Which it is now doing. Ironically, the present configuration of parliamentary seats means that the two parties cannot make a credible case for government without a pledge of neutrality from the Bloc Québécois! The BQ, for its part, could not join such a coalition without jeopardising its role as a harbinger of Quebec independence.

The Bloc Québécois stands as Quebec’s continuing reproach to the rest of Canada for its failure to recognise the Quebec nation in reality — and not just in non-binding words, as did Harper’s motion two years ago to recognise the Québécois as a “nation within a united Canada”.

Coalition falters

It is likely that when parliament resumes as scheduled, on January 26, the Liberals will be headed by Michael Ignatieff, and the coalition as a formal power-sharing agreement will be dead, at least for the time being.

Harper will likely bring in a budget that incorporates most of the proposals in the Coalition Accord, or at least enough to win Liberal support and ensure the survival of his government. But he will no doubt try to embarrass the Liberals and their opposition allies with numerous “confidence” votes in the House of Commons. Unless the NDP or the Bloc Québécois vote with the Tories, the Liberals will be faced with a choice between voting down the government — almost certainly precipitating a general election, this time — and voting with the government or abstaining, a humiliating dilemma for the new Liberal leader. It is probably safe to predict another election in 2009.

Where does this leave the NDP — and, more importantly, the main body of its supporters in the trade unions and social movements?

The NDP clearly emerges much weakened from this episode. Just weeks ago, NDP leader Jack Layton claimed to be running to be “prime minister”, arguing that there was no fundamental difference between Liberals and Tories and that the NDP was the only party that offered real “change you can believe in”. Now that the NDP has demonstrated its willingness to cohabit in government under Liberal leadership, that claim looks pretty unconvincing. The party may even have trouble justifying a vote against a Harper budget based on the coalition proposals or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Since the NDP is the party of organised labour in English Canada, a weaker NDP lessens labour’s influence in the parliament.

In any event, Harper’s budget, whatever its content, will not address the needs of working people in the economic crisis. Labour and its allies will have to go back to the drawing boards and hammer out a coherent and effective program of action, one that is not contingent on Liberal or Tory — or, for that matter, NDP — support but goes far beyond the extremely modest proposals in the coalition accord.

Critical balance sheet needed

It is important, too, that militants press for a critical balance sheet of the coalition episode. If the coalition were to hold together, labour would be mortgaging its ability to adopt an independent agenda and actions capable of advancing workers’ interests. The discussion within the mass movements needs to get outside the straitjacket of devising a parliamentary agenda acceptable to the Liberals.

Canadian labour has not been defeated in major industrial struggles. In a series of important confrontations in recent years, militants have demonstrated their willingness and capacity to resist attacks on their living standards and organisations. In British Columbia, a number of struggles have come close to turning into general strikes: health workers (2004), teachers and Telus workers (2005), forest workers in 2004 and 2007. In Quebec, workers fighting the Charest government’s anti-labour legislation twice came to the verge of general strikes. Even the enthusiastic reception at pro-coalition rallies for speakers advocating more militant action is a promising sign of the mood in labour’s ranks.

Labour in English Canada will also have to find ways to construct a pan-Canadian alternative to the crisis that includes the Québécois. The solidarity expressed with BQ leader Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois at pro-coalition rallies may signal new openness in the labour movement to collaboration with the “separatists”. An anti-capitalist coalition between grassroots activists in the two nations could pose a real challenge to Canada’s capitalists and their governments. A coalition with one of the traditional parties of big business points in the opposite direction.

[Richard Fidler is a member of the Socialist Project in Ottawa, and a contributing editor of Socialist Voice. He also maintains the blog Life on the Left.]


[1] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (Oxford, 1961), p. 52.

[2] The Preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act) states that Canada has “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom”.

[3] “A Policy Accord to Address the Present Economic Crisis”, http://tinyurl.com/6yk4ox. See also the “Accord on a Cooperative Government”, http://tinyurl.com/6pe49t.

[4] Naomi Klein, “We Can’t Lose This Moment”, Rabble, http://www.rabble.ca/news/naomi-klein-‘we-cant-lose-moment.

[5] Leo Panitch, “From the Global Crisis to Canada’s Crisis,” The Bullet, a Socialist Project e-bulletin, No. 164, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/bullet164.html.

[7] “Coalition? Let's not give away the store”, http://www.rabble.ca/news/coalition-lets-not-give-away-store.

[9] Successive versions have appeared on the web. Here is one of the more recent ones: http://www.progressive-economics.ca/2008/10/27/clc-response-the-full-version/.

[10] “La FTQ, la CSN et la CSQ invitent la population à appuyer la coalition afin de faire face à la crise”, http://ftq.qc.ca/modules/nouvelles/nouvelle.php?id=1810&langue=fr.

[11] “Dehors les voyous”, http://www.pressegauche.org/spip.php?article3043. An English version by Beaudet was published in Rabble, at http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/pierre-beaudet/throw-bums-out.

[13] “Fanning anger toward Quebec”, December 4, 2008, http://tinyurl.com/5oj3r9.

[14] See “Election 2008 — the Quebec left’s challenge to socialists in the Rest of Canada”, Socialist Voice, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=340.

Appendix: Coalition government? Let’s not give away the store

By John Riddell

December 1, 2008 -- Socialist Voice -- The Harper government’s economic proposals, announced November 27, aroused a cry of outrage from unions and social activists across the country: “Throw the bums out.”

The Conservative plan for cutbacks, combined with and attacks on the rights of unions and women, showed clearly, as CLC President Ken Georgetti said, that the Conservative government aims “to make working people pay for a crisis they did not create.”

Efforts by the Liberals and NDP to forge an alternative government have won wide of support in progressive circles, where many see a coalition as the only way to bring the hated government down.

Leaders of four major national unions and three influential progressive advocacy groups joined November 28 in an appeal to the Liberals and NDP to join in pursuing this goal, since “only a coalition government can provide the leadership Canada needs.” )

These calls all assume that the coalition would be Liberal-led – and none of them has raised any programmatic agenda for such a government.

Is the prospect of a Liberal-led government really so appealing as to deserve a blank cheque? Have the advocates of coalition forgotten that it was the last Liberal government that originated most of the hated “Harper” policies, including the gutting of social services, attacks on civil liberties dressed up as “anti-terrorism” and Canada’s disastrous war in Afghanistan?

From all reports, the NDP is not calling for changes in those policies in its negotiations with the Liberals. The Globe and Mail noted November 29 that “a senior NDP official said that no policy issues are considered deal-breakers.”

The Liberals say they favour “an economic stimulus package,” but its content is unknown. Certainly the Liberals will give government a much bigger role in managing the economy. Every major capitalist government is doing that - and Harper will do it too, once he gets his signals straight.

As Margaret Thatcher might say, “There Is No Alternative.” Neo-liberalism is in shambles; the economies are in utter crisis; government intervention is capitalism’s only hope.

But there is no assurance that increased government spending will be associated with social reform – massive deficits were the hallmarks not only of Roosevelt, but also of Reagan and Bush. A Liberal “stimulus” package is most likely to combine massive handouts to big business with attacks on workers’ wages and pensions.

The aim of progressive policy must not be to enhance the power of capitalist governments but to increase that of working people. We cannot expect Stephane, Iggy and Bob to do any such thing, even if the NDP has a few Cabinet posts.

The only force we can depend on is the pressure of independent popular and labour movements. In a situation of social and economic crisis, these movements can become an irresistible force.

And here is the fatal weakness of the coalition government scheme. Locked inside a Liberal-dominated coalition, the NDP would be unable to campaign against capitalist attacks. Accepting responsibility for the anti-labour measures of such a government could rapidly discredit the NDP and end its ability to continue as the bearer of popular hopes for social change.

At the same time, labour leaders’ current pledges of unconditional support to a coalition will undermine the unions’ ability to act independently in defence of workers’ rights and needs.

Tying ourselves down in this manner is particularly dangerous in the midst of an economic crisis that is unprecedented, and shifting rapidly in unpredictable ways.

Here the Bloc Québécois sets a positive example: whatever parliamentary manoeuvres they wisely or unwisely engage in, they are determined not to enter a Liberal-led government.

The best way to resist big business attacks and win immediate and specific gains is to stick to the path of independence from big business and its parties, and rely on the potential of popular movements.

On such a course, and in present conditions, it is by no means excluded that we could prepare the ground for a Venezuelan-type outcome: a sweeping shift in power relationships in favour of working people, the poor and the oppressed, and their organizations.

To move forward in this time of crisis, we must avoid falling into the deadly embrace of our enemies. As Muhammed Ali said, to be free to fight, you need to float like a butterfly – and sting like a bee.

[John Riddell is co-editor of Socialist Voice. This article first appeared in rabble.ca]

 

Comments

Defeat Harper Tories! Accord, Yes. But No NDP coalition with

By Barry Weisleder

The parliamentary crisis, provoked by Stephen Harper's sheer arrogance and his utterly reactionary policies, plunged Canada into a political crisis – which was prolonged by the suspension of Parliament.  (For the background on how this mess occurred, please see the box below.) 

The Conservatives richly deserve defeat.  But one way of defeating Harper threatens to destroy the federal New Democratic Party as an independent political arm of the working class and its organizations.  Generations of gains are at risk.

Should the NDP vote against the Conservative budget on January 27?         Yes.

Should the NDP propose to the Liberals an accord to implement specific initiatives, to be enacted by a Liberal minority government – kept on a short, tight leash?  Yes, it’s worth a try.

Should the NDP enter a coalition government with the Liberal Party?  No, never.

Coalition with a bosses' party (remember, the Liberals have been the main party of capitalist class rule in Canada for the past 100 years) would be a bizarre and historic reversal of the positive direction taken by the latest NDP federal campaign, which explicitly fought for an NDP government.

Coalition with the Liberals, the wet dream of 'strategic voting' advocates, would spell the demise of the NDP as a political force which is accountable, to any degree, to the most conscious section of working class voters.  In a coalition government, the NDP would be bound by ‘cabinet solidarity’ to defend all government policies (including the war in Afghanistan, regressive taxes, inaction on the environment, etc.), not just the policies it may prefer.                              

That amounts to NDP subordination to the corporate establishment, on the road to merger with the Liberals.  It would be an historic regression to the dismal, cap-in-hand days of Lib-Lab local alliances that pre-dated the NDP and the CCF.  It would quicken the unravelling of medicare, public education, environmental safeguards, labour rights, civil liberties and consumer protection.

But some may ask:  Why shouldn't the NDP try to get credit for whatever good might be achieved by a coalition government with the Liberals?  Is there really any difference between an 'accord' and a 'coalition government'?

Well, we can all see the bait. But we really need to see the trap, and its potential victims.  In a coalition, the parties involved are responsible for the entire agenda of the government.  Not only must the partner parties vote for all the legislation the government presents.  They must advocate it, promote it, sell it, defend it against critics (like unions and social movements) and they will be held accountable for it forever.

An accord, on the other hand, keeps a minority capitalist government on a short lease. The labour-based NDP could support the elements of the agreement that are fulfilled, and could speak and vote against anything arising outside the accord that is adverse to the interests of working people.  The government stays in office only so long as it fulfills the accord.  The NDP and Labour thus retain complete autonomy.

The operating principle of a coalition government, ‘cabinet solidarity’, would silence the critics of the regime inside the NDP parliamentary caucus and beyond.  It would encourage NDP MPs to try to keep the party ranks quiet and in the dark, to limit criticism of the government for which the NDP would tragically be responsible. 

Let’s face it, even an accord is dangerous.  Remember what happened to the NDP after David Lewis' accord with Pierre Trudeau; a major loss of votes and seats.  It is essential to keep a distance from the treacherous Liberal machine.  Credit for PetroCanada, affordable housing and pension indexing was O.K.  But for other things that came later, like wage controls, massive social cuts and giant tax gifts to big corporations, not so much.

Layton and company may see a coalition as a career opportunity. Socialists see it as a trap to be avoided. The trap can be avoided via an accord.  An accord averts the taint of direct class collaboration in a capitalist government coalition, and it affords grass roots NDP and union members more say as the process unfolds.  It worked in Ontario in the mid-1980s.  Now, it’s true, the stakes are higher, so it will be more difficult.  But it is worth a try.  The question is:  where to start?

First of all, now is the time to get behind the NDP Socialist Caucus – to do our utmost to oppose coalition with the Liberals, and work to strengthen the NDP’s independence.  The clearest expression of that independence would be the fight for a Workers' Agenda, with public ownership under workers' control at the centre of it. The answer to the global capitalist crisis is not a labour love-in with the parties responsible for it. The answer is socialism.

Work to defeat the Conservatives by all available means -- by a non-confidence vote in the Commons, a cross-country general strike, whatever it takes.  Oppose all chauvinist appeals to Canadian nationalism and against Quebec self-determination.

Negotiate a time-limited and specific agenda to meet the immediate needs of working people.  Then hold a new minority government to it. 

Here’s the agenda we really need:

Put people before profits.

Nationalize the banks.

Create jobs through public investment, public ownership, democratic planning and workers’ control.

Convert industry, transportation, and homes to green, energy efficiency.

Repair disintegrating roads, bridges, railways and port facilities.

Make E.I. more generous and more accessible.

Raise the minimum wage to $16/hour, indexed to the cost of living.

Shorten the work week to 35 hours without loss of pay or benefits.

Abolish student debt.

Make post-secondary education free.

Protect pensions.

Fund health care and the arts.

No corporate bail-out.  Open the books.

Get public equity for every dollar of public investment, and exercise democratic control.

Tax the corporations, the speculators, and the rich.

Abolish the GST.

End the occupation of Afghanistan and Haiti.

Reduce the military to a disaster relief, search and rescue force.

Get Canada out of NATO now!

But no coalition with the Liberal Party, nor with any capitalist party. 

Not now.  Not ever.

Genesis of a crisis

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the G20 countries he favours an economic stimulus plan, even if it takes a deficit to do it.  But on November 27 his Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, presented to Parliament a fiscal update full of cuts to achieve a balanced budget.  Flaherty proposed to cut programme spending by $2 billion next year, to sell $2.3 billion worth of public assets, and to squeeze $600 million out of public service wages by suspending the right to strike for federal workers.  He also pledged to stop pay equity settlement payments to women, announced he would cut by $2.4 billion transfer payments to poorer provinces, and said he would scrap public subsidies to political parties based on the number of votes they get.

Needless to say, none of these measures would create or protect one job, or sustain one pension, or help one jobless or homeless person, as the country descends into economic quick sand.

The opposition Liberal Party, New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois announced that they would vote to bring down the Conservative minority government.

Staring defeat in the face, the Tories postponed the vote on their fiscal report from December 1 to December 8.  In a vain attempt to stop the uproar, the Tories dropped their plan to cut party subsidies and ban strikes.  Flaherty promised a new budget for January 27 to include new spending.

On December 3, Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton announced the formation of a coalition based on an economic stimulus package (though no dollar figures were indicated), and an allocation of cabinet seats (18 to go to the Liberals, plus the PM, and 6 to the NDP).  BQ leader Gilles Duceppe agreed to support the coalition for 18 months.

To avoid defeat in the House on December 8, Harper asked Governor General Michaelle Jean to “prorogue” Parliament, that is, to suspend it until January 26.  The GG granted the rare and controversial request, just seven weeks following the latest federal election.  This buys time for the Tories. 

However, Liberal MPs, in the midst of a divisive leadership race to replace the ineffective Dion, already appear to be bolting from the coalition.  Ironically, Harper may have saved Jack Layton and the NDP brass from self-amputation by suspending Parliament and exploiting Liberal internal contradictions.

But Harper’s vicious attack on “separatists”, implying that the 1.3 million Quebecois who voted for the BQ are traitors and devils, has unleashed the dogs of racist chauvinism.  While Harper’s demagogy has hurt the Conservatives in Quebec, it also undermines solidarity and working class independence across the rest of the Canadian state.  The road ahead will be rocky indeed – but passable.  Socialists, democrats and progressives should press the NDP and Labour to fight for a programme wrapped in the workers’ flag, not the maple leaf.

Depressing conditions – before the Depression

The current market tailspin was preceded by a so-called ‘boom’ in which workers’ wages actually stagnated or declined, and social benefits shrank.  Studies and statistics about that period are now appearing.  They make it look more like a ‘bust’ than a ‘boom’ time.  And they cast frightening shadows across the future, so far as the vast majority is concerned.  Here is what we are learning about the early years of the new millennium.

*       The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued a report, “Growing Unequal?”, that says Canada’s growing inequality and entrenched poverty rates are now higher than any other OECD country, except Germany.  The OECD noted that Canada spends less than most countries on cash transfers such as unemployment and family benefits.

*       Canadians are in debt as seldom before.  In 1984, at the peak of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, Canadian households held 70 cents of debt for every dollar of income.  Today, households owe $1.27 for every dollar they bring home.  A new Environics poll shows four in 10 Canadians say they are one or two pay cheques away from being poor.

*       The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto sees child poverty rising at an alarming rate across Toronto’s suburbs.  In areas such as Mississauga, Markham, Richmond Hill and Oakville, child poverty rates have soared since 1990, coming close to levels formerly known only in downtown Toronto, says the report, based on data from 2006.

*       While Toronto’s child poverty rate (before taxes) is the highest at 32 per cent, up from 24 per cent in 1990, the suburbs have seen more dramatic increases.

*       Toronto Public Health’s “The Unequal City”, found a clear link between poverty and poor health.  It reported that the top 20 per cent of male earners live 4.5 years longer than the bottom 20 per cent; females live 2.0 years longer.

*       The results are consistent with findings in other jurisdictions.  In fact, a landmark report by the Saskatoon Health Region in late November found a huge health gap between the poor and the rich in that Saskatchewan city.

*       More recently, a team of economists, bankers and food bank directors released a study about the cost of poverty which shows that poverty hurts both the health of those caught in its grip and hits the wallets of almost everyone in society.  The study found that Canadians could save $7.6 billion per year in health-care expenditures by elevating the health status of the bottom 20 per cent to that of the next-to-bottom 20 per cent on the income ladder.

The inescapable conclusion of both reports is that to improve overall health and reduce health costs, start by reducing poverty.  Unfortunately, that’s something that doesn’t happen in a recession or a depression.

*       Incidentally, the poorest areas also tend to be the most polluted. PollutionWatch, after a two-year research project, found that many of Toronto’s poorest residents live near industries that spew the highest levels of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air.  The study discovered high pollutants in 17 neighbourhoods, from South Riverdale, to West Hill in the east, to York University Heights in the north and Alderwood in the southwest.  Air pollution contributes to almost 9,500 premature deaths each year in Ontario.

*       Speaking of food banks, across Canada over 700,000 people use them in an average month, says a federal charity called Food Banks Canada.  It found that 14.5 per cent of the users are considered “working poor”, up from 12 per cent in 2002.

There has been a 13 per cent jump since last Fall in the number of Ontario residents seeking food aid, according to a report on December 2 by the Ontario Association of Food Banks.  The increase in usage is particularly high in depressed auto, mining and forest industry centres, like Sudbury (up 34.4%), Thunder Bay (28.5%), St. Catharines (23.9%), Oshawa (15.3%) and Windsor (10%). 

If the trend continues, next year about 350,000 Ontarians will be lining up at food banks each month to get the basics they can’t afford to buy.  And as things get worse, it affects donors too.  Gail Nyberg, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, said food and financial donations are down 15 per cent this year.


And this is only a glimpse of what’s to come.

Canadian employers slashed nearly 71,000 jobs in November, the worst single month drop in 26 years.  600,000 more jobs are expected to disappear.  According to BMO Capital Markets economist Doug Porter, unemployment will rise to 7.5 per cent by the end of 2009.  Is Porter even counting those who’ve totally given up looking for work, and the chronically under-employed?  Ten years of ‘economic boom’ delivered a 59 per cent increase in temporary and contract jobs.  Almost four in ten jobs are now impermanent and part-time forms of work

For all of this we have capitalism to thank – in ‘good times’, and current times.  As for the future, don’t we deserve something a heck of a lot better than this?

Omissions in article on Canadian Liberal-NDP coalition debate

Richard Fidler's survey of the radical left in English Canada, which records the
ambiguities of the I.S., is rather incomplete. He neglects to mention that the
Communist Party enthusiastically favours the ill-fated Liberal-NDP parliamentary
coalition supported by the Bloc Quebecois. Richard omits reference to the
Socialist Project, to which he and SV co-writer John Riddell belong. The SP has
taken no collective political position on the coalition question. Likewise, the
New Socialist Group has abstained from taking a political stand for or against
the bourgeois coalition.
Finally, Richard has overlooked, or has just not seen fit to report, that
Socialist Action, which plays a leading role in the cross-country NDP Socialist
Caucus, is campaigning publicly against the coalition. SA counterposes a
defense of the NDP's organizational independence from the parties of Capital,
and a principled, time-limited, concrete 'accord' as the price for permitting a
minority government to hold office.
Two other groups that have spoken out against the coalition are Fightback and
the Socialist Equality Party. And there may be others.
Those interested in fostering unity in action for a Workers' Agenda, in the
present circumstances of economic crisis and bourgeois government instability,
may wish to look for potential points of agreement amongst the existing forces
of the left, particularly those who intervene in the existing workers' movement.

In solidarity,

Barry

Comments and discussion on Richard Fidler's Canada article

Doug Nesbitt on 10 Dec 2008 at 9:19 am #

It is not true that the IS finds merit in the coalition. There is no praise of the coalition in the Socialist Worker supplement or the articles published by Paul Kellogg on rabble and SV. Quite the opposite.

In short, the IS supports ousting Harper but argues that the only way we will any demands in the here and now is a mass movement advancing its own demands independently of any coalition government. This is made quite clear in the last sections of the SW supplement.

Richard Fidler on 10 Dec 2008 at 10:16 am #

Doug, I see no statement in the SW supplement that the Coalition is a step backwards for workers. When you oppose a “blank cheque” for the Coalition, the question is left hanging, What additions would you propose to make the Coalition acceptable? And that is exactly what SW says: “… the key question now is what demands we make on the Liberal-NDP Coalition, and how we mobilize to win them.” How does that answer Ignatieff’s “Coalition if necessary but not necessarily a coalition”, let alone Layton’s promises of all the fine things the Coalition will bring if we just stick together and fight?

The whole tone of the SW supplement is to greet the appearance of the Coalition. Harper’s government, we are told, is “on the brink of collapse”. (But which party came near to collapse, by the way?) “The Tories are in complete panic.” Really? They seem to have managed the crisis quite well, thanks in part to the Governor General (appointed by the Liberals, BTW). And there’s more….

“The crisis shows that we don’t have to wait for elections to change governments. And it shows that workers have a central role to play in fighting back against the concessions and attacks….” What central role, in fact what role period, did the workers play in all this, other than to be rallied as cheer-leaders by the union bureaucracy in support of the coalition with the Liberals? And how big, how representative of the working class, were those rallies? SW says it was “a huge surge of support” for the Coalition. “From coast to coast, people are rallying around the call to support such a coalition government.”

Well, it may have looked like that for a brief moment, especially if our eyes were glued to our email lists and computer screens. But I think we need to acknowledge, if only in retrospect, that such statements exaggerate the real scope of the enthusiasm. And I suspect that many of those who were responsive to the Coalition may be doing some rethinking about the wisdom of that strategy in light of subsequent events.

I look forward to debating you on this at your Thursday IS meeting.

In solidarity,
Richard

Barry Weisleder on 11 Dec 2008 at 4:20 am #

Richard Fidler’s survey of the radical left in English Canada, which records the ambiguities of the I.S., is rather incomplete. He neglects to mention that the Communist Party enthusiastically favours the ill-fated Liberal-NDP parliamentary coalition supported by the Bloc Quebecois. Richard omits reference to the Socialist Project, to which he and SV co-writer John Riddell belong. The SP has taken no collective political position on the coalition question. Likewise, the New Socialist Group has abstained from taking a political stand for or against the bourgeois coalition.

Finally, Richard has overlooked, or has just not seen fit to report, that Socialist Action, which plays a leading role in the cross-country NDP Socialist Caucus, is campaigning publicly against the coalition. SA counterposes a defense of the NDP’s organizational independence from the parties of Capital, and a principled, time-limited, concrete ‘accord’ as the price for permitting a minority government to hold office.

Two other groups that have spoken out against the coalition are Fightback and the Socialist Equality Party. And there may be others.

Those interested in fostering unity in action for a Workers’ Agenda, in the present circumstances of economic crisis and bourgeois government instability, may wish to look for potential points of agreement amongst the existing forces of the left, particularly those who intervene in the actually existing workers’ movement.

But it is hard to imagine building any kind of substantial “anticapitalist coalition between grassroots activists in the two nations”, as Richard rightly proposes, without challenging NDP and Labour officials, and appealing directly to the NDP’s 100,000+ members, inside the party.

In solidarity,
Barry

Paul Kellogg on 11 Dec 2008 at 6:00 am #

Socialists need to learn that the key arena is activity, and the key to theory is how it plays out in the movements. There is a difference between a programmatic position (opposition to the coalition because it is a cross-class alliance — and of course the I.S. opposes the coalition on this basis — this is rather elementary) and the shaping of slogans to intervene into struggle. In this regard, the key issue is the war, and the key anti-war group is the Canadian Peace Alliance. The Canadian Peace Alliance took a wonderful position on the coalition, marching into the anti-Harper rally with the chant “Harper out of Ottawa, Canada out of Afghanistan”. The navigation of the discussion at the CPA towards this excellent conclusion was conducted by many fine activists and anti-war leaders, some of whom are in the the I.S.

The proof of all puddings is in the eating. To date the meal that has been served around this debate, is in the anti-war movement. To date, the anti-war movement has not only passed the test — the anti-war movement is showing the left how to respond to this crisis. For everyone’s information, the CPA voted to make ending the war in Afghanistan one of its two key planks for the next two years (the other being War Resisters), regardless of who is in office. The next mobilization will be in early April to coincide with the call for demonstrations on the 60th anniversary of the creation of NATO. The key test for all socialists will be putting their shoulders to the wheel of the movement, and making these demos as big as possible. I look forward to everyone’s enthusiastic and active participation in their local anti-war groups.

Richard Fidler on 11 Dec 2008 at 7:06 am #

I welcome Paul Kellogg’s statement that the IS “opposes the coalition”. Paul says this is “elementary”, but if so (and I agree) why did the IS comrades not make that point and then explain why and how they opposed the coalition? I look forward to future articles in SW that do this.

Barry Weisleder posted his comment above to an email discussion list and I have responded there with a couple of posts. In the first, I explained in part:

“I was not attempting to ’survey’ the radical left in that article. In that part of what was admittedly an awfully long article, I was deliberately citing a few sources to indicate a range of opinion on the coalition, not to comprehensively document all opinions.”

In my second post in response to Barry, I wrote, again in part:

Barry raises a good question. Narrowly put, I would phrase it this way, on this list: If you are in the NDP, what do you say to NDP members and supporters about the coalition tactic? Barry, his group Socialist Action, and the Socialist Caucus (and possibly others) say, it is wrong to participate in government with a capitalist party such as the Liberals. But it is not wrong for the NDP to lay out an agenda for action and to say that to the degree that the government (any government) acts to implement that agenda this party will not, at this point, vote to defeat it. That is normally what the NDP should do in Parliament, and if it chooses to put a clear working-class agenda in writing and sign to that effect — an Accord, if you wish — that is not only principled but could be an effective way of projecting an independent course for working people in this crisis.

I think Barry is right on this point. …

The parliamentary crisis gave the NDP an excellent opportunity to stake out an independent position, rather than opportunistically make a grab to join the ministerial ranks. (It was precisely the blatant opportunism in Layton’s manoeuvre that played a role in mobilizing opposition to the coalition among many working people, I suspect.) The NDP could have told the Liberals and the Bloc: We won’t enter a government. We want to replace you. But we are not strong enough to do so at this point. And an immediate election will not likely produce a radical change in the present configuration of forces. But here is our proposed legislative program for the crisis, based on consultations with our supporters in the unions and social movements. (Then some key demands, including of course immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, massive social infrastructure spending, etc.) If you act now on those lines we will not vote to defeat your government and precipitate an election at this time. On the other hand, if you do not do this, or you legislate against the interests of the workers, we will not hesitate to vote against you.

Like Barry, I start with the understanding that the NDP is part of the workers movement. Yes, a bourgeois party in its overall program. But a bourgeois party of a special type that operates primarily in the workers movement as a political expression of the trade unions in English Canada. Keep in mind that the program of the unions, as they exist today, is itself “bourgeois”, not anticapitalist.

For us, the line of principle should not be whether or not to belong to the NDP, or whether or not to place demands on the NDP. The principled question in this instance is, For or against the coalition with the Liberals? Within the anti-coalition camp, there is every reason to try to formulate an appropriate tactical line of march for the NDP, as Barry and a few others are attempting to do.

This is not only a tactic for use within the NDP, moreover. It is a tactic addressed to the working class and its social movement allies more generally. The unions, for example, need to be challenged to formulate an action program and place those demands on the NDP, fight for them within the NDP.

The debate in the left provoked by the parliamentary crisis has highlighted a major problem for many of us, and I realize that I have been affected by it too. Some of us have been attempting to “regroup the left” for some years now. Socialist Project in Ontario is a part of that process. But we have, consciously or unconsciously, made NDP membership or support in itself a question of principle, excluding it from consideration in elaborating socialist strategy. This is a huge error.

And to some degree it lies at the root of the “regrouping the left” movement. A seminal document was Sam Gindin’s essay in 2000, “The Party’s Over”. Sam called for building “a structured movement” to build an anticapitalist alternative, and most of the subsequent discussion centered on that proposal. But it is often forgotten that the first half of Sam’s article was an attempt to prove that the NDP was no longer a workers party and was fundamentally irrelevant to socialist strategy. At the time Sam was on the CAW staff, and it did not escape some of us that his political line was not inconsistent with the right-wing direction the CAW was beginning to take at that time around such issues as “strategic voting” for Liberals, etc. Since then of course Sam, now retired from the CAW, has been a strong critic of the CAW’s slide to the right.

It is no accident that [in some circles] the recent debate on the coalition has focused on how one characterizes the NDP, and the fault-lines in the debate are basically between those who consider the NDP to be a relevant factor in labour politics and those who don’t. And it is revealing to see how those who dismiss the NDP can easily fall into the trap of thinking the coalition is of no importance, and that somehow an independent course of action by labour can be staked out without confronting the issue of the coalition.

Other groups too are not immune to this problematic. It seems to me that the problem is also reflected in the IS comrades’ emphasis on “bottom-up fight-back” while ignoring how that fight-back is expressed in and around the NDP itself. Inside the NDP, you cannot ignore the question of principle posed by the coalition tactic. The IS sidesteps it because it is not in the NDP — or, if some of its members are in the NDP, they are silent on the coalition or indirectly supporting it by simply placing “demands” on it while not challenging its existence.

Hans M on 11 Dec 2008 at 10:09 am #

A propos regroupment, it’s a step forward to see Richard and Barry agree on the formulation: Accord Yes - Coalition No. That constitutes an agreement on principle–in my opinion, anyway. Hallelujiah.

Now, that Rae has tossed the towel, the coalition seems moribund, and Broadbent’s “Happy Days” moment was short lived indeed. The evolution of Bob Rae is indeed the best illustration of the fallacy and pitfalls of the coalition road. Layton who sat on the fence in the social contract crisis obviously has not learned that lesson.

But Bay Sreet doesn’t trust the agile svengali of class collaborationism. Perhaps they are saving him for another day? Shudder to think of the scenario: Bob Rae PM cum Layton as Labour Minister!

PS: I’m intrigued by RF’s formulation of the NDP as a “bourgeois party of a special type” Did I get that right, and if so why not include the BQ in that category, or the SPD, PSF etc?

David Camfield on 12 Dec 2008 at 4:55 pm #

I’d like to comment on one issue raised by the analysis in Richard’s article (with which I generally agree).

Richard wrote “the popular support of the coalition is a manifestation of how low expectations are among working people after close to three decades of neoliberal assault during which real wages (adjusted for inflation) have stagnated overall and even declined for many.” This is certainly true, and we could add greater insecurity, lower coverage for benefits and pensions, longer hours of paid and unpaid work, the intensification of work, greater employer power over workers in the workplace, less access to EI, workfare and more to a list of what the employers’ offensive of the last three decades has wrought.

Richard also argues that “Canadian labour has not been defeated in major industrial struggles. In a series of important confrontations in recent years, militants have demonstrated their willingness and capacity to resist attacks on their living standards and organizations.” Both claims are true, but to leave it there fails to take into account the overall impact of the neoliberal assault. The overall picture is that the level of union struggle in the last few years has been extremely low, despite the fact that official unemployment had fallen.

The percentage of estimated working time “lost” to strikes is in some ways the most useful measure of the scale of workplace struggle:

Jan-June 2008: 0.02
2007: 0.05
2006: 0.02

Although the historical data are less than fully reliable and comparable, if we use it we find that 2006-2008 have seen the lowest percentage of work time “lost” to strikes since the period 1938-1942 — a level similar to the period 1926-1932. Obviously 2006-2008 is quite different, in many respects (the economic situation is not as bad as the years after 1929, the percentage of workers covered by collective agreements is much higher than it was 80 years ago, the working-class movement is enormously different, etc.).

But it is significant that strikes sank to such a low level across the Canadian state _before_ the economic crisis broke, when unemployment was generally lower (although some sectors — such as manufacturing workers — were beginning to be hit). The low level of strike action is definitely not the whole picture, but it does tell us something about the cumulative impact of the neoliberal assault on the labour movement. This is one reason why my sense of “the mood in labour’s ranks” is different than what Richard briefly implies.

With not only lowered expectations but also little collective action happening in the workplace or on the streets, it’s little wonder that so many people responded positively to the Liberal-NDP coalition call (and that so far there has been so little push for extra-parliamentary mobilization by unions and community groups in response to the economic crisis). We need to recognize this as we do whatever we can to push for the “critical balance-sheet of the coalition episode” that Richard rightly calls for, as part of beginning to build an entirely different kind of response to the crisis.

***********************

In the comments below, Ernie Tate makes some important points
about the left's response to the Liberal-NDP coalition. Ernie's
post was private correspondence, which he has allowed me to
forward to this list. Edited slightly to remove references to
individual correspondents. -- Richard


I think this is a move to the right by the CLC leadership and the
NDP, and results from the impasse these organizations feel
themselves to be in due to the present economic crises in the
context of no fight-back in the ranks and a changing of the class
relationships in favour of the bosses.

The first response to the crises by many workers is to duck and
look around to see what's happening. The NDP I think have been
locked into a narrow band of popular support since the beginning
of the decade -- evident at the time of the NPI -- and Layton has
not been able to break out of it, and being the pot-hole fixing
politician that's in his DNA, he's always looking for some kind of
political combination to make a break-through. From the record,
it's obvious, he's been working on some deal with the Liberals for
some time and of course all those "on the left" who were deeply
into "lesser evil politics" are ecstatic. The CLC leadership, who
seem to have been holed up in a cave somewhere, and whose
statements on the crises have been totally Keynesian without an
ounce of class struggle in them, suddenly have a "project", the
Coalition, to point to, which will safely keep any pressure away
from them and is safely within the confines of support for the
Lib-Labour coalition. It will be a way to keep people off the
streets, if it works out.

We have to allow time for the discussion in the labour movement
about this. I'm hoping there may be some voices which will be
raised against the deal and some union leader may speak against
it. We should keep our ears open for this, and give them whatever
support we can. It may be severely weakened now, but there's a
long tradition of independent labour political action in Canada,
and it's hard to believe it can be extinguished so easily. We'll
see what happens in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, if
Layton continues with his current trajectory, he'll soon be in
discussion with Liberal operatives about not contesting each
other's seats. This would immensely suit the Liberals -- and the
ruling class generally - because it would remove one of the
historic obstacles which makes it difficult to get a majority and
get us to a two party system such as exists in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the way some on the Canadian left have been dealing
with the issue of the Coalition, is to start with tactics first,
e.g., "we cannot isolate ourselves", "everyone is supporting
this", "people see some kind of hope in this after being down for
so long", (I've heard them all!), then derive a some kind of
position, when the essential thing for Marxists is to state our
principled class analysis first and then work out, in the
circumstances, how to explain it to others on the left and working
people generally. The former method leads to all kinds of
problems, as we have so quickly seen.

But there may be an upside to all this: ironically enough, we may
be approaching a situation where some space may be created on the
left for some kind of electoral combination of the anti-capitalist
left to challenge such an arrangement and to try and give some
kind of representation to the workers, such as exists in Europe.
But it's hard to get to there from here if you start out
supporting the Coalition and have placed your socialist hopes in
it being a solution to the present economic crises.

Best regards,

Ernie

***************************

Canada: 1970s Liberal-NDP maneuver

*SOCIALIST HISTORY PROJECT**
Documenting the Revolutionary Socialist Tradition in Canada*

*WHAT'S NEW* at www.socialisthistory.ca December 28, 2008
*THE 'CORRIDOR COALITION' AND THE 1974 ELECTION*

The New Democratic Party's recent proposal to form a coalition government
with the Liberal Party has provoked wide debate in the left across Canada,
responses ranging from enthusiastic support, to neutrality, to strong
opposition. Surprisingly, there has been little discussion of a similar
parliamentary maneuver in the 1970s, when NDP support kept a Liberal
minority in government in power for 20 months.

We have posted two 1974 articles that illustrate how socialists evaluated
that experience.

*WHERE NDP LEADERS WENT WRONG IN PARLIAMENT -* Ray Warden on the real results of the "corridor coalition" and what it showed about the NDP
leadership.

*WHY LIBERALS WON IN CANADIAN ELECTION* - Richard Fidler on why the NDP lost badly in 1974 election after the Liberal government fell. Includes a summary
of the electoral results of various far-left currents.

The easiest way to find new material at the Socialist History Project is to
go to www.socialisthistory.ca. Recent additions are listed there.

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