By Tracy MacMaster
Recently the Toronto Sun published an op-ed piece naming Thomas Mulcair the “best bet” for NDP leader, lauding him for his lack of “nutty far-left ideas”. The NDP’s swing to the right in the 2015 federal election under Mulcair arguably cost the party front-runner status and 60 seats. So it is no surprise that the Sun named Mulcair as their guy. The real surprise is the recent endorsement of Mulcair from the leaders of large public and private sector unions, including CUPE, Unifor, NUPGE, USW, and UFCW. How do the editors of The Toronto Sun and the leaders of our national unions end up endorsing the same NDP leader?
On top of that the Hassan Yussuff President of the CLC, the labour central representing all those unions, just came out publicly against Mulcair staying on as leader. Yussuff noted Mulcair must be held responsible for the Liberals outflanking them with more progressive policies. So stay tuned for the fireworks from the NDP convention in Edmonton this weekend.
The NDP’s to lose: the 2015 campaign
As late as August 2015, many saw the election as the NDP’s to lose. Contrasted with the Conservative Party’s attacks on nearly everything, from the long form census to climate scientists, the NDP’s call for a $15 minimum federal wage and a national childcare program looked progressive. Traditionally left and labour friendly policies were absent, with little talk of demilitarization or universal social programs, but much of the platform was based in concrete social good. Mulcair’s personal approval rating was high, especially in Quebec. An NDP government seemed possible.
In the middle of the unusually long campaign, the NDP abandoned their traditional ground of expanded social programs to focus on balanced budgets. Talk of infrastructure spending and building the economy through deficits was left to the Liberals. When faced with pressure, the NDP swung to the right, and Canadians answered with a strong Liberal majority.
Turning right/turning left
To blame this narrative entirely on Mulcair, as Yussuff does, is misleading. Too frequently in recent provincial elections we have seen the NDP swing right to lose. Recent elections in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Ontario have all demonstrated the failure of this strategy. The current leadership is a symptom of a greater problem that the NDP and Labour seem unwilling to acknowledge – people want and deserve better than the current status quo. Winning on a right wing agenda is a failure to win anything at all.
Movements are developing all over the world reflecting people’s demands for more – decent jobs, better access to health, housing, clean air, an end to police violence and economic justice. The election of socialist Jeremy Corbyn to the British Labour Party, and the excitement over Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination illustrate a strong desire for change, and give us the nod that a more progressive politics is possible. More importantly, workers organizing in movements like the Fight for $15 and the fast food strikes have made even right-leaning politicians take action. What this demonstrates is that particular leaders, while a valuable rallying point, are less important than our willingness to push those in power to meet our demands.
What does labour want?
Full disclosure, I am a long time rank and file union activist who is not active in NDP party politics. So no trip to the Edmonton NDP Convention for me. Even so, I can see that the most effective means of moving our politics forward is not to embrace the status quo, or indulge in the politics of personality in hope that the leader we endorse will follow through on our agenda.
Reconfirming Mulcair as leader asks for more of the same and this should not be supported. The main argument for Mulcair from Labour leadership seems to be that a dynamic NDP leader is nowhere in sight, so sticking with Tom is the wiser way. On April 1, Jerry Diaz, the president of Unifor, told the Globe and Mail “for people to make a decision today based on this incredible, stunning defeat — it doesn’t make sense, in my opinion, for everybody to react and overreact.” Conversely, cheering for a leader who has committed to nothing and has a track record of shifting to the right under pressure is unlikely to get us what we want. Labour would be wiser to spend our energy organizing around our demands, one issue at a time.