Monday, June 20, 2011

NDP Convention: Party Activists vs. Community Militants

In French the word for "activist" is "militant".

And time and time again here at the NDP convention the words are used interchangeably, particularly by the plethora of anglophones who has taken suddenly to making addresses riddled with French phrases. 

But, a clear distinction of the words is required.

Sitting here for the better part of three days at the convention, it is abundantly clear that on a spectrum of moderation and militancy, the party overwhelmingly favours moderation. Policies are watered down, controversial items are censored from public discussion and party elections are pre-ordained.

Time and time again, speakers approach the mikes on the convention floor during the policy debates and state: "Mr. / Madame speaker, I support this policy but it doesn't go far enough." Yet the convention grinds along self-congratulatory, adopting vacuous "progressive" policy.

Illustrative of but one example was a policy motion on Youth Right's proposed by a young lady from Vancouver East that I met on the bus on the last morning of the convention. She explained that she had spend considerable time crafting the policy consulting with the National Youth-in-Care Network, First Call and other such relevant organizations all of whom emphasized to her the need to adopt meaningful policy that leads to concrete outcomes. Accordingly, she drafted a smartly worded  three part resolution ("Resolution Reaffirming our Commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child") calling for the NDP to initiate an educational campaign and to work towards establishing a National independent children's commissioner. Her policy acumen was for naught as the resolution was prioritized at number 25 (of 26 followed only by a resolution rejecting the NDP's participation in the one-sided lobbying efforts of the "Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism").  This young lady expressed some disappointment that another resolution pertaining to children's rights ("Resolution on Children's Rights") was seen as a more appropriate motion to table and prioritized well over hers. The "replacement" motion is generic calling upon the convention to support a conceptual idea (Children's Rights) that is simple, ineffectual and self-evident.

More sinister is the overt and deliberate movement to prevent a resolution supporting the Canadian boat to Gaza from so much as hitting the convention floor. In the plenary session proceeding the convention, grassroots organizers arrived in droves to support the reprioritization of the motion from the bottom of the heap where party staff had relegated it to the top of the pile so that it could be debated by the full assembly. The resolution had overwhelming support in the room until moments before the vote. NDP staffers arrived in droves ( multiple first-hand sources claim that at least 50 MP's and staffers were involved) standing at the back of the room exclusively to vote down the resolution. And with this deft manipulation of democratic procedure, the convention ensured that the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people would receive no visibility at the convention. Indeed, the only visibility that the enitre Palestine-Israeli question received in the entire convention was a full-page ad in the official convention guide which proclaims that, "The NDP and the . . . Jewish community, together in our commitment to the state of Israel."

And so the NDP is indeed an activist party, in the same way that any political movement builds a base of loyal functionaries who work to the interest of the cause. And here the cause is abundantly clear - to make Jack Layton Canada's next prime minister. This ambition is clearly the focus of this convention  and when Jack talks about "having big dreams", he is talking about a stint in 24 Sussex Drive. The crowd response is euphoric.

At my table a delegate from Humbold Saskatchewan is the self-appointed whip. She urges me to stand cheering Jack on. The uniformity of his support is critical and, according to the party activists, well worth a few compromises on fringe issues and some moderation on policy declarations.

And while I cannot fault the logic of party organizers in their efforts to appeal to a broad and conservative audience I do note that a significant wedge is being driven within the party. 

On the one side are the party activists who are working tirelessly to build a well organized, well funded, political machine and on the other are those that remain stoic to their values of social justice, the need for structural change and the importance of clear direct actions to confront the growing threats that face the most marginalized in our society.

The chasm only promises to grow as deteriorating economic conditions and Harper's ruthless domestic and international agenda take hold. Surely under these conditions, the need and desire for more militant tactics will accelerate. 

Over and over again, throughout the convention, we are told that the party's breakthrough on the May 2nd election was the result of fore-sight, of looking ahead and anticipating changes in voter sentiment.

However, over the course of this convention, it has become clear to me that its enthusiasm and excitement at its electoral breakthrough has blinded it to the great challenges that will befall many Canadians in the coming years. While party activists believe their prospects are bright, grassroots organizers know that a down and dirty struggle will be unfolding at street level.

And so the question now remains: Will the NDP continue to disassociate itself from the bevy of grassroots organizations and organizers, undermining their efforts through denouncements and the straggling of their funding sources or, will party activists overcome their obsession with moderation and their pursuit of power to be a part of a renaissance in radical activity. 


  1. I am sympathetic to your position on the Palestinians. I do not understand why the oppression in Zimbabwe is not more important to you - the life expectancy of women has fallen from 62 to 34. Millions have died young and needlessly. And should the plight of Canadian aboriginal people not be the number one priority in terms of human rights?

  2. I absolutely agree that domestically the plight of aboriginal people should be the number one priority for human rights. unequivocally. unfortunately the ndp has dropped the ball on this front too. in part by refusing to endorse the struggles of militant native actions and in part by maligning some of the members of their own caucus who are best positioned to address the challenges of aboriginal people.

    in terms of international global affairs, there are indeed a litany of troubling events. no doubt. and prioritizing them is a great challenge. my article was meant to only point out how the ndp was very deliberately subverting discussion on one of those issues.

    for myself personally, my involvement around Palestinian solidarity stems from the fact that as a jew, i have a greater ability impact the discourse that enables the oppression. in this way, it's not so much a question of which tragedy is more important but rather, where will my voice and actions be most effective.

    thanks for your comments/questions.

  3. John Beeching, veteran of WW II, Hon. Chair Canadians for Peace and Socialism, retired OTEU 378, member Canada Palestine Association.

    All political parties represent in total or in part various classes. So the time has come for the membership by at least consensus of the majority of its membership to decide as the song goes, "Which side are you on?"

    As a member of the RCAF I had my first vote ever while overseas and without knowing why voted Tommy Douglas. After the war I learned the basic difference between Social Democrat and Scientific Socialism.

    With an eye of becoming "government" NDP leadership and advisers have decided to take positions based on Canadian Popular beliefs and opinion. Money talks.

    I for one have learned as a social activist that I am on the side of those who must work in order to live, i.e. the Canadian working class. Re-visit the Regina Manifesto. A new one updated but with the same aims and goals is needed.

    Canada had in the last election about 49 parties. We do not need another. We do need a united front movement of people who want to change the system not reform it. Organized labour is the logical organization to spark such a movement.

    Finally as Chaimberlan found out appeasement does not work! YOu can not reform Capitalism a a system. You must change it!

  4. Thanks for the comment John.

    "Which side are you on" is a very apt summary and i had that song running through my head as I wrote. I agree with your commentary and your conclusion that the NDP's movement to reform is folly and likely motivated by a class-based aspirations of my participants.

    I'm going to take a look at the Regina Manifesto. That seems like a good starting point.

  5. great article, thank you!

  6. ndp = no difference party. Re Gaza, Canada has achieved what Israel can only dream of. As Avigdor Lieberman said recently, "Israel has no better friend than Canada." Settler-states stick together.

  7. I was at the same table as Zev in the main convention hall, and it was like we were watching two different events. For me the convention was a celebration - 103 NDP MPs all on the stage at one time is a magnificent sight. It was a chance to bask in the glory, for the moment. Speakers from the stage reflected that mood, and the policy discussions for the most part were knee-jerk, watered down statements designed to not upset anyone.
    Speakers on the floor were different. Feisty, committed, even argumentative.
    MPs have too much influence at convention. Conventions should be about the party hearing from the membership so that they can go back to work knowing they are doing the party's work. Too often it was the MPs hogging the microphones for exactly the maximum three minutes. While it is good entertainment to hear them make their passionate appeals, the flow of information is going in the wrong direction - from the leadership to the members. I would prefer they sit down and listen.
    Regardless, the party will go where they believe the votes are. The workers and donors can only exercise their influence in their respective ridings. Not at convention.

  8. Nick, thanks for the insightful commentary on convention life.

    Since I've never been an NDP booster the celebration was lost on me but I do agree that at the end of the day, it comes down to each riding association making it work for themselves.

    I also thought the MP's hogging the mikes was an interesting phenomena. Kinda like watching spring training or training camp for new (and returning!) parliamentarians.