Mulcair, the NDP and the movements

MARCH 27, 2012 – The New Democratic Party (NDP) has a new federal leader. Thomas Mulcair, has no roots in the social movements, a long history of being a senior Liberal Party member, and is someone  openly committed to pushing the NDP considerably to the right. The implications for all interested in progressive social change are sobering.

The conservative Globe and Mail praised his victory calling it a victory for “pragmatism” and a “shift to the centre” (The Globe and Mail 2012). This “shift to the centre” will be a shift against the environment. He sent a strong signal to the oil industry at his first press conference, carefully using the term “oil sands” rather than the more accurate (and pejorative) “tar sands” (Ivison 2012). This “shift to the centre” will see any residual “left” phrases in party literature confined to the history books. Mulcair is committed to ending use of the term “democratic socialism” in NDP literature (Leblanc and Galloway 2012).

Leadership candidate Niki Ashton challenged Mulcair during the campaign, saying, “you’ve attacked our [the NDP’s] opposition to unfair trade deals, our links with the labour movement, our championing of ordinary people”. His response? “Between the Ontario border and the B.C. border we now hold a grand total of three seats” (Ibbitson 2012). Progressive policies, in other words, need to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

In raising the issue of trade deals, Ashton was putting her finger on something quite important. One of the defining issues of the last generation has been building opposition to the neoliberal policies embedded in so-called “trade deals” such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Mulcair, far from profiling his opposition to NAFTA, profiles his work with NAFTA. His web site proudly announces that he was president of the Quebec Professions Board from 1987 until 1993. “The work done by the Quebec Professions Board on the Free Trade in services portion of the NAFTA had led to increased contacts with the U.S. on these issues” (thomasmulcair.ca 2012). During the campaign, Mulcair announced that he had helped draft some of NAFTA’s articles which centred on the environment (Cameron 2011).

On international issues, Mulcair doesn’t occupy the centre. He is firmly on the right. He was part of a caucus revolt in 2008, causing then leader, the late Jack Layton, to withdraw NDP support for the 2009 United Nations-sponsored Anti-racism Durban Review Conference, a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism (WCAR) (National Post 2008). What was WCAR’s supposed crime? Its Declaration and Programme of Action expressed “concern about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” (WCAR 2009). Mulcair was “successful in muting NDP criticism of the January 2009 Israeli bombardment of Gaza” but was not muted at all the next year when he joined with Tory Jason Kenney and then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in condemning Israeli Apartheid Week (Shniad and Presentey 2012).

In truth, we don’t really need all this evidence. His willingness to serve for years as a cabinet minister under Quebec Liberal Premier (and ex-Tory) Jean Charest, in many ways tells us everything we need to know. Thomas Mulcair is a man of the establishment, not of the movements.

But Mulcair won, and actually won quite easily. He led the first ballot, capturing 19,728 votes (30.3%). The next ballot, his vote increased to 23,902 (38.3%), 8% up on his first result, double the rate of increase of Peggy Nash and more than double that of Brian Topp and Nathan Cullen. The third ballot was the only one where another candidate increased support faster than Mulcair, Topp’s support increasing by 6.6% compared to Mulcair’s 5.5%. On the last ballot, Mulcair’s vote soared 13.4% compared to 11.2% for Topp, giving Mulcair 57.2% of votes cast, and a clear victory (CPAC 2012).

Not that Topp would have been a particularly “left” alternative. For a quarter of a century, he has been very far removed from the social movements, serving as a backroom apparatus-man – a staffer for either the NDP or the union bureaucracy (Kellogg 2012). His principal claim to fame was pushing the party, not to the left but to the right, attempting to forge a coalition with the Liberal Party in 2008. Mulcair announced at the time, that if the NDP shared governmental power with the Liberals, they would also share the prosecution of war in Afghanistan, telling the press, “the NDP is putting aside its differences that have existed historically with the Liberals on such issues as Afghanistan” (Kellogg 2009).

There were two candidates who galvanized social movement activists. Many were understandably attracted to the youth and social movement orientation of Nathan Cullen. Judy Rebick said that his “language was very close to the politics of the New Politics Initiative. He speaks of social struggles and the alliance between the party and First Nations and environment groups” (Rebick 2012). But his main profile in the campaign became calling for an alliance with the Liberals – the same kind of approach that was so clearly wrong in 2008.

So it was Peggy Nash who became, for many, the best hope of social movement activists. Like Topp she has spent many years in full-time union and political positions. But unlike Topp, her early years were spent on the shop floor as a union activist. She has always been a friend of the social movements, appearing on the platform of many demonstrations – including demonstrations against the Afghanistan war which Topp and Mulcair were so ready to support in 2008.

But her first ballot result of 8,353 votes (12.8%), more than 2,000 votes behind Cullen and far behind Topp and Mulcair was extremely disappointing. She lasted only one more ballot. As for Cullen, he did manage to increase his vote total to 15,426 (24.6%) by the third ballot. But again, this was far behind the two front-runners. The end result was a sharp defeat for candidates associated with the social movements, and a surprisingly strong victory for the most mainstream leader in the history of the NDP.

For all the candidates, their relationship to the social movements was a more accurate standard by which to assess their politics, than by the usual NDP standard of relationship to labour. In this campaign, the message from the union movement was completely confused. Some labour leaders took a clear principled stand. Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), and the United Steelworkers Toronto Area Council, were prominent backers of the Nash campaign (peggynash.ca 2012). But the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) as a whole was quite happy to overlook the pro-war coalition moment of 2008, and endorse Topp as a candidate (Galloway 2011). Much worse, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada, The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Toronto’s Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) all declared for Mulcair (UFCW 2012).

Rebick’s invocation of the New Politics Initiative (NPI) points to the importance of the social movements, and also captures the extent to which the NDP has travelled to the right this century. The NPI was formed just over ten years ago, with a view to dissolving the NDP, and launching a new party rooted in the anti-globalization movement, a party “with two key objectives: promoting the environment and combatting ‘corporate globalization’” (MacKinnon 2001). This push for a new party – supported by Nash among others – was very narrowly defeated, losing by just 684 to 401 at the November, 2001 convention (O’Neill 2001).

That November 2001 vote was the high water mark for the social movement left inside the NDP. Unfortunately, the NPI became reoriented away from the anti-globalization and anti-war movements, and toward facilitating the leadership campaign of Jack Layton. When he launched his bid, he was very much an outsider – and the NPI provided a door in. The only two NDP federal caucus members to support Layton’s leadership bid in 2002-2003, were leading NPI figures Svend Robinson and Libby Davies. Riding the wave of the anti-globalization movement which the NPI reflected, and coming out openly for participation in anti-war demonstrations against the war in Iraq, Layton won a crushing first ballot victory with 53.5% of votes cast.

But this victory has proven pyrrhic. It was Layton who opened the door to Mulcair. “Jack, his wife Olivia Chow, Tom [Mulcair] and Catherine [Pinhas] had a meeting and supper together at a restaurant in 2007” leading to Layton naming Mulcair his “Quebec Lieutenant” (thomasmulcair.ca 2012). The NDP did not become a vehicle with which to amplify the issues and concerns of the social movements. The NDP became a vehicle focussed on national office, and suddenly that vehicle has ex-Liberal Thomas Mulcair in the driver’s seat.

Gregg Shotwell, a retired veteran of the autoworkers in the United States, had a message for activists in last year’s Occupy movement. Be careful of orienting on the Democratic Party, “where all good movements go to die” (Shotwell 2012). The situation may not be quite so extreme in the NDP. But it’s not far off. What at first seems like a comfortable home can too often be transformed into a debilitating trap. When the focus shifted from the NPI and movement building to Layton, leadership selection, and electoral success, the end result has been the most movement-averse leader in the history of the party.

Some will draw other lessons from this process. Former leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, sees the NDP’s problem as having “rooted itself in Quebec” (Manning 2012). This is a noxious reminder of the anti-Quebec politics of Manning’s (and Stephen Harper’s) Reform Party roots. It is also completely wrong. The problems with Mulcair are not his Quebec roots. The problems with Mulcair are his establishment roots.

In a certain sense, what we need is to root ourselves more, not less, in Quebec. It is Quebec, after all, which is the home of Québec solidaire (QS) “a party of the ballot box and the streets” (Life on the left 2011). A massive student movement is sweeping the province, and QS spokesperson Amir Khadir proudly wears “the red cloth squares of the striking students” (Dougherty 2012). At a press conference March 22 before a wonderful 200,000 strong demonstration against tuition fee hikes, the other QS spokesperson, Françoise David was there, calling for taxing the corporations to pay for education (Steuter-Martin and Gallant 2012). That is the way we win our gains – building mass movements, and posing politics in class terms.

One last thought which might just sum it all up – the man against whom the students are protesting is Liberal Premier Jean Charest. We’ve met him before. He’s the ex-Tory who gave Thomas Mulcair his start in politics.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

For any who are in Toronto this week, an important discussion of the implications of the NDP leadership race, will take place at the monthly General Membership Meeting of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, 7pm, Thursday March 29, Beit Zatoun House, 612 Markham Street (west of Bathurst, south of Bloor).

Publishing History

This article has been published as Canada: Thomas Mulcair, the New Democratic Party and the social movements,” Links, 27 March.

References

Cameron, Duncan. 2011. “Tom Mulcair Plays a Terrible Hand on Trade.” Rabble.ca.

CPAC. 2012. “NDP Leadership – Mulcair Wins Leadership.” Cpac.ca.

Dougherty, Kevin. 2012. “10 Questions and Answers About Quebec’s Student Strike.” The Gazette, March 6.

Galloway, Gloria. 2011. “United Steelworkers Endorse Brian Topp for NDP Leader.” The Globe and Mail, October 12.

Ibbitson, John. 2012. “Enter Mulcair.” The Globe and Mail, March 26.

Ivison, John. 2012. “Mulcair Denies Cabinet Demand; NDP Leadership Hopeful Had 2007 Talks with Tories.” National Post, March 2.

Kellogg, Paul. 2009. “Dear Jack: Do You Really Want This War?” PolEcon.net.

———. 2012. “Topp and Mulcair – the Apparatus Man and the ex-Liberal.” PolEcon.net.

Leblanc, Daniel, and Gloria Galloway. 2012. “A Principled Pragmatist Who’s Always up for a Fight.” The Globe and Mail, March 26.

Life on the left. 2011. “Québec Solidaire: A Québécois Approach to Building a Broad Left Party (Part II).” Lifeonleft.blogspot.ca.

MacKinnon, Mark. 2001. “Rebels Aim to Dissolve NDP, Form New Party.” The Globe and Mail, June 6.

Manning, Preston. 2012. “The NDP’s Mulcair.” The Globe and Mail, March 27.

National Post. 2008. “Layton Backtracks on UN Racism Conference.” Canada.com, June 24.

O’Neill, Juliet. 2001. “NDP Delegates Vote Against New Party: Policy Convention Leaves Some in Tears as Members Argue over Party’s ‘Mushiness’.” The Ottawa Citizen, November 25.

peggynash.ca. 2012. “Peggy Nash: Announcements.” Peggy Nash.

Rebick, Judy. 2012. “Understanding the Victory of Thomas Mulcair.” Rabble.ca.

Shniad, Sid, and Fabienne Presentey. 2012. “Thomas Mulcair – Israel, Right or Wrong.” Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) Canada.

Shotwell, Gregg. 2012. “Where Workers Have Power.” SocialistWorker.org, March 27.

Steuter-Martin, Marilla, and Jacques Gallant. 2012. “Hundreds of Thousands Flood the Streets.” The Concordian, March 22.

The Globe and Mail. 2012. “Editorial – Mulcair’s Moment.” The Globe and Mail, March 26.

thomasmulcair.ca. 2012. “About Tom.” Thomas Mulcair.

UFCW. 2012. “NDP Leadership Candidate Thomas Mulcair Gaining Momentum as We Head Toward Convention.” UFCW Canada.

WCAR. 2009. “Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.” In Durban, South Africa.

Topp and Mulcair – the apparatus man and the ex-Liberal

The late Jack Layton’s political presence in Canadian politics owed everything to the social movements. But when members of the party gather, March 24, 2012 to elect a replacement for Layton, the party is likely to be moved very far from this social movement experience. The implications of this need to be seriously thought through by those interested in progressive social change in Canada.

In 1986, while a City of Toronto alderman, Layton was one of 11 jurors on a mock jury which ruled that the restrictions on abortion in place in Canadian law at the time was “’in contempt of Canadian women’ … “The verdict was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of ‘Choice Now!’ by the crowd of about 250 people who attended the mock court at Trinity-St. Paul’s Church” (Ferguson 1986).

In 1991, he was a co-founder of the White Ribbon campaign to combat violence against women (Minerson 2011), and every year he would wear a white ribbon, symbol of that campaign. Every year he would also happily march at Pride in Toronto, a politician who didn’t fear to be seen defending the rights of lesbian, gay, and transgendered people. In the run-up to the Iraq War, with the Liberal government clearly leaning toward joining in the slaughter, he openly sided with the anti-war movement. As newly-elected leader of the NDP, he marched in the thousands-strong anti-war protest in Toronto, February 15, 2003 (Conradi et al. 2003).

The resumés are very different for at least two of the front-runners to replace Layton – Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp. The former comes from the Liberal Party. Three times, he won as a candidate for the Liberals in Quebec. In 2003, this saw him elevated into the cabinet of (ex-Tory) Jean Charest (The Canadian Press 2008). And if you doubt his conservative credentials, remember how he shamefully joined in the chorus attacking Libby Davies when she (correctly) stated that the occupation of Palestine had begun in 1948. Mulcair’s comrades in this assault were Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Bob Rae, both calling on Davies to resign as NDP House leader (De Souza 2010). The ease with which Mulcair can keep company with the parties of Corporate Canada came to light during the current campaign, when it became known that before joining the NDP, he held talks with other parties, including the Tories (Ivison 2012).

What about his chief rival, Brian Topp? His reputation is better than Mulcair’s. He has been seen by some as a “labour candidate,” early on winning the backing of the United Steelworkers, “the NDP’s largest affiliated union and the largest private-sector union in the country” (O’Neil 2011). His left-wing credentials were boosted by his early endorsement from deputy leader Libby Davies who somewhat surprisingly said that Topp has “a vision that I share” (Kennedy 2011).

Surprising, because Topp’s story is not one featuring the social movements with which Davies has long been associated, but rather staff positions in the administrative apparatus of the NDP and the union machine. In 1990, he went to work full-time for NDP MP Philip Edmonston, in 1992 moving on to be senior researcher for then party leader Audrey McLaughlin, and from 1993-2000 working first as a researcher and then as deputy chief of staff for Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow. His career then took him into a staff position in Toronto, working for ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), until he returned to the NDP to work closely with Jack Layton in 2004 (Rana 2004). Topp is a career apparatus man.

The problem is, when political eyes are habitually fixed upwards – towards either cabinet positions in corporate parties such as the Liberals, or towards staff positions with social-democracy and the union bureaucracy, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus them downwards, to the grass-roots’ activism which is the only place from which we have every won real reforms. A victory by either Mulcair or Topp would make this problem extremely clear.

A recurring issue of the campaign has been whether the NDP should consider cooperation with the Liberal Party, in an attempt to topple Harper. The only candidate openly advocating this policy, is Nathan Cullen (Bryden 2012). But given his background, it is clear that coalition politics with parties of business would come very easily to Thomas Mulcair. As for Topp, remember that as a key adviser to Layton, he was one of the principal architects of the shameful attempt to form a coalition with the Liberal Party in 2008, something of which, by the way, he is extremely proud – see his book How we almost gave the Tories the Boot (Topp 2010).

We don’t know if either of these two will emerge as the eventual leader. But either of them will mean an NDP more firmly wedded to backroom politics, more likely to be enticed by a coalition dance with the Liberal Party – the party which grimly presided over draconian cuts to transfer payments in the 1990s, and the party which took Canada to war in Afghanistan in 1991.

Given all this, it is absolutely not surprising that many on the left of the NDP are backing Peggy Nash in the campaign for leadership. Nash, like Topp, has a long career as a union staffer – working for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) from 1990 until 2006, returning to the CAW after losing her riding to the Liberals in 2008 (Van Alphen 2008). But unlike Topp, she has also been known as a supporter of the left and the social movements.

In 2001, Nash backed the New Politics Initiative (NPI). “We need a party with fire in its belly and blood in its veins,” she said as she and the NPI fought unsuccessfully to push the NDP into forming a new party rooted in the anti-globalization movement (Edmonds 2011). Throughout the war in Afghanistan, she was a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies. Following a multi-party fact-finding trip to Lebanon, in the wake of Israel’s bloody invasion of that country in 2006, she took considerable abuse for saying the obvious – that “it was just not helpful” to label Hezbollah as “a terrorist organization” (Fisher 2006).

This was one of the few times in recent history that a prominent NDPer took an open stand on the issue of the struggle in the Middle East, long seen as an almost taboo subject because of the way in which it might lose votes for the party. But social movement building is not a popularity contest. It means staking out a principal (for instance, the right of Palestinians to return to their homes under occupation since 1948), and sticking to it regardless of the backlash.

Unfortunately, Nash has been reticent to go much beyond this 2006 position. Neither she nor any other NDP leadership candidate has been willing to publicly identify with the current movement for Palestine rights, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement which has built exactly the kind of grass roots social movement we need on so many issues. You are unlikely to find any of the leadership candidates attending the many events happening across the country this week, during Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).

That said, there is really no comparison between Nash and either Topp or Mulcair. The people backing Nash include many who know very well that the future of the left will be found in the streets, and not in the back-rooms, that the coalitions we need are not with the corporate-backed Liberals, but with the poor, the oppressed and the working class – coalitions of the 99% to challenge the entrenched power of the 1%.

If either Mulcair or Topp wins, the dangers are obvious. A Nash victory would mean a step back from the brink. But leadership campaigns come and go, and the main task remains – rebuilding social movements from the grass roots up.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

References
Van Alphen, Tony. 2008. “Nash Back at CAW After Poll Defeat; Former Parkdale-High Park MP Opts Not to Run for Ontario NDP Leadership, Saying Timing Not Right.” Toronto Star, November 18.

Bryden, Joan. 2012. “Cullen Gets Social-media Boost for Co-operation Among Opposition Parties: Cullen Gets Boost from Online Campaigns.” The Canadian Press, February 17.

Conradi, Peter, Bruce Wallace, Joe Lauria, and Anne-Sophie Dumetz. 2003. “Millions Say ‘No’ to War: Cities Around the World Overrun in Biggest Protest in History.” The Ottawa Citizen, February 16.

Edmonds, Scott. 2011. “Federal NDP Rejects Shift to Far Left; Plans to Forge Ahead with Renewal.” The Canadian Press, November 24.

Ferguson, Derek. 1986. “Panel Finds Abortion Law ‘in Contempt’ of Women.” Toronto Star, March 2.

Fisher, Matthew. 2006. “MPs Say Terrorist Label Bad for Peace.” Calgary Herald, August 21.

Ivison, John. 2012. “Mulcair Denies Cabinet Demand; NDP Leadership Hopeful Had 2007 Talks with Tories.” National Post, March 2.

Kennedy, Mark. 2011. “Veteran MP Davies Backs Topp’s Bid; Deputy Leader Says Former Party President Has ‘a Vision That I Share’.” The Province, October 2.

Minerson, Todd. 2011. “Jack Layton and White Ribbon Campaign.” White Ribbon Campaign: Working to End Violence Against Women.

O’Neil, Peter. 2011. “Steelworkers Union Backs Topp for NDP Leader.” Edmonton Journal, October 13.

Rana, F. 2004. “Topp Back in NDP Headquarters for Campaign 2004: ‘I Think Jack Layton and the Federal NDP Have a Very Good Chance in This Election’: Topp.” The Hill Times, May 24.

De Souza, Mike. 2010. “Prime Minister, Liberals Demand Davies Resignation.” Record, June 16.

The Canadian Press. 2008. “Thomas Mulcair Holds NDP’s Only Quebec Riding in Squeaker Vote.” The Canadian Press, October 15.

Topp, Brian. 2010. How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot: The Inside Story Behind the Coalition. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company.