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Democracy vs. the NDP
by Barry Weisleder - Democratic is the middle name of the New Democratic Party. It derives from two ancient Greek words that mean power of the citizens. So, you might ask, why is the power of NDP members so little evident inside the only labour-based political party in North America?
Permit me to share a short story, in three parts.
The first part is about Bob Rae, who famously said “I am the Premier of all the people, not just NDP members.”
The second describes how top party officials routinely rescind or block the nomination of NDP candidates who express radical opinions, especially in support of the rights of the Palestinian people.
The third piece relates to how time for the debate of policy at convention was systematically reduced, and leftist policies were prevented from coming to the party convention floor for discussion. And, when rarely radical policy was debated and approved, such policy would be promptly ignored.
For Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae, the NDP response to the provincial deficit in 1993 was to show it could hammer its own base. Rae demanded concessions from unions. His plan was for general tax increases of $2 billion (which largely hit middle income earners and excluded corporations). He aimed to execute $2 billion in public service cuts (in addition to the $2 billion in cuts already underway); and to extract $2 billion more in concessions from union members.
Some unions threatened to go on strike against measures that involved early retirements, hiring freezes and even a wage freeze. But on March 30, 1993, Bob Rae publicly menaced public sector unions: agree to wage rollbacks and mandatory days off, or face massive layoffs. He then unilaterally suspended public sector collective agreement negotiations. On April 5, negotiations between public sector unions and the government over the Social Contract began, with much bitterness and foreboding. The NDP government sought to impose unpaid days-off on public sector workers, excluding workers who were making less than $30,000 a year. Rae demanded that unions submit to the opening of 2,500 collective agreements to accept massive concessions for about 950,000 workers. Unable to convince unions to voluntarily accept massive concessions, the NDP government legislated Bill 48, the Social Contract. Rae had promised not to legislate the Social Contract concessions. No matter. This was one of the single largest wage rollbacks in Ontario history.
The backlash was immediate. Julie Davis, President of the Ontario NDP resigned. NDP MPPs Karen Haslam, Peter Kormos and Mark Morrow, along with former New Democrat Dennis Drainville all voted against the legislation. Haslam quit the cabinet.
The 12 unpaid days off became known as Rae Days. The Social Contract did not satisfy the right wing or Bay Street, but it did alienate the working class and divided the labour movement. The Ontario NDP went from 30,000-plus members to less than 13,000 overnight.
At a huge ONDP Provincial Council meeting in Gananoque, Ontario that summer, delegates voted to demand that Rae withdraw the Social Contract. After the session, what did Rae say to the assembled mass media? You guessed it: “I am the Premier of all the people, not just NDP members.”
That meant the NDP government, which earlier dumped its popular election pledge to introduce public auto insurance, would acquiesce to the bosses’ agenda. It would make workers pay for the capitalist recession, rather than introduce a hefty wealth tax to keep public sector services whole. The ONDP still bears the scars of this attack on democracy.
It is not unknown for the party to jettison its candidates. But this hitherto rare phenomenon became routine in the past decade. Supposedly to shield its electoral campaigns from undercover criminals and eccentric operators, the blocking or rescinding of nominees has taken on a life of its own. It is primarily aimed at stopping left wing socialists from representing the NDP.
In 2015 Quebec NDP candidate Hans Marotte expressed past support for the first Palestinian intifada, a mass movement against Israel’s occupation to which Israel responded with the “broken bones” policy of violent repression. He did not recant, but he was effectively silenced.
Ontario NDP candidate Matthew Rowlinson had to issue a statement apologizing for signing an “incendiary and inaccurate” letter that included the documented and provable claim that ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is ongoing in Jerusalem. The “inaccurate” part of the letter said that Israel seeks a Jerusalem free of Palestinians. As for “incendiary,” it would be better to look at weapons Israel deploys against Palestinians.
Then there are those who have been dumped by the party. Nova Scotia NDP candidate Morgan Wheeldon had to resign for calling Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, which killed more than 2,200 people including more than 500 children, a war crime. NDP member Syed Hyder Ali, who wished to run in Edmonton, was told to withdraw his name — because he also said that Israel was guilty of war crimes. Jerry Natanine of Nunavut, the mayor of Clyde River, was blocked because, in his words, “I often side with the Palestinians because of all the hardship they are facing and because nothing is being re-built over there.”
More recently, Joel Harden, NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, and Sarah Jama, NDP MPP for Hamilton Centre, faced intense public pressure from the Leader to have them recant positive pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist statements.
This writer won the NDP nomination in provincial Thornhill riding in 2011. It was rescinded by the ONDP Secretary, just one day after the well-attended local meeting, on the grounds that I had criticized Leader Andrea Horwath in an article written six months earlier. Past NDP candidates who worked in journalism, would normally criticize political leaders of every stripe.
Unforgettable is the scandalous disqualification of Anjali Appadurai from the British Columba NDP leadership race. It was a contest that she was poised to win in the Fall of 2021.
Concerning policy development, top-down control is another feature of, shall we say, the party’s arrested development.
Veterans of the party will recall that the time allocated for policy debate at NDP conventions was customarily about 80 per cent in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Since then, it has been sharply reduced to 40 per cent, or less. The rest of the time is reserved for training sessions on fund raising, election planning, videos that showcase the Leader, MPs, prominent celebrities, and guest speakers (shamefully including big wigs from the staunchly pro-war, Wall Street-backed Democratic Party of the USA).
With less time for policy discussion, you might think that, in the span of a three-day convention, at least one or two radical resolutions might make it to the floor. Well, you would be wrong. For many years, party bosses set up policy workshops, on different topics (e.g. Environment, Trade, Culture, Human Rights, Foreign Affairs, etc.), held simultaneously, where delegates were invited to rank the resolutions submitted by local district associations, affiliated unions and youth clubs. This was known as the “Saskatchewan model.” Leftist resolutions were always put by the top-appointed Resolutions Committee at the very bottom of every list. And if it looked like an amendment to move up a socialist resolution might have enough votes in the workshop to succeed, a walkie-talkie call suddenly went out to dozens of staffers, MPs and hand-picked delegates to flood the session and vote the amendment down.
Today, delegates are invited to electronically rank the submitted resolutions. But the outreach to voters is highly orchestrated by the party establishment – which does not provide a contact list of delegates to internal, grassroots bodies that may wish to promote certain policies and specific candidates for the party executive.
Despite all such shenanigans, occasionally a leftist motion reaches the floor, or more likely a leftist amendment (known as a ‘referral motion’) arises, and they carry the day. What then? Well, the policy would likely be ignored, or be openly discarded, such as in the 1990s when the Ontario NDP Minister of Colleges and Universities declared he would set aside the convention call for a phase-in of free post-secondary education.
Democratic decisions ignored is democracy denied.
So, why persist in pressing for party democracy (including lower delegate fees and hybrid, more accessible conventions), plus those indispensable socialist policies? Because there is no substitute for striving to win the hearts and minds of working class people and allies to be found in great numbers in the only mass, labour-based political party in North America.
In this process, both inside and outside the NDP, a workers’ vanguard will be formed. It will organize to take power in its own name. Only such a conscious revolutionary socialist leadership and movement will be able to save human civilization and nature from the destructive powers of capitalist minority rule. Dare to struggle. Dare to win!
Photo: T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, shown in this 1961 photo being held up by supporters, after being chosen leader of the newly form New Democratic Party. He is held by trade unionist Claude Jodoin (left), national CCF president David Lewis and British Labour leader Hugh Gaitshell. (CP PHOTO) (Source)