BCNDP – Bureaucracy maintains stranglehold; Left builds support for future battles

The election of Carole James as leader of the British Columbia New Democratic Party represents a victory for the status quo. James ran a campaign that concentrated on one thing and one thing only… Carole James. What we did not see were any commitments to actually do anything—no commitment to renationalize the Liberals’ sell-off of public assets, no commitment to reverse the Liberals’ regressive tax hikes (sales tax, medical plan fee, etc.) or negate the $2 billion tax cut to the rich, and definitely no commitment to do anything that would go beyond the position of the previous NDP government. This is of course intentional; the view of the party bureaucracy is that the BC NDP was destroyed at the last election because the party made promises that it didn’t deliver on. A typical worker from BC would say, “You didn’t keep your promises. You didn’t do anything to improve my life. Next time keep your promises!” It seems logical to most that the answer to this worker should be, “Yes, this time we will keep our promises and improve your life.” However, the bureaucratic clique around Carole James answers with, “If we make no promises, we promise not to break them!” This is the thin gruel that will be presented to BC voters in the next election.

For once the leadership election did actually give party members a political choice. On the right was the lawyer Nils Jensen—the openly Blairite candidate wanting to break the link with the unions and adopt a platform akin to the federal Liberals. Some private sector unions (Steelworkers, IWA woodworkers) supported Jensen, which was akin to turkeys voting for Christmas. Leonard Krog, another lawyer, represented the old bureaucracy with a platform of mild reforms. And on the left was the clearly working class candidate Steve Orcherton, a cook and former member of the Legislature. Orcherton’s campaign was to unapologetically defend the NDP’s links with the labour movement, commit to reversing the BC Liberals’ attacks on the working class (and not stop there), and to keep the NDP away from the “mushy middle”. While far from being a revolutionary, a victory for Orcherton would have been a victory for the working class wing of the party, and therefore the youth and the Marxists supported his campaign.

Orcherton consistently received the loudest applause for the policies he proposed, while James received canned applause for pausing to breathe. The youth and the Marxists also mobilized the floor to successfully defeat a resolution calling for a tuition freeze (education must be free), and spoke against and undemocratic changes that would have allowed the party Provincial Council to amend the party’s constitution. Despite losing that vote, the bureaucracy reintroduced a similar resolution as an “emergency”. This was rammed through although it was clearly out of order. The fact was not lost on delegates that there is one law for the powerful and another for the rank-and-file; the bureaucracy will learn to regret the precedent they set at this convention. There was a massive disconnect between the policies that the delegates supported and the way that they voted in the leadership election. Despite putting up an impressive fight, the final support for Orcherton was disappointing. This was due to a combination of a slander campaign against Steve, and the press consistently belittling his campaign. Also the high delegate fees and the decline of the anti-Liberal protest movement meant that the majority of delegates were not exactly workers straight from the picket line. Lenin said that in a workers’ democracy every cook shall be Prime Minister – our cook will have to wait for another day. However, Mike Palecek, a writer for L’Humanité who demanded that the NDP stop apologizing for socialism, won a third of the vote in the party Vice President elections. It was recognized by many that there now exists a clear working class alternative, with the full involvement of Marxists around the paper L’Humanité, which can act to organize workers when they move into the party demanding action.

The CUPE, BCGEU, and CEP union leaderships poured thousands of dollars and dozens of organizers into the James campaign. Despite this, she could not even commit to never legislating the workers from these unions back to work. It remains to be seen what actions rank-and-file workers will take if James is given an opportunity to betray them. The Marxist tendency is often referred to as the memory of the working class and we will not cease to remind workers of leaders that sell out their members for opportunism.

The processes within the NDP cannot be seen separately from the general fightback against the Campbell Liberals. The protest movement that brought 50,000 people to the lawns of the BC Legislature has dwindled. This is because the leadership of the unions and NDP absolutely refused to take any action beyond speechifying and stunts. There was no plan to take things beyond bourgeois legality and no plan to organize strike action; despite the fact that the mood was there in spades. The workers soon sensed this and unfortunately concluded that if their leaders thought there was nothing that could be done then why bother to come out for another demonstration that will lead nowhere. But it would be incorrect to say that the Liberals have defeated the workers. There have been some important victories: the privatization of the Coquihalla highway was blocked, the left swept municipal elections, and IWA woodworkers are striking in defiance of their right wing leadership (while their union president holidays in the Caribbean!) This all reflects the discontent in society. The workers are merely waiting for a suitable venue to vent their anger. It is not ruled out that the working class tendency within the NDP can focus this anger and pressure the party bureaucracy to adopt a more left wing platform for the next election. This process has already begun within the youth, who are always a more sensitive barometer of the movements within society, as youth activists are joining the party and are pushing the careerists aside.

If the James clique is allowed to continue along its path of no commitments and no promises then the 2005 BC election looks bleak. James is currently asking the party for a $70,000 wage. She should live as we do and take the average wage for a worker in BC (perhaps that of a mid range CUPE municipal worker in her riding, not more than $40,000). It is not enough for the BC Liberals to discredit themselves; the NDP has got to give workers a reason to vote FOR the party. The “no commitments” platform will lead to massive abstentionism in the next election as the workers, poor, and youth stay at home in disgust. “The previous NDP government legislated workers back to work and cut welfare – the Liberals just continued where they left off” will be the thought in peoples’ minds. The only platform that will mobilize support is a socialist platform, a working class platform, an unapologetic platform that can give workers the hope they need to beat back Gordon Campbell and his capitalist backers. Otherwise we will be faced with 5 more years of attacks and the possibility of a decisive defeat. We cannot let this happen.

L’Humanité Editorial Board