The political landscape of Canada has changed, potentially in an irrevocable way. The Liberal Party, formerly Canada’s “natural governing party”, has been reduced to a rump of 34 seats, having received only 19% of the vote. The separatist Bloc Quebecois, which has dominated Quebec since the party’s foundation 20 years ago, has been swept aside by the NDP’s “orange wave” and has been left with only four seats. The New Democratic Party, Canada’s labour party, has leapt into second place with a record-breaking 103 seats, and 31% of the vote.
On the other side of the class divide, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and their Bay Street supporters were able to attain their goal of a majority government. However, there is no enthusiasm for this government, which is set to become even more hated with the coming austerity. The Tories managed to win their majority only by bringing over the right-wing of the Liberal Party. In the last weekend of the campaign, the Conservatives appealed to so-called “business Liberals” to unite behind them to fight off the socialist threat. Before that, their support remained flat during the campaign, but the extra 2-3% bump pushed them to 40% overall, and a small 26-seat majority.
|Seats (change from 2008)||Vote Percentage (change from 2008)|
|Conservatives||166 (+23)||40% (+2%)|
|NDP||103 (+66)||31% (+13%)|
|Liberals||34 (-43)||19% (-7%)|
|Bloc Quebecois||4 (-45)||23% (-15%) (total in Quebec)|
|Greens||1 (+1)||4% (-3%)|
Amazingly, nobody predicted the above result at the start of Canada’s 2011 election, just five weeks ago. This just goes to show that it is incredibly foolish to ignore the undercurrents of discontent and class polarization in society. During the course of the campaign there were mass shifts in support, which merely represent the realization of the accumulated contradictions in society. Marxists have long predicted that the class divide in society will be reflected in a polarization on the electoral front as both the bosses and the workers each unite behind a single party. After the 2008 election, we said the following:
“The polarization in society means a collapse of the so-called “centre.” The Liberal Party, traditionally the natural governing party of Canadian capitalism, is facing an acute crisis. Two years ago at their leadership convention they were so split that they could not decide on a leader. They therefore decided not to make a decision and chose Stephane Dion, whose only redeemable quality was that he wasn’t one of the major candidates. The pathetic figure of Dion can be seen as an accident of history; however, as Marx explained, sometime necessity expresses itself through accident.
“Canadian capitalism has enjoyed the luxury of two parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, who have swapped power back and forth without having to risk any input from the working class. The Marxists have always predicted that this situation cannot continue indefinitely. The class forces in society eventually push the ruling class to coalesce around one party that faces the party of the working class and the trade unions. This is what occurred in Britain in the 1920’s when the Labour Party kicked the British Liberals into the dustbin of history, from where they have never returned.” (from “2008 Canadian Elections: Class Polarization and Missed Opportunities”)
However, we fully admit that we did not expect our long-term perspective to occur during this election—basing our first impressions on the anemic NDP election platform.
For the NDP, the campaign started very weakly. The Liberals under leader Michael Ignatieff made a rhetorical shift to the left, coming out against corporate tax cuts, $30-billion fighter jets, and $10-billion US-style mega prisons. On the other side, the NDP put out a platform that was not significantly different to the Liberals. In fact, in some instances, it was worse than the Liberals’. Ignatieff offered $4,000 to students while the NDP’s education platform was much less concrete. Layton proposed hiring 2,500 new Mounties despite crime going down and the criminal role the cops played during the G20. Layton opposed the fighter jets, but instead proposed building fighter boats! The money raised by reversing corporate tax cuts was to be spent lowering small business taxes by 2%. The Globe and Mail explained that this could, in fact, be a huge subsidy to rich individuals who register themselves as small businesses, at the expense of real reforms like universal childcare and free education. “It is clear, however, that [small business tax cuts] would provide a generous tax break to the wealthiest one per cent of the population — a self-incorporated person making $400,000 a year would receive an $8,000 tax cut.” (15 Apr. 2011).
The uninspiring NDP election platform, and the fake-left shift of the Liberals, led to an NDP tailspin in the first two weeks of the campaign. The party sunk to 13% in the polls and 11% in Ontario. It looked like there was going to be a repeat of the elections of 2004, 2006, and 2008 all over again, where the Liberals successfully siphoned off NDP votes to supposedly ward off the Conservative threat. Each time, a weak NDP platform that failed to differentiate the NDP from the Liberals helped the “vote-splitting” mantra and depressed the NDP vote. They say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” but Canadians had been fooled three times by this Liberal trick in the space of seven years!
However, the election debates marked a turning point that crystallized the underlying processes. A historically high 4-million people watched the debates. While on the campaign trail, Ignatieff was able to pull off his newfound belief in social justice (despite his right-wing credentials and past defence of US imperialism, including the use of torture), but during the debates people could literally feel his insincerity. This was a classic case of the Liberals “campaigning left and governing right” that they had done so many times before. During the debates, Layton successfully cornered Ignatieff on his dismal record for showing up for votes in Parliament and opposing the Conservatives. The Liberals’ support of the unpopular Afghanistan war also played a role, especially in the French-language debate. When the Liberals said that people had no choice but to support them against the Conservatives this was widely seen as another case of Liberal entitlement. In this case, it was fourth time unlucky for the vote-splitting scam.
In Quebec another process was unfolding. We have previously explained that Quebecers are sick and tired of the stale Federalist vs. Nationalist debate that has dominated the province for over 30 years. There have been wild swings of public opinion as people look for a way out on a class basis. The reactionary right-populist ADQ almost formed provincial government, only to be subsequently smashed as workers became aware of its real platform. In Quebec this election was a referendum on the status-quo and people resolutely rejected the bourgeois-nationalist Bloc. They didn’t turn to the other capitalist parties, they turned to Canada’s labour party. The NDP made concessions to Quebec nationalism, which enabled it to be seen as “neutral” from the left in much the same way as the ADQ was seen as neutral from the right. More than anything else, this was a class vote for a party that is seen to represent the working class. Apart from Afghanistan, nobody in Quebec was looking closely at the NDP’s platform and this worked hugely to the party’s benefit. The NDP swept 43% of the vote and gained 59 out of 75 seats in Quebec. Many of these candidates never expected to win and therefore didn’t go through the normal bureaucratic screening by NDP head office. There are sure to be some left-wingers amongst the new intake and these tendencies can be bolstered by an influx of new members and new enthusiasm.
Where do these developments leave the academics, sectarians and professional pundits? All of them said that such an advance of the NDP was impossible. There was a supposed ceiling of 20% that the NDP could never surpass. In Quebec the idea of an NDP breakthrough was ridiculed, especially on the left that had capitulated to petit-bourgeois nationalism. They asked how a party that in 2000 was frequently defeated by the Quebec wing of the Marijuana Party could ever get a toehold. Scandalously, the Quebec unions all supported the Bloc, even after the NDP surge became apparent. The Marxists explained that the class question and workers’ mobilization can cut across the national question and it is necessary to take a long view of history. That is not to say that the national question in Quebec is dead. However, there is a real opportunity for class politics to come to the fore and for the NDP to become the political conduit for the fight back against the Harper austerity—especially in Quebec.
In opposition to those who put forward an unscientific “ceiling” to NDP support, we explained that the majority of society are working class and the class analysis of society and politics is the only scientific way to explain and predict developments. In our initial election statement, titled “Kick out the Conservatives!” we explained that 49% of Canadians see themselves as left-wing and just need to be inspired and mobilized to come out. All the so-called “experts” are now left with their mouths agape, unable to understand or intervene in this movement.
The advance of the NDP in Quebec served to assist in breaking the vote-splitting spell in the rest of Canada, but this was not absolute. Support in Ontario lagged far behind Quebec for the majority of the campaign and the NDP’s results in English Canada are better described as modest improvement. A memory of Rae Days, combined with the lackluster platform, served to prevent victories. Oshawa, the traditional base of General Motors and a strong union town, again failed to elect any NDP MPs. On the other side, left wing candidates garnered impressive results. Libby Davies, the left MP who came under fire of the bureaucracy for her defence of the Palestinian people, received an overwhelming 63% of the vote in Vancouver East, one of the poorest ridings in Canada. In Toronto Centre, the party brass abandoned the riding, stating that Liberal-NDP turncoat Bob Rae could not be defeated. The Toronto Young New Democrats (TYND) decided to make Toronto Centre their focus of activity and waged a socialist campaign under the slogan, “Vote Working Class!” Despite the lack of central party support, the campaign office was inundated by activist youth and the campaign won a historically high 30%, doubling the NDP vote. Poor areas, which typically do not vote, came out solidly NDP under the consistent work of the youth activists and their supporters. Rae won the riding with only 40% of the vote, putting him well within striking distance at the next election.
Now that the election is over, workers are faced with the frightening prospect of four years of a Stephen Harper majority government. This means four years of cuts to public services, four years of privatizations, and four years of attacks on our living standards. It is little wonder that with the exception of the Toronto Star, all of Canada’s corporate media endorsed a Conservative majority government. The ruling class need the stability of a majority government to pay down the debt and deficit accumulated during the Great Recession. Their mission is to destroy all the gains won by the working class over the past 60 years, everything that makes life half livable. The Conservatives are set to re-introduce their budget that contains over $11-billion in unspecified cuts and this is only the beginning. The government has already made it clear that they are looking to continue the sell-off of public services and assets such as Canada Post, which would have the added advantage of damaging the public sector unions. The Conservatives’ allies on Bay Street and in the corporate press continue to bemoan the financial costs of the aging baby boomer generation, meaning that vital services such as public medicare and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) are on the chopping block, too.
However, Harper’s victory is going to be bittersweet for the Bay Street bankers and bosses. They will have to bear full responsibility for the cuts and the NDP advance will help to focus the working class opposition. As Harper and the Tories attack pensions, medicare, and public sector jobs, we are sure to see some of the largest labour struggles coming up in the next period as workers have no other option but to fight back.
The NDP must be the voice of workers in struggle. The NDP leadership must not even contemplate any sort of fusion with what is left of the Liberal Party, trying to become Canada’s version of the US Democratic Party. Instead of trying to “work with Stephen Harper,” Jack Layton and the rest of the NDP MPs must be fighting tooth and nail against the Conservatives’ austerity plans. The NDP’s success in yesterday’s election was precisely because they were seen to be different than the other parties that stood for the status quo, particularly in Quebec.
As important as this election was, the fact remains that only 61.4% of eligible voters cast ballots, a slight increase compared to the record-low turnout of 58.8% in October 2008. This means that a significant part of the population still doesn’t find an appeal in the existing political parties. Study after study show that it is overwhelmingly youth, immigrants, women, the poor—in other words the most oppressed sectors of society—that do not vote. As impressive as was the NDP’s result, in was in spite of their platform rather than because of it. Aside from Quebec where the party had little history, the NDP’s gains in the rest of the country were modest. The NDP can attract that 40% of people that do not vote by running on a socialist platform that answers the needs and demands of everyday working-class people. The key to forming a majority NDP government lies in appealing to those 40%.
Aside from the NDP’s breakthrough, this election has revealed what the Marxists have been saying for a long time. There is a struggle being waged between two classes with little in common. The decimation of the Liberal Party and the Bloc Quebecois (both Ignatieff and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe lost their seats) has left the ruling class grouped around the Conservatives, while workers are represented by the NDP. The polarization we are seeing around the world has arrived in this country, too. The next four years will be very difficult for workers. As workers and youth have shown in the Arab world, in Western Europe, and in Latin America, it is possible for ordinary people to change the status-quo and that includes their political party. We are seeing the beginning of a perspective outlined over many decades: that in response to the crisis in society workers move through their traditional mass organizations. This tendency is only going to be heightened in the coming period of austerity and struggle. All the forces present in society will put the NDP under pressure and give the opportunity for socialist ideas to come to the fore. By the time the next election comes, in four years time, we will live in a very different Canada with a very different NDP.