By-elections are being held in three federal ridings today, including Burnaby South, Outremont, and York-Simcoe. The three races have been dubbed a “referendum” on Trudeau’s Liberals, who are sagging in the polls amid a scandal involving construction giant SNC-Lavalin. However, today’s by-elections are just as much a referendum on the NDP under Jagmeet Singh, which despite the misfortunes of the Prime Minister, has failed to enthuse working class voters and is currently stuck at 14% in the polls.
Jessa McLean is the NDP candidate for York-Simcoe, a riding considered to be a Conservative stronghold. Mclean is a longtime activist and a self identified socialist. She has spoken openly about the misfortunes of the NDP, which she believes can be blamed on the party’s inability to provide bold, socialist policies that speak to working people. Fightback recently sat down with Mclean to hear her thoughts on issues affecting Canadians, the crisis of capitalism, and the direction she believes the NDP should be going.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length
Fightback: To begin, you have openly identified as a socialist during your campaign. What kind of reception have you received so far?
Jessa McLean: It’s varied. I don’t lead with it at the door by using the label per se, but the policies are there and people respond to them. There’s a funny story from just the other day where I went to a house with a Conservative sign, and he told me to keep my flyer. I told him that he should keep it, because it might spark something that speaks to him. He replies with “Oh, sparks something like socialism? Unionism?” and I reply, yes! Absolutely! He was certainly not very happy with me. Some people do treat it with disdain, but when you talk about it without labels — especially in a conservative town — and instead focus on the socialist policies and the word “working class” for example, many Conservative voters are actually quite warm to that!
FB: Often when there is discussion about socialist policies, we are told it’s impractical. However, if you look at the Corbyn campaign in Britain, where he openly discusses socialism and working class issues, he actually goes up in the polls. He’s proving that people want socialist policies. What’s your view of the Corbyn phenomenon and bold socialist campaigns?
JM: Being explicitly bold is appealing to people, and Corbyn is on the right path when it comes to that. He’s talking in ways that working people understand without mincing words. Part of the reason why I never saw myself as running as a candidate was actually because I thought I would be constrained from using the “S” word, or talking about nationalization, or taxing the rich for example. But it’s not a thing we have to be afraid to talk about. Sometimes when we canvass, there are people worried about using this language, but I think it’s fine to take a bit longer at the door and explain these ideas to people. It’s important, because for too long the NDP has worried about electoral strategy instead of values and what we should stand for. People are sick of the political norms. They’ve heard it for years, and trying to placate the status quo just won’t work anymore. Ultimately it’s only by talking about these ideas that they will become normalized within people’s minds. We can’t just wait for the right time.
FB: Right, being bold and providing answers is something that resonates with people.
JM: Right, and the NDP is guilty of this honestly. Of thinking they know what people want, without actually talking to working people on the ground. There haven’t actually been many candidates in the NDP that run as open socialists. So the claims that it would be negative really haven’t been shown. At the beginning of my campaign, me and my team made it clear that it wouldn’t be about just getting votes, it would be about putting forward socialist ideas and policies to the people. I refuse to just stick to what might be palatable for the mainstream, because that’s just not the way the NDP should be running campaigns.
FB: You mentioned nationalization. GM recently announced a wave of closures, putting thousands of jobs at risk. In Oshawa, for example, a town that is built on GM, you had an announcement that the plant would be closing.
JM: Oshawa workers would say it was them that built GM.
FB: Yes, exactly. It’s an extremely unjust situation where these workers that have built this company up are now on the line. Fightback has advocated factory occupations and nationalization to save the jobs. What are your thoughts on this?
JM: I am definitely in favour of nationalizing the GM plants. We have to put forward bold ideas like this. People will talk about scaring companies off, but they’re not staying here anyway! How much money have we put into these factories? Aren’t they ours anyway? Nationalization is the way forward, and not just for GM. Our telecoms are another example of an industry that should be nationalized. Of course, the NDP would actually have to take power to realize these policies, but it’s possible. Another key factor would have to be massive union and grassroots support for stuff like this. A lot of people right now might feel that this is a ridiculous demand, but it’s possible.
FB: At the demonstrations against the closures, we’ve actually seen a lot of workers sympathize and agree with nationalization as the way forward. It’s clearly starting to become a more tangible solution since the GM plants are going to leave sooner rather than later. Nationalization becomes something real since there seems to be no other way out of unemployment for these workers. These ideas are growing in popularity as the situation develops.
JM: We always knew that as the situation gets more dire, people will understand that radical action has to be taken. Capitalism isn’t working, and this will become clearer as things get worse. To the GM workers right now, these jobs are everything to them, and so of course these ideas are becoming more tangible. It’s just one example of people losing faith in capitalism and realizing the wealth isn’t going to trickle down, it’s staying at the top.
FB: Doug Ford recently announced cuts to OSAP grants and the abolition of the six month grace period on student loans after you graduate. This has enraged students, and talk of organizing against the cuts is now at the top of the agenda for students. What’s your view on free education as a demand the NDP should put forward?
JM: It’s a core part of my platform. Not only post-secondary, but free education in skills schools as well. People shouldn’t have to pay to get into their apprenticeships. Society as a whole benefits when everyone has an education. And not in debt! I’m still paying off my student loans. We have to fight against these cuts, but we also have to go further. We should be demanding free tuition! Instead of begging for our grants back, we need it to be free. In the end, even if we got OSAP back, students would still be saddled with huge debt. Before Ford, I certainly did. Don’t get me wrong, the cuts are awful, but we can’t just go back to the status quo.
FB: At a recent rally, Fightback launched a petition for those in favour of a student strike, and in just an hour, we got over 200 signatures. What’s your view on using student strikes to fight for free education?
JM: I think the students have the best opportunity to initiate a complete general strike by leading the way for the rest of us. For a long time, we’ve tried to get all unions mobilized together in the face of these relentless cuts. If the students went forward like they did in Quebec 2012, they could lead the way. I don’t know how else you stop someone in a majority government. There’s an election in three years, but we have to look at all options, and I think a student strike is completely reasonable considering what everyone is facing from Ford. All sectors should be considering striking. All these small groups are waging their own battle against austerity, but we need to unify across all sectors.
FB: We’ve often said that waiting three years for another election isn’t going to help us stop austerity right now. It’s not a solution. A general strike is one of the only ways to stop Ford.
JM: Honestly, people suffering from these cuts are generally devastated when I speak at the door to them. We can undo all of this with the right government, but three years is too long. Three years of student debt is a lot of money, for example. The Conservatives have a majority and have shown they clearly don’t care who they’re hurting.
FB: Going back to the NDP, there has been a lot of confusion around the question of Venezuela. Some candidates like you and Niki Ashton have come out against the imperialist backed coup for example. You’ve had others in the NDP support the coup, and you’ve had Jagmeet Singh waffle in the middle which leads to more confusion. What do you think of the ongoing situation?
JM: My position hasn’t changed. I don’t give a complete seal of approval for Maduro’s government, but we have to reject any and all US imperialism. It’s a complete facade that this is about the people of Venezuela. It’s about the resources and profit in Venezuela. As a nation, we’re on the wrong side. It’s true we’ve had and we’re going to have different voices in our party about this issue. I appreciate that, I mean, different opinions is part of democracy. But democracy is not the concern of the Canadian government in Venezuela. We should have no part of that. The humanitarian aid is a farce, honestly. We have people starving right here at home and nothing is being done. All of a sudden, the Canadian government cares about starving people in Venezuela?
FB: Yes, this coup is clearly driven by a desire for profit.
JM: And an ideological threat as well! I don’t have to remind you that they did the same thing to Cuba for decades and also attempted an invasion all under the guise of humanitarian aid. It’s about profit, but also about silencing any idea that you can develop a country outside of capitalism. Any government that employs socialist values is a threat to imperialism.
FB: We can finish on this question, since we mentioned the NDP quite a bit, but what do you see as the way forward for the NDP? We had Mulcair in the last election, who took the NDP in a right wing direction. Even the word socialism was removed from the NDP constitution at a Federal NDP convention in 2013, something we [Fightback] fought hard against. So what’s the way forward for the NDP today?
JM: The NDP has to encourage socialist candidates. The more bold that we are, the more left we are—and I mean community oriented, working class driven, to be clear—we can be very successful. We should follow Corbyn’s example in Britain and even AOC’s example in the United States. We have to go left. We cannot keep worrying about how it might be perceived, we have to stick to our values. We keep trying to moderate ourselves and our language. People want to hear real explanations, and speaking truth to power so to speak. We water down our message too much in order to play the political game. We also need to start speaking in a bolder and more accessible way to working class people. Instead of sounding like robots, we have to be more human and connect with workers.
FB: So a new, socialist direction is what I’m hearing?
JM: Yes! Yes! Absolutely, with all that language. We should educate working people on the language of socialism too. I know there’s a lot of groups like you [Fightback] doing it, but the NDP has massive resources for this kind of work. We can do it on a massive national scale.
FB: Right, bringing socialism back into mass politics.
JM: Exactly, and the party has a big role to play in that. It shouldn’t be left to you guys all the time! I’ve been told multiple times to not use language like “working class”, but we have to bring that back so we can build a united, solidarity-driven movement. It may not win us votes immediately, but we have to play the long game.