As delegates gather in Montreal for the federal New Democratic Party’s first policy convention since the death of Jack Layton, they face some important choices. After Thomas Mulcair assumed leadership of the party, all sights are set on defeating the Stephen Harper Conservatives in the 2015 federal election. This convention sets the stage for how that fight will be won or lost, and what kind of government will the NDP form if it gains power.


Canadian politics is evolving against a backdrop of a continued global economic crisis: Europe is in turmoil, the USA is yet to recover, and there are significant weaknesses at home with high consumer debt and the possibility of the bursting of the housing bubble.


In response to this failure of capitalist recovery, the federal Conservative government has embarked on a policy of austerity cuts and attacks upon organized workers. Canadian public debt, when aggregated across all sectors, is equal to 87% of GDP. This is not significantly lower than other economies in crisis. Such high debt levels lead to unsustainable debt servicing costs that cut into other government programs.


Everybody agrees that the Conservatives must be defeated, but how is this to be done? It is not sufficient to sit aside and wait for the growing weight of corruption scandals and tiredness to force the Conservatives to collapse in on themselves. This approach is a recipe for mass abstention and cynicism in 2015, rather than building a movement that can bring real change to the lives of working-class people. It also gives an opening to the Liberals, likely under Justin Trudeau, to make a comeback. The reality is that, a year into the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, nobody really knows what the NDP stands for any more.


Mulcair has had a mixed first year as leader. On the plus side, he has opposed oil pipelines that ship good union jobs to low wage jurisdictions with poor environmental standards. Mulcair stood up for the abolition of the undemocratic colonial relic that is the Senate. He also made steps forward in defending the right of self-determination of Quebec by a simple majority (although important in its absence is any understanding that only a socialist society can ensure an end to all national oppressions that come from capitalism).


However, the negatives match, and potentially exceed, the positives. The enforced silence of the federal NDP on the Quebec student strike was, to quote the Napoleonic diplomat Talleyrand, “worse than a crime; it was a mistake.” This was a wasted opportunity to cement the party’s hold on the consciousness of Quebec youth and workers and build a lasting base for the party going forward (not to mention the criminal abandonment of the students themselves waging a fight that benefitted all workers and youth across Canada). Mulcair also made a significant mistake calling for Chief Theresa Spence to end her hunger strike, and for supporting the Conservative process to deal with the Idle No More protests. Since this stumble he has backtracked and the party has tried to repair the damage. Thirdly, under Mulcair, the NDP is yet to oppose Euro free trade (CETA), which opens up Canada to privatization and “race-to-the-bottom” social and environmental regulations. This has elicited a sharp rebuke from the labour movement, with Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan releasing a strong statement.


It lies in the hands of convention delegates and the rank-and-file of the party to make sure that the NDP goes in a direction that not only wins, but is worth winning. If the 2015 election debate comes down to a choice between clear capitalist ideology from the Conservatives, and Mulcair and Trudeau waging a war of platitudes, then it is unlikely that the NDP will win. The only platform that can clearly oppose Conservative capitalist austerity, and enthuse people to get involved, is a socialist program that can provide real change.


Socialist policies are not just vital in winning the debate of ideas with the Harper Tories, they make a fundamental difference in what form of government the NDP will form. The reality is that the Conservatives are not putting through cuts and attacks just because they are bad people. They are compelled to by the logic of the capitalist system itself. Former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond spelled it out very clearly in his analysis of Ontario’s finances, although his study is generally applicable across Canada. Drummond explained that Ontario would not see growth rates above 2% for the foreseeable future. Upon this basis, Canadian governments would be forced to either institute significant austerity or face Italian-style debt. Reformist critics of Drummond could not fault his math; all they could say was that 2% growth was too pessimistic. In effect, the reformists have more faith in capitalism than the capitalists themselves. Rather than being pessimistic, Drummond’s expectation of 2% growth may be too optimistic, taking the housing bubble and consumer debt burden into account. Already this year, federal government revenues are down due to depressed oil and gas prices.


If the NDP accepts the capitalist system then it will end up accepting everything that goes along with it. This means austerity, cuts, and even back-to-work legislation against workers demanding a fair share. If one looks internationally, it is not just conservative governments that are instituting austerity. Because of economic circumstances social democratic governments are being forced to enact the same policy and are tearing themselves to pieces; we only need to look at PASOK in Greece as an example! This is also the lesson of the Bob Rae Ontario government of the 1990s. It took over a decade for the Ontario NDP to recover from the debacle of Rae Days and the Social Contract, but unless the federal NDP breaks with capitalism it is heading down the same path.


It is vital that the delegates to the 2013 federal NDP convention change the course of the party. In this epoch of capitalist crisis, the NDP must break with capitalism if it is to win real change. Only socialism provides the answers that people are increasingly looking for — whether they are students on the streets of Montreal, young parents looking for childcare, indigenous peoples looking for a way out of oppression and disenfranchisement, pensioners looking for respect in retirement, or workers fighting layoffs and back-to-work legislation. These people need the NDP to win power on a socialist program to avert the present, and coming, austerity.