here exists a peculiar tendency on the left in Canada to believe that in order to gain support, electorally or otherwise you must water down your politics to the point of oblivion. The argument is, the less you say, the fewer people you will offend, thereby broadening your base of support. This idea flies in the face of both history and common sense. As comical as this idea may sound, its results are often tragic.
If we take the example of the BC New Democratic Party we can see the impending results of this idea. After a decade in government, a decade of compromises and betrayals, the BC NDP was decimated in the 2001 provincial election. They were reduced to just two seats in the legislature. Of course, this government was followed by the BC Liberal government which proceeded to deliberately and systematically attack the working class. Naturally there was a reaction against this new government. A mass movement was built against the cuts and a new layer of activists came to the fore. In a period of just four years, the BC NDP tripled its membership.
But now as the election approaches, enter the peculiar tendency coined by Steve Orcherton as the “mushy middle”. The argument is put, “We lost the last election because we made a lot of promises that we didn’t keep”. This we can agree with. It would seem that the logical conclusion would be to keep your promises, but the leadership of the BC NDP takes a different approach. They argue that if they make no promises, then there will be no promises to break.
In the eyes of the party leadership, this will not only free them from the burden of actually changing anything, but they truly believe they will gain support from it! They think that they can appeal to more people with less substance. But here lies the fundamental contradiction. If the NDP comes to power on the back of the anti-Campbell movement, their electors will be expecting change. One does not vote for a political party because of what they aren’t saying. People who vote NDP do so because they want change. But, of course, if they promise nothing that is precisely what they will deliver. The only thing the NDP can achieve by being silent is alienating their base of support. The last provincial election had the lowest voter turnout in over twenty years. Through their agenda of moderation and compromise in government the NDP alienated their traditional base and many party supporters simply stayed home in disgust.
The irony of the situation is that they are pursuing the only policy that could result in failure in this election. If the NDP were to come out boldly in the campaign and promise to overturn all of Campbell’s cuts, they would sail to victory. They would harness all of the energy of the anti-Campbell movement and galvanize the support of the large layers of the working class that normally don’t bother voting. They rely on the hatred of the current regime and hope the province will come out to vote against it. But, people need something to vote for as well. The current platform leaves the election hanging in the balance, the NDP falling in the polls and endangers every British Columbian with four more years of right-wing rule.
The same tendency is raising its head in left wing coalitions and activist groups across the country. We see this opinion being expressed by some in the Venezuelan solidarity movement. They aim to appeal to the broadest range of people and so strive to say as little as possible. It is argued that they cannot oppose all imperialist intervention in Venezuela for fear of alienating any Canadian imperialists. They cannot defend the gains of the Bolivarian revolution for fear of alienating those who don’t agree with Chavez’s program. And of course, they cannot criticize the current role of the Canadian government in Venezuela because they hope to convince the government to oppose US imperialism and side with Venezuela. Of course, supporters of Fightback and Hands Off Venezuela argue that Canadian imperialists cannot play any progressive role, the gains of the revolution are what will attract people and the Canadian government is opposed to the Bolivarian revolution for their own imperialist interests and that will not change.
Again, we see this same tendency creeping into the Coalition of Progressive Electors in Vancouver. A year and a half ago COPE was swept to power in a spectacular demonstration of grassroots campaigning. They won every candidate that they ran, taking control of the city council, the school board and the parks board. Anybody involved in the campaign will remember seeing rank and file members with COPE signs at every major street corner. They came to power on promises of cleaning up the downtown eastside and standing up to Gordon Campbell.
But after a few months in office cracks and fissures started to emerge in the coalition. There was a clear right and left in the party, informally coined Diet COPE and COPE Classic. Now almost two years later this split has blown wide open. The rightwing headed by Mayor Larry Campbell has decided to split and form their own party. At COPE’s annual general meeting in April the right-wing didn’t even bother to show up; Larry Campbell was nowhere to be seen. The left has a towering majority in the rank and file of COPE. And this is no surprise; Diet COPE is able to pass its policies on city council with the support of the NPA councilors. The downtown east side is in worse shape than ever and Diet COPE has ignored the wishes of the rank and file on several occasions.
But now that COPE Classic has won a massive majority amongst the membership, they have decided to appeal to Diet COPE to come back. There was even talk of coming to some sort of arrangement with Larry’s new party and running a unity slate in the civic elections in November. They believe that they must water down their politics and push to the middle in order to win support. But what they don’t see is that the very thing that will draw people to the coalition is their policies. They were swept to power on those policies. Larry Campbell and his cronies have been completely discredited precisely because he didn’t follow through on those commitments. The policies of the left in COPE are the policies that will attract people to them.
In order to win support, electorally or otherwise, you must not water down your politics to the point of oblivion. On the contrary, workers are motivated into action by concrete demands. When you work eight hours (or more) a day and you have a family to raise and a life to live you need a damn good reason to get involved in extra-curricular activities. The overwhelming majority of the working class is not active in politics, not because they are afraid of socialist policies, but precisely because no one is putting them forward. It is that simple. In a time when capitalism is in crisis and the working class is under attack around the globe it is imperative that we raise demands that correspond with the day to day struggles of ordinary people. Only then will we see the working class rallying under our banner and only then will we be able to make any lasting change.