What went wrong?
It was no secret that Gordon Campbell’s government was unpopular. After sweeping to power four years earlier, the BC Liberals proceeded to deliberately and systematically attack the working class. One third of the public service was eliminated; labour laws were torn to shreds and the labour movement was angry. The next four years were a whirlwind of class struggle. Strikes, demonstrations and occupations were the order of the day as the working class heroically tried to defend the gains that they had fought so hard for over the last century. Even decades old child labour laws were being gutted. The height of the movement brought the province to the brink of a general strike when the government legislated a 15% wage cut for the Hospital Employees Union and removed their right to strike. The province became increasingly polarized between two irreconcilable camps – the workers and their unions and the bosses and their government.
It would seem the obvious choice for a politician would be to back the clear majority, but the new leaders of the NDP had a different idea. Carole James’ new moderate NDP would try to walk the middle line. At the close of the last BC NDP leadership convention no one would have expected the sudden right turn our leader was about to take.
Carole James surprised many by appearing before the Coalition of BC Businesses to try (in vain) to gain the support of the ruling class. Her July speech included many promises to work together with business and labour, as if such a partnership was possible. She summed up her view of the troubled political situation and her antidote in these words:
"Today, our province is as polarized and divided as it’s ever been. If BC was, in the words of former Premier Mike Harcourt, a “hot” province a few years ago, today it is boiling over. And I believe very strongly that if we are going to achieve our potential, we need an approach that cools things down, that demands of each of us a willingness to listen, to encourage compromises and to provide a new kind of leadership for BC. And meeting this challenge requires a partnership, built on trust between government, labour, and the business community."
These are truly surprising words from a leader of the NDP! Here we see the party of organized labour bending over backwards to appease the bosses. In a statement that summed up her entire speech Carole James boasted, “As the new leader of the BC New Democrats, I am reaching out to the business community in a way New Democrats have not done before.”
And this was only the beginning. The next ten months leading up to the election would see a series of compromises. By the time the platform was released, the momentum of the anti-Cambell movement had dissipated. Without a clear way forward, the working class began to fall into inactivity. The Liberal and NDP platforms looked strikingly similar and even many mainstream reporters described the campaign as boring.
The NDP platform didn’t even promise to overturn Campbell’s massive tax cut for the rich, let alone rebuild the social services that had been decimated. The campaign focused on attacking Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberal government. Of course there was plenty for people to vote against, but the leadership of the NDP didn’t give people anything to vote for. The results were tragic. Voter turnout was pathetically low. Just 57% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot.
Of course, the NDP made many gains in the election. After being reduced to only two seats in a legislature of seventy-nine in the 2001 election, the NDP won thirty-three seats in 2005. But these victories were in spite of the leadership, rather than because of it. After so many cuts and attacks from Campbell’s government, this election should have been a cake walk. But the leadership failed to inspire people. They failed to show a vision of the future that was concrete and attainable, a plan to dramatically improve the lives of the mass of the population.
Delusions of the Leaders
For the first time in BC’s history, the mainstream press is tripping over itself to praise the leadership of the NDP. This should be a clear indicator that something is seriously wrong! Carole James has had relative support from the media ever since she began pushing the party to the right. The press is spinning the election as a victory for the NDP. They present Carole James’ leadership as the savior of the party. They say that this was the best possible outcome for the NDP and that it was “beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic NDPers”. And the leadership of the party is actually starting to believe it!
“What an amazing night! What a historic night for the NDP!” Carole James shouted from the podium at campaign headquarters on election night. For those of us watching on TV at home, it was a very strange sight. Just as it was becoming clear that the election had been lost and another four years of right-wing rule lay ahead of us, the leader of the BC NDP gave a concession speech that sounded more like a victory speech.
Carole talked about the wonderful state of BC’s democracy. She thanked all the candidates from all parties for running. She even said that she had called Gordon Campbell to congratulate him on his victory and wished his government well. “The people of BC have spoken.” But did they? Out of 3,064,687 eligible voters, only 1,762,450 showed up at the poll booth. Over 40% of the province’s voters didn’t even bother.
In an article titled "What’s Left of the Left?" published a few weeks before the election I wrote,
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.
Then, on election day, I published another article ("Election Day in British Columbia: NDP in trouble") explaining,
Trotsky once pointed out that if you stand in the middle of the road, you will get hit by traffic from both directions. That is precisely what is happening in the NDP. That is why they lost the last election and that is why they are loosing this one. As Carole James presses further to the right, the only thing she is accomplishing is alienating the traditional base of support for the party.
It is this whole drive to the center of the political spectrum that has cost us another election. The leading clique in the NDP has tried to transcend class politics. They constantly talk of governing for “all British Columbians”, but this of course goes against every law of the capitalist system. Perhaps Lenin put it best in a short essay written in March 1913 when he wrote “whoever now speaks of non-class politics and non-class Socialism simply deserves to be put in a cage and exhibited alongside of the Australian kangaroo”.
Defend the Link with Labour!
It is not enough that the leaders have betrayed the core values of the party; they now want to break the very foundations of it. There is a push from Carole James to amend the constitution at the convention in November and break ties with the labour movement. The NDP was formed when the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation teamed up with the Canadian labour movement to form a new political party – a labour party. Unions affiliate directly to the party and are given delegates to conventions. Over 20% of the votes on the convention floor come from delegates representing their unions. The right wing of the party argues the unions must be disaffiliated to modernize the party. On the contrary, this will not bring the NDP into the future, but send it forty years into the past.
In a speech to the Canadian Labour Congress, celebrated prairie socialist and first leader of the New Democratic Party Tommy Douglas pushed for the labour movement to join forces with the CCF:
The second thing that needs to be adapted to change is the role of the labour movement. For more than half a century the role of the trade union movement has been to improve the lot of the workers. To get better wages and better working conditions, better hours to establish the right of collective bargaining and get better agreements.
The workers of this country weather they’re in the trade union movement or not are deeply indebted to you for all of the work that you have done for those who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. And that past still has to be continued, but I am here today to suggest that there is another role that the trade union movement must also play it’s part and that is a political role. We have now reached a time in our history when the trade union movement cannot afford to be unconcerned about who sits in the law making bodies of our land. Why? Because with a stroke of a pen, those who have their hands on the levers of power can wipe out in a few days all of the gains you have made at the bargaining table and on the picket-line!
The labour movement joined forces with democratic socialism, forming the New Democratic Party of Canada. Tommy Douglas himself was recently voted the “Greatest Canadian” in history by the Canadian public. He is widely credited for building the universal healthcare system and bringing the labour movement into politics. Tommy made a point of addressing every convention of the Canadian Labour Congress and campaigned for many years to bring them into the party.
I cannot help but think of one of the speeches made by leadership candidate Mehdi Nejari at the last convention. He begged the convention floor for an answer, “What have we done to the party of J.S Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas? What have we done?”
Indeed, the founding members of this party would be rolling in their graves at the actions of the leadership of the BC NDP. The turn to the right and the loss of another election are serious setbacks for the party, but breaking the link with labour would be a far more devastating blow. Now that the election campaign is over, it is time to take our party back. The first goal is to ensure that the coming convention does not pass the constitutional amendments being put forward. We need leadership that isn’t ashamed of their connections with working people. Every member of the NDP should be proud of our movement and our history. The founding document of the CCF, the Regina Manifesto vowed that “No CCF government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth”. These words are not relics of the past, but a radical programme for our future.