As predicted, Canada now has a minority Liberal government. The results were: Liberals 135, Conservative 99, Bloc Québécois 54, and NDP 19. This puts the Liberals 20 seats short of a majority government. With the NDP unable to prop up the Liberals it is likely Canadians will head back to the polls within a year. Workers and youth who look to the NDP need answers so that the poor showing will not be repeated in the next election.
There were two big losers in this election campaign. Despite their apparent euphoria the Liberals have suffered a significant setback. Only six months ago they were riding high in the polls with their new leader Paul Martin the darling of the corporate press. Everything turned sour, however, when the sponsorship scandal broke and this acted as a lightning rod for years of accumulated discontent. Fortunately the Conservatives were unable to capitalize on the Liberals’ crisis and were also rejected by the voters. Despite being pumped up by the right-wing press and increasingly partisan (and wildly inaccurate) polling firms, the new Conservative party could not attract significant support. This shows that Canadian workers are looking for change, but not change at any price.
The Liberals clung on to power by demonizing the Conservatives for their dramatic tax cuts, cuts to social programs, and support for the Iraq war. The Conservatives were of course guilty of these accusations, but the Liberals have done and will do little different. The Liberal tactics were not aimed so much at Conservative supporters but at the NDP. NDP voters were told, “Don’t split the anti-Conservative vote. Voting for the NDP will let the Conservatives in and Liberal policies are not that different from the NDP’s anyway.” This tactic yielded significant results – the NDP went from polling 20% to a final result of 16% of the popular vote. Frequently these tactics served to actually elect the Conservatives as NDPers split their vote to the third place Liberal (voters were fooled by the press into thinking the NDP had no chance). In many seats the NDP only lost by 1 or 2 percent. If the NDP’s vote was not eroded by vote splitting, (equal to about 4%), they could have doubled their seats and would be in a far better position for the next election. The question arises, how does the NDP combat the vote splitting tactic?
Jack Layton, the NDP leader, ran a fair campaign and was forceful in putting forward his reformist program. The main problem with this program is that it never explained the source of the problems workers face (Capitalism), or the solution (Socialism). When you compare the NDP and Liberal programs you see that the Liberals propose money for healthcare and the NDP proposes more money for healthcare. The Liberals propose childcare spaces and the NDP proposes more spaces. The Liberals propose phased-in money for cities and the NDP proposes money for cities now. Combine this with the inability of the NDP leadership to rule out a coalition with any of the capitalist parties and you can see how the Liberals’ claim to have the same values as the NDP can be convincing. An average worker might think, “I like the NDP’s reforms, but the Liberals are offering the same sort of thing and the NDP are going to work with them in a minority anyway, so I’d better be safe and vote Liberal to keep the Conservatives out.”
Layton is proposing proportional representation as a solution to vote splitting. He correctly pointed out that the NDP’s best result in 1988 yielded over 40 seats with 2.2 million votes while this time they won only 19 seats with 2.1 million votes. But is PR really a solution? While it can seem more democratic it is in fact merely a diversion. Pinning our hopes to a system that leads to coalitions means the NDP bureaucrats will always have an excuse to water down the party program. We do not need another method of shuffling the seats on the HMS Titanic of bourgeois democracy. We need policies that actually improve the lives of working people and win support both at the ballot box and on the streets.
So what is the real solution? The only way to avoid the vote splitting is to adopt a socialist program and explain that the capitalist Liberal and Conservative parties are incapable of solving the problems of Canadian workers. The NDP bureaucrats will answer that the workers will not support a “radical” socialist program – this only goes to show that the bureaucrats have no understanding of how their politics breed defeat. In the past workers did not support the NDP because it was not offering them anything and they could feel that the leaders had no confidence in their ideas.
As soon as the NDP actually started offering reforms (not enough, but still a start), their support jumped to 20%. The Liberals then proposed a left-sounding program (that they have no intention of implementing) and undercut the NDP’s support. Do we need any more evidence that left policies win support? However, it is not enough to just put forward good promises. To avoid vote splitting it is necessary to explain how only by breaking with capitalism will the promises be achieved.
The most tragic example of how a reformist strategy leads to defeat was in the constituency of Vancouver South. Here Bev Meslo, former leadership candidate for the left-wing NDP Socialist Caucus, faced Liberal candidate Ujjal Dosanjh. Dosanjh was the former NDP premier of British Columbia who betrayed his party by defecting to the Liberals. This campaign was a fantastic opportunity to combat right-wing bureaucratic careerism with a working class socialist campaign that could enthuse this mostly working class and immigrant riding. Unfortunately Bev forgot all of her previous socialist verbiage and said, “We have to be careful not to scare away the middle class voters.” This did not stop voters being scared by the prospect of the Conservatives and the NDP lost by a 2:1 margin. We hope Bev has learnt her lesson, as well as those on the left who believe that socialism is a great idea but it will never be popular. These middle-class radicals do not understand that socialism, and its scientific expression Marxism, are merely the culmination of 150 years of working class struggle. Socialist policies are popular when workers believe victory is possible and worth the risk fighting for. Socialist policies are popular because they have been formulated by the workers themselves when struggling to solve their problems.
The final story of this election is the historically low turnout. Only 60% of those eligible bothered to vote despite the wall-to-wall media coverage and the close race that led to an exciting campaign. This is the lowest turnout since Canada became an independent country. 40% of Canadians do not have any hope in political parties. These are predominantly young workers who are the most exploited and oppressed in society. The NDP can attract these disenfranchised workers with a radical campaign that links up with their experience and offers them hope for the future. A socialist campaign leads to victory, not just in parliament but in the lives of workers. In the words of the Pakistani Marxist MP Mansoor Ahmed, “Those who dare win!”.
June 30, 2004