Workers and youth in Canada are looking for an alternative to austerity and capitalist crisis, and failing to provide one cost the NDP the 2015 federal election. Fightback recently sat down with Cheri DiNovo, provincial MPP for Parkdale-High Park, who has publicly called for federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair to step down for his role in the loss, to discuss the direction of the party. DiNovo started by highlighting the contrast between the bold politics of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the uninspiring talk of “balanced budgets” that dominated the federal NDP campaign (which during a time of capitalist crisis really means more austerity). “That contrast is so dramatic that people are starting to wake up,” said DiNovo.
DiNovo attributes the crushing defeat of the 2015 federal election to “letting go of our principles and swinging to the right.” “What we need going forward is not to be another Liberal Party, but to be something very distinct.” DiNovo highlighted that moderation and centre-right politics have failed time and time again, citing what she called the “disasters” of the BC NDP campaign under Adrian Dix, the Ontario NDP campaign under Andrea Horwath and the Toronto mayoral campaign of Olivia Chow. These defeats show very clearly that shifting to the right is not the way to win elections. “The only place left to go is left,” remarked DiNovo. We at Fightback have explained in previous articles that the NDP needs to stand on bold, socialist politics to galvanize support and win.
These politics would speak to the growing discontent of workers and youth in society. However, DiNovo highlighted that NDP election platforms are largely disconnected from the mood of society because they are determined by a handful of unelected, backroom strategists instead of coming from the grassroots through policy debate and discussion. “What we really desperately need is to listen to the voices of the grassroots, both inside and outside of the party. We desperately need to listen to the voices of activists, those on the left, those who are close to the ground, who are talking to people; we need those voices and we need to reflect those voices.” The NDP should first and foremost be the vehicle of political struggle for workers and youth and winning an election should serve that purpose, not replace it.
DiNovo has been outspoken in her criticism that the party has strayed from its founding principles. “Our campaign that talked about balancing the budgets, well that’s not even Keynesianism; it’s to the right of New Deal politics,” she said with exasperation. On the revenue-stream side of things, DiNovo criticized the leadership for not addressing the dramatic reduction in corporate taxes over the last several decades, resulting in cuts to social services. Other campaign promises didn’t go far enough, according to her:
“We need a $15 minimum wage for all workers across Canada, not just federal employees. The $15 child care was a welcome promise, but we need it now not in eight years. These are basic social democratic demands. If we can’t even be social democratic then how can we ever hope to offer an alternative to neoliberalism?”
We asked DiNovo what she thought the significance for the NDP is regarding the momentum building around the Bernie Sanders campaign in the U.S. and with Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. She discussed how there is clearly a hunger for real change and that the NDP leadership’s initial explanation for doing so poorly in the election was “absolutely delusional.” It wasn’t because of Mulcair’s position on the niqab, which was the same position taken by Justin Trudeau. That the party got its second highest number of seats in its history is not something to be celebrated when it started out with 41 per cent in the polls and then went on to lose 51 seats. This crushing loss was the direct result of the failure to offer an alternative to austerity and crisis.
DiNovo says that people from coast to coast have reached out to support her speaking out publicly with her criticisms. “Let’s put it this way,” she said, “there is a lot of sentiment to finally be who we can be at our best, which is the party of Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth; the party of democratic socialism. That involves a hell of a lot more demands than just 15 and 15 and I think that the world is ready for that; it has been for a while.” She continued on to say, “I think if we are going to maintain any kind of integrity and a chance at winning, quite frankly we’ve got to veer left and dramatically so.” “We need to be a real labour party,” she continued. She described how policies like card-check certification, anti-scab legislation and sectoral organizing could change the political landscape in Canada and be used to fight austerity.
I asked DiNovo what policies are needed beyond “15 and 15”. “The bottom line is that we have to eradicate poverty. It’s really not that dramatic, it can be done with a national housing strategy, which is key,” she replied. “We need pharmacare as well as dental; we need to stand for really free, universal post- secondary education; we need to forgive outrageous student debt,” she continued, elaborating that the last point alone could have won the election. I figured that according to DiNovo these policies could be funded through corporate taxation so I asked her what we could do if big business responded by moving elsewhere. “Sure, they can leave but they will now owe us these taxes, so we then will take over whatever infrastructure they have here and let the workers run it.” I noted that that this directly challenges private ownership and the profit motive of capitalism, to which she responded:
“When you look at Sanders’ campaign, really its New Deal politics; it’s social democracy. So this is not even revolutionary, we’ve got a long way to go to get there in the NDP, to even get to where Sanders is, but I think that yes we can be bolder. When you look at what the CCF had in its mandate, when you look at what J.S. Woodsworth and what Tommy Douglas stood for; workers control, this is the way forward. How do you [advocate] green manufacturing if it’s only for the profit motive for the 62 billionaires at the top who control half the world’s wealth? If it’s only their say who controls the way production is managed we will never save our planet.”
DiNovo is highlighting a salient point: you can’t control what you don’t own. Under capitalism, production is administered for profit and all other considerations are secondary. “To me it’s life and death,” DiNovo explained. “It’s the life of our planet or the death of our planet and quite frankly, under capitalism, the planet will not survive, it simply can’t.”
I asked DiNovo what she would like to say to workers and youth who have been radicalized by the crisis of capitalism and are looking for change. This was her message to all of you:
“Don’t give up on the party. I know it’s been frustrating for those of us on the left of the party, but this is the vehicle we need to keep fighting through. In a very real sense history is on our side, very real crises are about to happen and people will be looking for answers. So hang in there, because we need to be there, democratic socialists need to be there. We have this organization, it’s called the NDP, it’s got good roots. Let’s take it back to its roots, let’s make it the real labour party of Canada, let’s make it stand on principle rather than on polling and let’s move ahead.”
Fightback applauds DiNovo for standing up to the ruling establishment of the NDP that brought defeat in the 2015 federal election. Open socialist policies, like free education, genuine and immediate universal childcare and workers’ control are required to enthuse youth and workers into the party, like Corbyn and Sanders. However, we also point out that as long as the capitalist system remains intact, any gains won through struggle can be reversed. Marxists fight for a genuine socialist transformation of society and observe that there is no middle ground between production for greed, or for human need.
Jessica C: You’ve talked about the crushing defeat in the federal election, how it was a result of moderation. Can you could elaborate?
Cheri DiNovo: I think the tide is starting to turn, Jeremy Corbyn and Sanders in contrast to the crap we’ve been spewing. It’s so dramatic that people are finally waking up. Two articles jump to mind. One is the Linda McQuaig article, this idea that loyalty to the party means that you can’t be critical, which I think is nonsense. The other article that came out is Chantelle Herbert’s article that says this isn’t just about Tom, the swing to the right has been happening in the NDP for a while. And I would agree with that. I don’t agree with her analysis, however, that we do best when we are liberals. When there is a weak Liberal party and we act the role of the Liberal party, that’s where we win elections. I think, sadly, it may have been true in the past, in the sense that you get the Bob Rae kind of government or the Dexter kind of government, that I think do a disservice to democratic socialism, because there is a weak Liberal party and they capitalize on that. But certainly that is not the way forward. The way forward for us, and clearly the way forward now in the JT empire, Trudeau 2.0, is not to be another Liberal party but to be something very distinct from that. Our crushing defeat was a result of, yet again, not having learned from the Adrian Dix disaster and the Ontario provincial election – I would say that was a disaster too. And the Olivia Chow disaster in Toronto. It’s the result of letting go of any principles we may have had and swinging to the right. The other aspect is that those policies and platform promises are dreamed up by a handful of people in a back room somewhere. They aren’t even the result of the party membership, and certainly not the result of elected members. They’re presented to both as a fait accompli, instead of coming from the grassroots in terms of policy debate and discussion. I think you see that in our conventions and in our councils; I hope it’s different at the next convention. What we really desperately need is to listen to the voices of the grassroots. We desperately need, both inside and outside of the party, activists, people on the left who are close to the ground who are talking to people. We need those voices and we need to reflect those voices. And unless we do that, of course we’ll just be another Liberal party, because it will only be about just winning.
J: You were saying there’s backroom strategists who aren’t reflecting the mood of a society that actually is looking for change…
C: The only place left to go is left. Because now that the Liberals spun left and are kind of veering to the left of the Liberal spectrum, people have a genuine question for us. And that is, “What makes you different?” And if we don’t have an answer to that question – which quite frankly we don’t right now – then why should anyone vote for us? And that’s clearly reflected in the polling that’s coming out right now, where you see that ever since the federal election the drop in NDP support has been dramatic, and the drop for Tom as well. I think there is a genuine hunger for difference. To me it’s life and death. It’s the life of our planet or the death of our planet. And quite frankly, under capitalism – and I’ve known this since I was sixteen – the planet will not survive under capitalism, it simply can’t. You can’t keep gobbling up resources at the rate we are, you can’t keep the machine going and growing without depleting what we have, and that was predictable decades ago. So dramatic change has to happen. Hence Naomi Klein’s book. We need dramatic change, we need it now.
J: You think the NDP should be the voice of that change?
C: Absolutely. And I think people feel the stresses and strains on their lives in various ways, but certainly in terms of planetary disaster it’s critical.
J: You’ve highlighted in some of your interviews and articles that the focus on balancing the budget, for a lot of people, was interpreted as austerity, because in the context of the capitalist crisis which we are living in, and state debt that can only mean cuts and attacks.
C: Absolutely. And so you’ve got the spin where you see the recent provincial budget, which is an absolute austerity budget, and the spin is that it’s not. And we’ll continue to see that kind of thing. Certainly our campaign talked about balanced budgets, which isn’t even Keynesian, because even Keynes said you should put money in during a technical recession. So this is even to the right of the New Deal, and where that comes from is terrifying. There’s also the reluctance on the revenue stream side to talk about real taxation change, not just a little bit more corporate taxes, not even talking about wealth taxes. We left that to the Liberals, which is outrageous. We need to talk about the dramatic shift in taxation that has happened over the last several decades, where we have some of the lowest corporate tax rates anywhere and the lowest wealth taxes, and of course you can’t have one without cutting social services on the other side. That conversation has to be had, and people are ready for it. They’re clearly ready for it, and yet we weren’t. Our leadership wasn’t ready, they didn’t have that conversation. So we had $15 minimum wage, but it should be for everyone. It should be more than $15 now, and for everyone, not just federal employees. The $15 child care, which was a welcome promise, but not in 8 years – right away. These are core social democratic principles. If we can’t even be social democratic, if we can’t even promise and stand behind what they already have in countries in Europe, then how can we ever hope to provide an alternative to neoliberalism? I don’t think we can.
J: you touched on Sanders and Corbyn. These campaigns have shaken every day politics to its core, completely stirred things up, and mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters. There must be some lessons for the NDP?
C: One would think and hope. You can see it starting to take hold. You can see Tom Mulcair’s dramatic shift in messaging, right? What inspired me to speak out – which is difficult to do as an elected member as you can imagine – but what inspired me to do that was the absolute delusional talk that came out of the federal NDP after that loss. Things like, “It’s the second best result ever.” I’m sorry, that’s delusional after that loss, when we started with over 41% in the polls, and not taking responsibility, not looking at it in any serious way. This to me was a situation of the emperor not wearing any clothes and nobody is telling him he’s naked. It’s really for the emperor’s own sake that someone says, “Guess what? You need to put some clothes on.” I felt like that. And it seemed to be equally bizarre that no one else was saying it. When I did say it, I heard, literally, from people coast to coast saying, “Finally someone is saying it!” Including some people, I’m not at liberty to say who, but who are pretty solid, big names in the NDP. Let’s put it this way: there is a lot of sentiment to finally be who we can be at our best, which is the party of Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth. The party of democratic socialism. That has a hell of a lot more demands than just 15 and 15. And I think the world is ready. It has been for a while. We didn’t read the signs right. But it’s not too late. It’s a good thing to have an existential crisis sometimes, and we are having one in the NDP. And yes, the answer is to go left, unlike some of the pundits out there in the mainstream media who don’t think that’s the answer. There is no place else to go, very simply. There are those who would have us close our doors and not have a labour party at all. Of course that’s what neoliberalism would love, so we have Democrats and Republicans like they do in the States – that’s always what the mainstream media has wanted. I think if we are going to maintain any kind of integrity and a chance at winning, quite frankly, we’ve got to veer left and dramatically so, and we’ve got to reinvent ourselves in light of what we’ve already been at points in our history. It’s not anything new. It’s in fact something much older than what we’ve been evidencing lately. That’s the important call.
And the Leap Manifesto… well, the document itself is pretty broad strokes, it doesn’t say anything too radical, but what it says is kind of a baseline for environmental action. More to the point, I think for progressives who feel alienated – they wouldn’t call themselves democratic socialists yet, but they’re progressives who feel alienated from mainstream parties – I think this is an organizing tool. The amount of people getting involved speaks to there being progressive left thinkers in and around the party.
That’s where I think a lot of passion lies. A lot of people are being radicalized around the environment because it’s so very clear that it is urgent, we have limited time left.
J: It has been shown that putting forward bold politics can also draw people in. Many who hadn’t previously identified with socialism agree with free education, a higher minimum wage and shifting billions of war funding to social programs, and now that those demands are being put forward by Sanders, Corbyn, greater numbers of workers and youth are identifying with socialism.
C: Absolutely. And the other part of it is to be a real labour party, which we haven’t been very effectively. You need things like card check certification, anti-scab legislation. You need sectoral organization, which when you look at the Scandinavian countries is the reason they have 85% union rates, because when you have sectoral organization, when you’ve organized part of one sector you’ve de facto organized the whole sector. These are really important labour advances that are already in place in other countries, that would change the landscape of Canadian politics. If we could just be the real labour party, not just speak to the heads of the unions, but have the rank and file come on board. That’s something that really does terrify neoliberalism, because there has been a war on labour for decades now. If we could just energize labour and its base, the rank and file of the unions, and really make ourselves the voice of labour again, I think that’s something significant. I know I’m not alone, even though I seem to be the only person in elected office speaking out about this, quite frankly I represent a voice that is quite large, and I think that’s the hope. I just hope that people feel empowered at the convention, and whether Tom stays or goes, I think the rebirth of the party is up to all of us, not just up to four people.
J: We also saw the election of Gary Burrill in Nova Scotia, which I think is a reflection of people looking for more bold politics; his platform mirrors Sanders’.
C: Absolutely. Here’s the thing about Bernie Sanders: whether he wins or loses, in a sense he’s already won because he has changed the conversation, and has changed the ground, the template of running elections. Ditto Jeremy Corbyn. Already those are huge and substantial wins in the right direction. And I think there is a whole generation, when they wake up from the Trudeau fog, that will get that this is all spin and that really what we need is fundamental change in the economy. My awakening was as a teenager. And literally back then it was about pollution, it was about the environment. I remember watching a documentary and thinking, pretty clearly, that capitalism cannot coexist with a world that lasts, simply because of the nature of its perennial growth. We really are at a critical time. There are two routes for most young folks – complete cynicism or hedonism, or to get politically active. And we need to provide the vehicle so people can get politically active and actually do some organizing, so that we’re welcoming rather than dissuading youth in terms of political action.
J: You talked about some of the politics, that as a baseline, the NDP needs to advance going forward, like 15 and 15, now and for everyone. Are there any other bold policies you think are particularly important to advance?
C: The labour demands I had mentioned. There’s a lot that is provincial, really. Certainly guaranteed annual income, but it has to be constructed well. It can’t just be handing out food stamps to Walmart employees so that corporations can get away with paying starvation wages while the government pays the rest. Bottom line is, we have to eradicate poverty. It’s really not that dramatic, it can be done with a national housing strategy, which is key. These are the bottom lines. We need to stand for all of the above. Yes, pharmacare, but also dental, we need to stand for that. We need to stand for really free education, i.e. really free, not just the Liberal here and there. The universality of post-secondary is really critical, the universality of social services is really critical. Forgiving loans, we need to forgive outrageous debt; that alone would have won us the election. Here we are, these are all core principled demands of the left, of democratic socialism. And now that we’re not scared of the word, nor should we be, let’s just look at what that means. There’s all sorts of things we could do around industry too, which is very different. We can talk about the way banking plays a role in our economy and what needs to happen in banking sector. But quite clearly where we’re at right now, what’s most important is the social services end of democratic socialism. We’ve got to say, we have to have free post-secondary. Let’s just look at social democratic countries and see what they already have. This is hardly revolutionary. Just to, at least, stand for what other countries have already achieved. We as the labour party should and must go there.
J: The Liberals have always been a party of Bay Street at the end of the day, and the NDP should be a party of labour. You talked a bit earlier about how we would fund some of these policies, progressive taxation on corporations. But as you mentioned in your Toronto Sun op-ed these policies clash with the profit motive of capitalism.
C: Here’s the thing, this is always the question for socialists. The question is, “Well, if you did that the corporations, because we have globalization, will pick up and move, so we have to play footsie with them. We have to make them happy or they will pick up and move.” There’s lots of answers to that. The key things are, yeah, they can leave, but they will now owe us these taxes, so we then will take over whatever infrastructure they have here and run it as a workers’ base company. There’s always that answer. There’s all sorts of other things we could be doing. Like for example, we have start up companies – the way the economy is skewed, it’s skewed to benefit big business. We could help young entrepreneurs and innovators. The key is paying your workers well, giving workers some ownership over means of production. Even under capitalism we aren’t being good capitalists, here in Canada. We’re not helping young people with bright ideas, we’re sending them somewhere else. You look at the Germanys of the world, the Scandinavias of the world, where they have some powerful capitalist economies, but the average lifestyle of the workers is way better than here. Even within the confines of capitalism, there are so many things we should be doing already as a social democratic party, without even challenging capitalism. And there is so much more if we do challenge capitalism. Those are the conversations we should be having, and we’re not. We’re just talking about pragmatism, saying, “No one would ever go for that.” We look at polling in the worst possible way, at focus groups. “Polls don’t indicate that, no one cares about poverty or the environment.” It’s all in how you ask the questions, who does the polling, who is asked. At some point you have to get out of the head space that our party has been in for so long and ask, why do we exist in the first place? Who the hell are we working for? Why do we want to win? What would change if we did? Because the worst thing that happened to the NDP was in Ontario with Bob Rae – winning and then going against the basic promise that got them there, which was public auto insurance.
J: Bob Rae is a good example of buckling to the pressure of international finance and the threat of investment strikes, etc. We’ve also seen progressive governments like Syriza come to power in Greece, with a progressive platform, but also buckle to the pressure of the big banks because they did not see past capitalism, and stopped short of mobilizing workers to seize infrastructure if these corporations aren’t going to comply. So it sounds like you’re saying that has to be on the table.
C: Let’s put it this way: when you look at Sanders, really it’s new deal politics, it’s social democracy, this is not even revolutionary. We’ve got a long way to go to get there in the NDP, to even get to where Sanders is. But I think that, yes, we can be bolder. When you look at what the CCF had in its mandate, when you look at what J.S. Woodsworth and what Tommy Douglas stood for, when you look at their economic platform, workers’ control, this is the way forward. How do you shift gears dramatically? How do you green manufacturing if it’s only for the profit motive of the 62 billionaires at the top who control half the world’s wealth? If it’s only their say that controls the way production is managed, we will never save our planet.
J: Anything else to say to workers and youth radicalized by the crisis of capitalism?
C: Don’t give up on the party. I know it’s frustrating, I know it’s always been frustrating for those of us on the left of the party. But this is the vehicle we need to keep fighting. This is the party we need to get in. We need to educate, consciousness raise. We need to do all those good things that we’ve been doing for decades, and we have to keep doing, because in a very real sense history is on our side. If the system can’t adapt to the point where we can save the planet, which it won’t, very real crises are about to happen. That’s not to sound like the Grim Reaper, it’s very true. Very real crises are about to happen and people will be looking for answers, people will not be satisfied with the platitudes and the spin, people really will be looking for real alternatives. So hang in there, because we need to be there, democratic socialists need to be there. We have this organization, it’s called the NDP, it’s got good roots. Let’s take it back to its roots, let’s make it the real labour party of Canada, let’s make it stand on principle rather than on polling, and let’s move ahead.