Around 25 people gathered at the University of Alberta on Nov. 13 to discuss how to fight against right-wing populism. Organized by Socialist Fightback Edmonton, the event explored both the causes behind the growing movement and how we as working class Canadians can stop it. The discussion attracted a diverse group of people, many of whom were concerned about the prospect of the United Conservative Party (UCP) led by Jason Kenney taking power in the upcoming Alberta election.
The topic was presented by Joel Bergman, a Montreal-based member of the Fightback editorial board. He opened with an explanation of the 2008 financial crisis and how it served to completely dislocate the world economy. Instead of punishing the companies and individuals responsible, governments all over the world cut billion-dollar cheques to big banks and corporations. If it wasn’t clear before, bailing out the banks and sticking working people with the bill made it clear to millions of people that the ruling class is not looking out for the interests of the average worker.
The failure of the political establishment has led to political polarization to the right and to the left in country after country, as voters turn to the guidance of political outsiders on both ends of the spectrum. During the last presidential election in the United States, millions of working class people—particularly young and poor people—turned their attention to Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist who fought for a “political revolution against the billionaire class”. He ran on a campaign that promised a $15 federal minimum wage, free public health care, and free post-secondary education for all. On the flip side we saw the rise of Donald Trump, who demagogically appealed to workers by touting anti-establishment and anti-immigrant sentiments. Donald Trump ravaged the polls and quickly scored the nomination, while Bernie Sanders faced an incredibly tight race and ultimately had the Democratic Party nomination rigged against him in favour of Hillary Clinton. When presented with the option of an anti-establishment Trump or the pro-establishment, Wall Street darling, warmongering Clinton, Trump was able to secure the presidency. The main lesson that Joel drew from this experience was that we cannot defeat the forces of right-wing populism with status-quo politics.
The most recent elections in Ontario and Quebec paralleled the situation in the United States. In both instances, we saw the establishment Liberals of each province fail to meet the concerns of voters, leading to their ouster by right-wing populist, anti-establishment candidates. In Ontario, that came in the form of Doug Ford through the Conservative party. In Quebec, it came through an entirely new party. The CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec, or Coalition for Quebec’s Future), a party which struggled to surpass the establishment Liberals and Parti Québécois in previous elections, shot up in the polls over the past year and ended up winning a majority. After decades of moderation and even openly right-wing policies from the Ontario NDP, the anger against the Liberals was mostly channeled to the right. On the other hand, Québec solidaire (QS), the normally marginal left-wing party, made significant gains, surpassing the Parti Québécois by doing the exact opposite, i.e. by proposing a bold, left-wing alternative to all three parties. The victory of the CAQ and the good showing from QS is another demonstration of this increased political polarization in society.
A similar situation is taking shape in Alberta. Jason Kenney and the UCP are significantly ahead of the NDP in the polls, partially because Rachel Notley has abandoned many of her election promises which won her the premiership in the first place. By accepting capitalism, Notley and the Alberta NDP are now forced to play by its rules. This has led the NDP government in Alberta to bend over backwards for the oil bosses. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t helped the party in the polls, and the party has actually lost support in places like Fort McMurray. The lesson that Alberta’s NDP needs to learn from elections in the United States, Ontario, and Quebec is that you cannot defeat the right by pretending to be moderate and reasonable managers of capitalism. What we need is to establish a clear socialist program that working-class voters will respond to. Unfortunately, it seems that Notley isn’t going to learn this lesson, preparing the ground for the return of the Conservatives to power.
It is urgent that we fight for these ideas in the movement to stop the right wing in its tracks. Kenney has already made it clear that austerity will be the order of the day under a UCP government, with lower wages and repeal union rights—making workers more vulnerable to attacks from employers. If the threat of a right-wing government worries you and you feel that the NDP isn’t doing enough to prevent it, join us in fighting for a bold socialist perspective for the movement.