Fightback has long warned that the right-ward drift of the NDP leadership in BC [British Columbia] would hurt the party in the polls. The argument is often made that in order to win over “middle of the road voters,” you have to moderate your demands and program. In fact, history has proven that this moderation only leads to disaster. What is needed is a strong socialist program to inspire the mass of the population.
The last election went off exactly as we predicted. The BC NDP came out with one of their worst platforms in history. There was nothing in it that would significantly improve the lives of working people. Nothing in the platform showed they were much different from the BC Liberals. There was nothing there to inspire working class people. All of this took its toll. The campaign was almost devoid of volunteers. Normally thousands of activists get involved on the ground across the province in an NDP election campaign; this time they numbered in the hundreds. What is normally our greatest strength was actually our biggest weakness in this campaign – our own supporters voted with their feet and stayed home.
All of this contributed to another defeat for Carole James and the NDP. The lacklustre campaign did not capture the imagination of the people of British Columbia. Quite the contrary, it was the lowest voter turnout in the history of the province; 52% stayed home on election-day. This has given Gordon Campbell’s government another four years to attack the working class of the province in the midst of a global recession. The blame for this defeat lies squarely on the shoulders of the NDP leadership.
For years there has been a growing frustration with the leadership of the NDP. This has, until very recently, been hidden beneath the surface. Few NDPers would say anything publicly against the group of people who have been running the party. When the spotlight was on, everyone said they supported Carole James; many of those who wouldn’t fell into inactivity. But behind closed doors, it was another story. Party members and supporters were getting increasingly angry at the falling membership, the falling poll numbers, and the lack of any real direction for social change. But the defeat in the May election has pushed much of this into the open.
Take Back the Party
It was in this atmosphere that supporters of Fightback decided to launch the Take Back the Party campaign in July. We were surprised by our success. The launch meeting of the campaign drew major media attention and attracted people of all stripes. There were members of the Young New Democrats, as well as honorary lifetime members of the party. There were current members and people who were active but left out of frustration. There were people from unions, community groups, and people who were completely unaffiliated. It was a mixed crowd, but everyone agreed it was time for new leadership in the party.
The campaign has since been gaining momentum. Several more successful events have been held and the campaign has also now been launched in Victoria. Though Fightback played a critical role in launching this campaign, it is important to note that the campaign is now much larger in scope; Take Back the Party has become a broad based initiative for renewal in the NDP. Some prominent members of the party have come forward to sit on the steering committee of the campaign including Tim Louis (former Vancouver city councillor), and Fred Muzin (former president of the Hospital Employee’s Union).
The Take Back the Party campaign has committed itself to building a party that is driven by the grassroots and electing a leadership that is accountable to the membership. While these are far from revolutionary demands, they would be a massive step forward from where the NDP has been for the last decade. With the capitalist system in a deep crisis, working people need a political voice more than ever before. The NDP can be that voice, but we must first cut loose the dead wood that is stifling new growth.
Take Back the Party is not the only group organizing on the left. Other groups opposed to the direction of the party leadership have sprung up across the province. Most notably, the Ginger Group (named after labour martyr Ginger Goodwin) is organizing to make some changes at the party’s convention in November. Take Back the Party has been working with these groups to make sure there is an organized resistance to the status quo at convention. For the first time in recent history, the BC NDP convention will have a vocal, organized opposition from the left.
Battles on the Horizon
The development of a broad left current in the NDP is most welcome to anyone interested in fighting for socialism. It is a reflection of the turmoil facing the capitalist system and the impact it is having on working people. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs in British Columbia over the last couple of years, and major industries such as forestry and construction are in decline. There is a general recognition that the present leadership of the NDP is no longer representing the interests of working people. That is why the majority stayed at home on election-day. This passive opposition, which expressed itself through abstention, is more and more becoming an active opposition. It is difficult to say whether or not the left will carry the day at convention, but one thing is certain: when the mass of the working class begins to move, no bureaucracy can stop them.
Though we can never be sure about what exactly the future holds, it is certain that there will be major struggles on the horizon. Possible flashpoints in the course of the next year include anti-Olympic demonstrations in February and the public sector contract negotiations in the spring. The Olympic demonstrations will certainly draw out thousands of people who are opposed to spending billions of dollars on the games while the province is in such rough shape. There will also be many more who are opposed to the restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of expression, to ensure that the games go off without a hitch. But the demonstrations will most likely not be of the scale that we saw during the anti-Campbell movement where 50,000 marched on the Legislature.
The Olympic demonstrations may only be a warm-up for a broader movement of the working class in the spring. The BC Liberal government is scheduled to bring down a new budget in March – conveniently after the games. Given the state of the province’s coffers and the history of Campbell’s government, many are expecting it to be draconian. There is little doubt that deep spending cuts and attacks against the working class are on the agenda. This will set the scene for a major confrontation with the public sector unions when their contracts are up in the spring.
What kind of Party?
The NDP caucus must become the voice of these movements in the Legislature. There is little point in having a progressive party in the province if it stands on the sidelines whenever things heat up. The leaders of the NDP have made this mistake too many times in the past and we paid for it in the last election. If the NDP caucus was to stand 100% behind these struggles, it would not only strengthen the movement, but also the party itself. Broad layers of the working class will begin to get active in the party again when they see that the NDP is fighting for them.
The party must initiate a leadership campaign immediately. After two electoral defeats (that should have been victories), Carole James has lost her authority to lead. The middle-of-the-road politics that she has advocated have been tried and failed. Her attempt to break the link with the labour movement alone should have been enough to send her packing. It seems the only person who has yet to realize this is Carole James herself.
This convention marks an historical turning point for the BC NDP. Whether the left comes out on top or not, the broader process is the key. The party has been drifting to the right for the last decade. This process has now reached its limits. With a global economic crisis unfolding before our very eyes, socialist ideas are needed in the party now more than ever. The membership is beginning to push back against a leadership that has been discredited by history. The days of moderation are over. It is time to build a party that is ready to stand up and fight.