A Drain on Movements
There's a debate among organizers in Nova Scotia about whether NDP governments offer more room to manoeuvre for the radical left and social movements. I believe that they do not. The election of NDP governments seems to follow five phases, no matter which province.
1. About 18 months before the election, people start rooting for the NDP. Many organizing jobs require that people support and campaign for the party, and some of the most talented organizers are hired by the party or throw themselves into election mode. Criticism is muted, because it isn't the right time; we don't want to undermine our comrades' efforts.
2. After an election, many organizers are burnt out or tired, and don't have energy for movement building or mobilization. If the NDP wins, some organizers find positions within or beside the party, formally or informally. Others take up what they imagine to be persuasive lobbying positions, and are wary of alienating the government.
3. If elected, the NDP government invariably opens the books and says "the situation is much worse than expected; we won't be able to deliver on all of our promises." At this point, some party supporters become exhausted or disillusioned, while the true believers become resentful of criticism from the left.
4. The NDP then implements a slightly softer version of neoliberal policies, but with a less mean-spirited approach than the Liberals or Conservatives might take. The differences in policy sometimes do matter to some people's lives, but are inadequate to the problems we face.
5. Disillusionment sets in among the general public. Having voted for significant change and seeing little of it, thousands stay home from the next election. Then the NDP blames the left for not being loyal enough.
This pattern is so consistent because the single-minded focus on winning elections means the most conservative elements get into positions of power within the party, even if occasionally they campaign on lefty rhetoric.
Building self-sufficiency and grassroots power in movements and communities is a long-term project, and can't be expected to succeed when electoral politics take up resources, energy and create profound division every four years.
Strong movements can make substantial demands, push radical policy, define the terms of debate and choose to participate tactically in elections, but only when they are in a position of real social power. Putting our hopes in the NDP, by contrast, will continue to disappoint us and keep our political imaginations shackled to neoliberalism.
Max Haiven is a writer, teacher and organizer and co-director of the Radical Imagination Project in K’jipuktuk in Mi’kma’ki (Halifax, Canada).
The NDP doesn't necessarily build or strengthen social movements and it might not always listen to them, but it is more likely to be swayed by social movements than the Liberals or Conservatives. To influence any government or change policies, social movements have to be strong and capable of mobilizing. In Nova Scotia, social movements have not been in a place of strength.
While the NDP government was in power in Nova Scotia, I was definitely disappointed. I was active in the student movement, and a government report recommended lifting the tuition freeze and completely deregulating tuition fees. We mobilized for what was the largest student protest in the province since 1995. We got a disappointing compromise from the NDP: a three per cent fee increase.
This year, after facing similar mobilization to what we saw under the NDP, the Liberals announced they will allow a one-time "market-based" adjustment to tuition fees. The result is that fees could go as high as they would be if there had never been a freeze or a cap. After that, tuition fees for out-of-province students will have no controls indefinitely.
These are concrete differences between the NDP and the Liberal parties in Nova Scotia.
If the left wants to build an alternative to party politics, we need to look at how and why people get involved in collective activity. When I was 15, I joined the then-vibrant anti-war movement. But now, a lot of people don't have anywhere to go. Most youth probably aren't union members, and if they go to college or university they might not have movements on campus.
They often end up at NDP offices. And they learn skills that movements aren't teaching, like door-knocking and talking to strangers about political ideas. We need to be talking about those kinds of task-oriented, entry-level ways for people to get involved without being part of a particular social group or movement.
There are millions of people who vote for or talk to candidates, but have no direct contact with social movements. To say that we shouldn't engage with the NDP miscalculates the power and reach of radical anti-capitalist movements.
We need to have real conversations about the left's strategy for social transformation that are based in the current political context. I haven't been part of enough of those conversations. It's important that we have them, and that we get to work.
Kaley Kennedy is a feminist, anti-capitalist and prisoner justice activist living and working in Halifax.