Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Irreconcilable Differences: For the NDP, "Schism" Is The Word

Is a schism within the NDP imminent?  Some pundits are predicting that the writing may be on the wall for New Democrats, given that grassroots members of the NDP adopted a resolution at their convention this past weekend to begin a process at the riding level of incorporating the Leap Manifesto into policy.  This move has generated an overwhelming amount of criticism from both pundits and politicians, many of whom occupy senior positions of leadership in the Party, including Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley, ("Thoughtless and tone deaf: Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley on Leap Manifesto,", April 11, 2016) and B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan ("Leap Manifesto 'makes no sense' for B.C., NDP leader John Horgan says," the Globe & Mail, April 11, 2016).

Others believe that there can be a way forward where the NDP might look at adopting some of the principles of Leap – better policies to close the gap between the rich and the rest of us, maybe even call for a Guaranteed Livable Income and more aggressive targets for greenhouse gas emissions – while continuing to tout the expansion of the Alberta tar sands and B.C. LNG enterprise.  It’s the mushy middle ground that Prime Minister Trudeau is trying to occupy – but ultimately, I believe that tack is doomed to fail.  

Many pundits continue to view NDP factionalism through a left vs. right lense - and while that might be part of the equation, it's far from the best point of understanding what's really driving the wedge (stake?) through the heart of the Party.

Progressive Greens vs. Status Quo Browns

Let’s face it – the schism between progressive greens and status quo browns has been coming for some time now (see: "As NDP Old Guard Takes Over, Division Between "browns" and "greens" Starting to Show," Sudbury Steve May, April 3, 2014).  Those currents have been operating below the surface in the NDP for years. They almost emerged during the B.C. general election in 2013, which had B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix flip-flop on pipelines part-way through the campaign, with the hopes that taking a firmer position on pipes and tankers would steal some of the Green Party of B.C.’s thunder.  Dix’s flip-flop might have accomplished that, as the Greens took only one seat – but many pundits viewed this change of heart on pipelines and the economy as being the single biggest factor in the loss of the election to Christy Clark’s Liberals.

The fact is, when browns try to behave like greens, no one really takes them seriously.  Tom Mulcair tried to straddle that line during the federal election – tried to take no firm position on pipelines, which have been perceived to be problematic in Quebec, while essential in Alberta, Saskatchewan and parts of B.C.  But the 2015 federal election proved to be about something else entirely (getting rid of Stephen Harper), so the green vs. brown tension was able to lay low for a while beneath the political currents flowing across the national scene.

Leap Manifesto As Rallying Point

It’s only thanks to Leap now that these tensions have finally boiled over, emerging into the mainstream public political discourse.  The Leap Manifesto, written in part by Avi Lewis, son of former Ontario NDP Leader and current elder statesman of the New Democratic Party, Stephen Lewis, based on ideas put forward by author Naomi Klein – Avi Lewis’ spouse – has become a clear rallying point since a group of prominent Canadians (both Lewises, Klein, Maude Barlow and David Suzuki among them) released the document during the marathon 2015 election campaign.  For Tom Mulcair’s NDP, Leap arrived with a thud – largely ignored by New Democratic operatives, the media, and ultimately, by voters.

But with the NDP’s dreams of forming government having gone down in flames to a Liberal Party promising just about everything under the sun to voters, led by a charismatic Justin Trudeau, it shouldn’t be surprising that Leap started resonating with a disgruntled grassroots.  Or at least, with a certain element of that grassroots – members who have for too long chaffed under the notion that their party had moved too far to the centre – so far, in fact, that the NDP had become a part of the problem, and no longer offered solutions.

Sincerity vs. Hypocrisy

It can only be true that many who supported the NDP under Jack Layton in 2011 abandoned the Party for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015. The NDP’s move to right under Mulcair probably had something to do with it, although perhaps not as much as Trudeau’s promising the world to voters did. Whatever the reasons, in 2015, Mulcair’s NDP had a heck of a hard time defining itself to the point that voters who otherwise might have supported the party, lost confidence and opted instead for the Liberals.  And sure, that wasn’t all about pipelines, or the tar sands, or income inequality – it was about something much deeper: sincerity.  Voters simply decided that Mulcair’s NDP just wasn’t being sincere.

The lurch to the right left a power vacuum on the left, and the Leap Manifesto formed a rallying point for those who wanted to reclaim sincerity within their Party.  NDP Leapers understand that it is the height of hypocrisy to champion both an urgent transition to a low carbon economy while continuing to invest in fossil fuel projects, like the pipelines needed to transport bitumen from an expanding tar sands, for example. And yet the NDP took no position on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline or Energy East, despite many within their Party who have been speaking out about these pipeline projects (some of whom ran for office in 2015 under the orange banner).

Unburnable Carbon

Height of hypocrisy?  Doesn’t that seem a bit, I don’t know, out of touch?  Why can’t we do both, as Tom Mulcair and Rachel Notley would have Canadians believe (and Justin Trudeau, Kathleen Wynne and Phillippe Couillard for that matter – there are a lot of big names on the Canadian political scene who are now pushing this approach)?  Actually, the idea that we can’t do both isn’t a political one – it’s based on science.  We know that if we are going to meet our global commitments to hold the line of warming at 2 degress Celsius (the commitments we made in Copenhagen in 2009, and reaffirmed recently in Paris in 2015 – along with the promise to do better), that we’re going to have to leave the lion’s share of known fossil resources in the ground as unburnable carbon (see: "Oil sands must remain largely unexploited to meet climate target, study finds," the Globe & Mail, January 7, 2015). 

Head-in-the-Sand Public Policy

This inconvenient – well, let’s face it – this very difficult fact informs a number of political policy documents, including the Leap Manifesto and the Green Party of Canada’s Vision Green (a policy direction document that has been around a lot longer than Leap – at least since 2007 – but one which has failed to resonate with Canadians).  And it’s true, I believe: the public doesn’t really want to confront difficult facts when they perceive decisions based on those facts will negatively impact them.  Since politicians are reluctant to even talk about the impacts of acting on evidence, we continue to go around in a fog of delusion, pretending (hoping? praying?) that the future will work out in accordance with how we might want it to, rather than how it probably will. 

Worse than that, though, politicians and the pundits who write/talk/interview them are reluctant to give any credence at all to counter-narratives like Leap which seek to undermine the foggy status quo.  Look no further than at Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who wasn’t so much engaging in an act of realpoltik but rather of sabotage when she described Leap as being “naïve, ill-informed and tone deaf”.  That the mainstream media echoed these concerns (and did a lot worse in some cases) shouldn’t surprise anybody.  The status quo is, after all, at stake.  It’s time to bash the hell out of the dissenters.

And the bashing has continued apace.  And the bashing will continue.

Schism Finally Out in the Open

There’s really no good way out of this for the NDP.  But I think a lot of New Democrats are happy now that their factionalism is all out in the open at last.  Leapers know that it’s not just the future of the New Democratic Party that’s at stake, but the future of the planet.  And to paraphrase former NDP MP Libby Davies, New Democrats might not always do the popular thing, but doing the right thing will be confirmed by the tide of history.  In this case, the only morally right thing to do is to start an honest conversation with New Democrats – and indeed with Canadians – about why aggressively switching off of fossil fuels while considering social equity is not only a good idea, but an essential one, based on evidence and science – while pointing out that what the browns are pedaling is based on misplaced faith at best – but maybe also the perpetuation of the status quo for monied elites and international corporations.  Just whose interests does John Q. New Democrat think the NDP should be looking out for anyway?

Unfortunately, that way leads to a schism. Unfortunately, it’s one that’s liable to be necessary.  Unfortunately, it’s one which isn’t likely to come quickly, but rather one which will gather momentum like a slow-moving train wreck.  And that’s all quite unfortunate.

Irreconcilable Differences

But the fact is, there isn’t any space for a compromise here.  Leap, which understands the science of climate change, says we either go all in on a low-carbon future, or we fry (paraphrasing again). That’s not to say that Rachel Notley wants the world to fry. It is, however, to suggest that through her failure to understand the basics of climate science (or at least to publicly acknowledge those basics, or develop policy based on science), Notley and other status quo NDP browns like her are an impediment to progress, and since they’re not going to climb out of the way, they’re going to need to be forced out.

I fully expect the transformational revolution started by Leap to continue igniting New Democrats at the riding level throughout the nation.  I expect provincial parties will be debating Leap before too long – and in some cases, without the sort of even modest success that the grassroots progressive green faction experienced in Edmonton on the weekend.  No matter – as with any revolution, there will be progress, as well as backsliding. 

What’s clear, though, is the ultimate outcome – and it’s one based on economics.  Simply put, the future is renewable, and fossil fuels are done.  The sooner the browns give up the fight, the better off we’ll all be.  But if the browns continue to fight for a future that’s not going to happen, it will create unnecessary delays which will continue to put the planet at risk.  Unfortunately (sorry for the over-use of that word today!), if there’s one thing about the status quo that we’ve learned from history, it’s that it rarely goes down without a fight.

Thing is, the browns might actually win this fight for the future within the NDP.  The next leader of the Party will be chosen by one of the factions.  The browns represent the elites of the Party – those in leadership roles, those from labour, those from business. They’ve got the money, and they’re probably better organized.  They’ve also got mainstream media support (or whatever tentative support the mainstream media might offer the NDP – which historically has been little or none – but I would expect Rex Murphy to come to Rachel Notley’s defence if she was battling with Avi or Naomi Klein).  The deck may be stacked against a progressive green victory within the NDP.

Power to the People - Power of the People

But the grassroots have the numbers – numbers which overwhelm the Party establishment.  Numbers which can’t be ignored.  Numbers which are likely to be bolstered on a riding-by-riding basis, as EDA's role out local Leap discussion forums. Numbers which might ultimately triumph – as long as the system isn’t gamed from within (and I don’t really think the New Democrats would do that in the same way that the Democratic Party is currently doing with Presidential nomination candidate Bernie Sanders, by the way – largely because of the ‘one member one vote’ the NDP adopted in 2013).

What might happen if the Party establishment is turned on its head?  Can we expect Rachel Notley and other browns to hang around?  We might get some idea over the next couple of years, by paying close attention to what happens south of the border – not just with the Democratic Party, but also with the Republicans. Both parties have candidates who are running on platforms of overthrowing political elites.  Should both Trump and Sanders fail to win their party’s nomination, where will they go? What will their supporters do?

Battleground B.C.

Of course, we’re likely to have an example here in Canada, too, before the NDP reconvenes 2 years from now to debate Leap-motivated policies.  In 2017, British Columbians head to the polls.  B.C. will be the first ground which NDP Leapers will try to stake out – and frankly, try to take over.  Many progressive greens in the BC NDP have been less than enthusiastic with BC NDP Leader John Horgan’s performance, which has included support for LNG and other fossil projects (see: "By backing LNG, Horgan NDP lost election before it began," Rafe Mair, CommonsenseCanadian, March 8, 2016).  This week, Horgan came out against Leap (although not as equivocally as Notley), signalling just where he stands in the green vs. brown divide.

I fully expect internecine warfare to erupt in the BC NDP, with Leap as rallying point for progressives.  Can the BC NDP expect to head into the 2017 election (just a little over a year away) with a mushy-middle fossil fuel platform?  Sure, that might be good politics for the interior – but what of Vancouver and the Island – areas where a mushy middle approach might leave New Democratic candidates vulnerable to a provincial Green Party that continues to poll well?
And then there’s the question of sincerity, and it’s flip side, the one of hypocrisy. Can the BC NDP demonstrate their commitment to fighting climate change while championing LNG? I don’t think they can – and I’m far from the only one. 

It’s quite possible that the factionalism will end up with a new Leader taking the NDP into the 2017 election.  Horgan has aligned himself with those who are standing in the way of the future.  If he doesn’t go, will NDP Leapers follow him to the polls?

They might head to the polls, but it’s probably reasonable to think that they might just cast their ballots for another party that has long championed social democracy and the principles of Leap.  Yes, if Horgan doesn’t go, it’s quite possible that we might see a few more capital-G Greens elected in BC next year.

The Beginning of a Transformational Realignment of Canada's Political Scene

Whatever unfolds in BC is going to resonate now throughout the NDP on the federal stage.  What happened this past weekend in Edmonton was a big deal – it will likely lead to a new political alignment in Canada.  It’s a realignment that’s been needed for a long time now.  I, for one, am happy to see grassroots New Democrats take on the elites within their own party, in the interests of their children and my children, and in the interests of the planet.

(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Canada and Ontario)


CuJoYYC said...

"I, for one, am happy to see grassroots New Democrats take on the elites within their own party …"

Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein, and many other proponents of Leap ARE the elites of the NDP. In point of fact, Avi Lewis is a third generation elite NDP 'royalty'.

Leap is simply the Waffle faction, part deux.

Sudbury Steve said...

CuJoYYC - thank you for your comment. Respectfully, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein aren't "elites", and the Leap Manifesto isn't the Waffle.

It's pretty hard to make the case that Klein and Lewis are insiders, given Avi's public admissions of steering clear of party politics for most of his life. Hell, he only purchased a membership in the NDP recently, in order to be able to present Leap at the convention in Edmonton. I get that his dad and grand-dad were big wigs in the Party, and that maybe he, too, will be one one day - but genetic lineage doesn't suddenly thrust him into a position of control or decision-making within the Party. He's clearly been on the outside looking in for some time.

As for Leap, again I understand that it's being characterized as a "radical" "ultra-left-wing" document, but that's simply B.S. In many respects, it's not even as "radical" as the Green Party's Vision Green - hardly a "manifesto" of leftist thinking. But your comments go to highlight one of the problems with political analysis today, and that's the notion that we have to continue to look at progress through a left vs. right political lense - one that's clearly failing, as you can have anti-progress dinosaurs on either side of the political spectrum (both Rachel Notley and Stephen Harper thinking building pipelines for oil that we can't burn makes good economic sense, for example).

It's time we put away this notion of left vs. right as a product of a different time that's not serving us well any longer (a time, by the way, in which the Waffle was composed and endorsed - it was clearly a product of its time).

The tide of history is with Leap. The future is ours to seize - and I'm grateful that there are NDP members in that party that are trying to seize the future from their anti-progressive elites who continue to be wedded to the economy of the last century.