Don't Expect the NDP to Lead the Way

December 13th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

When Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove called for an emergency task force on the future of the NDP, he got blasted. Mr. Hargrove was "posturing," an NDP insider said. "The press isn’t the place to do this," Nancy Riche of the Canadian Labour Congress said— in the press. And NDP Leader Alexa McDonough claimed the process Mr. Hargrove demanded was happening already.

It is time to "let a thousand flowers bloom," Ms. McDonough said with a cheerfulness that has become increasingly manic, recalling a post-Regis Kathie Lee Gifford. Elsewhere, Ms. McDonough insisted that "there are no questions that are not fair game to put on the table."

The real question is: Why on earth would anyone on the left entrust this process to the NDP?

The defensive responses to Mr. Hargrove’s call for a task force (not the dissolution of the party, remember) say a lot about why the NDP must be demoted to guest, not host, of any gathering where the topic is the reinvention of the left. Too many times, attempts to reach out to "social movements" have been slapped back by party insiders so busy protecting their piece of power that they failed to notice their own encroaching irrelevance.

If there is to be a national initiative to unite the divided and dispersed left, and I believe it is time, a structure outside the NDP needs to play the role of convener, one unencumbered by the party’s past failures but still open to party participation. I nominate the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The CCPA is non-partisan but has a good relationship with the NDP, as well as with the major unions (many of whom can’t stand each other), and the Council of Canadians, which many in the NDP see as a direct threat.

But any process that claims to be reinventing the left can’t be a dinner party of the usual suspects. It must include the left-leaning sovereigntists in Quebec, First Nations communities who have lost faith in the treaty process, the anti-poverty activists who stormed Queen’s Park last June, and the anti-globalization campaigners who are getting ready for the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this March. These are the constituencies that came together at a conference in Toronto last October called "Reinventing the Left," and they have already begun to articulate a political alternative to the NDP.

It’s fashionable in NDP circles to talk about the need to attract new blood, to reach out to young people, to be more radical. But if there is to be an alliance between these seemingly disparate causes and the NDP, the party will have to do more than generously issue some invitations: It will have to be willing to question some of its most closely held beliefs.

In resource communities across the country, on native reserves, in Quebec, among the poor on social assistance and within anarchist youth scenes, there is much suspicion of any plan to expand the powers of national government. The state is not the benevolent protector of the NDP’s party platform, but a barrier to self-determination and freedom.

It’s true that attacks on big government are often a smoke screen for tax cuts, but it needn’t be so. It is possible to have a healthy suspicion of centralized state power while still articulating a progressive agenda for the country, one grounded in local democracy and control and principles of sustainable development.

What would such a party look like? That is the subject of next week’s column.

In the meantime, don’t expect the NDP to lead the way. "We may want a new name, we want a new wrapping on the package," NDP MP Lorne Nystrom said last week. New name? New wrapping? Try a whole new package.