When talking about the variegated problems afflicting the left, and therefore afflicting left-leaning parties, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to begin untangling that knot of yarn. I don’t often write about the federal NDP or the Greens, and not because I’m partial to or against either party, but because they have struggled for so long to identify themselves outside of opposition to whatever it is the governing Liberals or Conservatives are doing. Aside from Jack Layton-led “Orange Crush” in 2011, praise or criticism directed to Canada’s left parties often feels pointless.
Speaking of pointless, you may have heard something about a flock of former New Brunswick NDP candidates defecting to support the Green Party. Now I’ve tried to keep up with the details of this exodus as best I can, but it devolved into spectacle so quickly that I’m not even clear that either party leader has a full handle on it. Thus, I’ll explain to the extent that I’m able.
It began with a press conference led by David Coon, leader of New Brunswick’s provincial Green Party, announcing with several former provincial NDP candidates that those candidates were defecting to the Greens, and thus supporting the Green Party in the federal election. It was followed up by former federal NDP executive member Jonathan Richardson announcing his own defection, partially due to the perception that federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has not focused on Atlantic Canada, and according to Richardson’s interview with Carol Off, host of CBC’s As It Happens, due to the palpable discomfort that Atlantic Canadians have with foreign workers, and the misconception that Mr. Singh is Muslim.
This forced Green Party leader Elizabeth May to clarify there is no room for racism within the Green Party, which, of course, raises the question of whether the party does not welcome support from those uncomfortable voters Richardson is talking about. Then came the response from Singh that not all 14 former provincial candidates had defected, and that May was putting out “false statements.”
Then, dear reader, came my closing the browser window in disgust that I’d wasted time on any of this. Neither the NDP nor the Greens are likely to win a single seat in New Brunswick, and either party should fall down and praise the heavens if a single seat is won in Atlantic Canada.
In talking about race and racism in politics, I normally try to hew as close to a materialist an approach as I can. That is, helping people, especially people who tend to be alienated from and disaffected by the process, understand that bigotry is politically useful. It is deployed as a means to erode class solidarity, concentrate power among the rich, and deprive working-class people of political and economic power. This is not something I made up; I’m drawing from the left thinkers and labour activists who’ve been saying this for over a century.
And yet, knowing that the leadership of Canada’s leftist parties read from those theories and stand on the shoulders of those activists, here is what they present voters with.
We have the NDP, which ostensibly counts itself the party of the working class. But the NDP consistently chooses leaders who are too weak in the spine to utter the words “working class” out loud, and busy themselves with an eternal snipe hunt for that ethereal, evanescent creature that politicians call the “middle class.”
For over 20 years, the NDP’s strategy has been to try and peel off centre-left voters turned off by a Liberal Party, which talks a good game on left principles, but continuously finds itself prostrate before corporate interests. Occasionally, the NDP experiences modest success at getting those votes.
This was once a viable strategy made possible by Jack Layton’s charisma, and before that, Ed Broadbent’s policy vision. But now? The party is scraping at long-depleted mines of political capital. It has failed to articulate its ideas in a meaningful enough way that resonates with enough Canadians to make it a viable governing party, and it has not bothered at all to inspire a broad solidarity movement outside of ballot-box politics (as has been a critical factor in leftist movements in the United States and the U.K.).
And as far as public optics, the party has been as likely to make a news cycle for pointless, internecine squabbles as for any advancements in political discourse for people that don’t belong to the professional management class (or, if we’re being real about it, the vast majority of people who are not only less-than-two missed paycheques away from financial catastrophe, but are lucky to get a steady paycheque at all).
So why would voters in Atlantic Canada, regardless of whatever pig-ignorant thoughts might rattle around inside the brain-pans of the most bigoted among them, give this party another chance?
The Green Party, on the other hand? Well, they have accumulated a pile of unearned credit as moral leaders in environmental sustainability and human rights, and won only two federal seats since in the nearly two decades since Elizabeth May took the party reins in 2006. One of those seats, of course, belongs to May herself.
On top of the criticism the Greens have already faced for their slipshod policy approach to repairing Canada’s relationship with First Nations, May is too often struck with flashes of inane behaviour that she seems to interpret as momentary genius. The latest was to marry the party’s prevailing interests by “floating an idea” that would have SNC Lavalin, should it be convicted of wrongdoing, build water treatment infrastructures on First Nations reserves as community penance.
For as long as it has positioned itself as an alternative to status-quo politics, the Green Party has mostly functioned as a soft spot for malcontents from other, larger parties to rest the foot hanging out the door. Which wouldn’t be a bad place to start, if putting May in front of a microphone wasn’t such a spin of a cursed roulette wheel where half of the pockets guarantee a cluster headache for card-carrying party members. So good luck to those defectors, I guess. Just be sure to keep a tension ball handy at all times.
I’ll put this as plainly as I can. For anyone who sees themselves as holding leftist principles—that is, believing in simple and reasonable things like worker rights, self-determination for First Nations, non-exploitative foreign policy, equal opportunities and treatment regardless of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation—this federal election will likely be the most depressing one in the lifetime of any voter who wasn’t old enough to cast a ballot during the 1993 bloodbath.
And this dust-up between Canada’s leftmost parties, angrily shouting across a desert island at one another as it slowly sinks beneath the lapping waves of a warming planet, is yet another symptom of a much larger problem for left voters in this country…
We have no friends in politics.