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May 9, 2011

Election 2011: Turning Points

SS Editorial

Jack Layton

The 2011 election is potentially a turning point in popular consciousness in putting social class as the fundamental denominator in Canadian parliamentary politics.

Voter turnout, which fell to a historic low of 58% in 2008, rose modestly to 61%. The Conservatives achieved a majority by only increasing their vote by 2%. Vote splitting between Liberals and New Democrats allowed that small increase to translate into a gain of 24 parliamentary seats. All the same, Conservatives have increased their share of those who voted to 40%, and rule from a base of support that has gone from one in five to one in four of all Canadians whether they voted or not.

The critical breakthrough for Conservatives has been Southern Ontario, especially suburban Toronto with some business oriented migrant communities. They have gone from 48 to 73 seats in the province, while continuing to dominate Western Canada and maintaining a strong presence in the Arctic and the Maritimes. But the Conservatives declined in Quebec, from 11 to 6 seats.

Potentially, the most remarkable change is Quebec. From a province that disengaged from federal politics in the 1990s to support the Bloc Quebecois, Quebecois overwhelmingly turned to the New Democratic federalist alternative in 2011. 58 of 75 seats are now social democrat with the Bloc reduced to four seats.

Conservative Polarization or the New Centre?

The implications of a Tory victory are polarizing. Harper has set himself a 100 working day agenda to pass a variety of neo-liberal measures that had not been possible with two minority governments. Corporate tax cuts will proceed (to a rate of 15% - in the range of business tax havens like Ireland); at least 11 crime bills will be combined in one omnibus bill to double the nation’s prison population; group refugee claims like the Vancouver Tamils will be criminalized; and some 11 billion dollars in unspecified cuts will be carried out in the next three years to balance the budget.

Health care, which Harper pledged to protect by renewing the Canada Health Care Accord at an initial 6% per year in line with the current accord, will only be funded on a budget by budget basis after the initial commitment. But we will get 65 F-35 jets and the continuation of the training mission in Afghanistan.

While Harper has mouthed moderation after victory, a stable majority will push through an austerity agenda, a harmonized security perimeter agreement with the United States and free trade with the European Union (both implying a new round of deregulation), and oil sands exports to Asia. All of these measures point to hard times ahead for the majority of Canadians.

Class Political Realignment?

The election of the NDP as the official opposition could signify a fundamental realignment of Canadian electoral politics based on social class. Going from 38 to 102 members is historic. For the first time since the 65 member Farm-Labour Progressive caucus in 1921, the modern parliamentary left has exceeded that breakthrough. It is possible that a new electoral pattern will be established between Conservatives and Social Democrats, with the Liberals and Greens as persistent but marginalized groups.

But the NDP breakthrough is fragile. The replacement of the Bloc Quebecois with the NDP creates a unique opportunity to unite French and English speaking workers. But the NDP has had great difficulty dealing with the democratic challenge of the Quebec national question, being slow to acknowledge the issue, and just as slow to accommodate the demand for national self determination, up to and including Quebec independence.

Accommodation measures like provincial language law being used in federal institutions, and further decentralization or partnership tax and economic measures are not easy ideas to entertain in a party that has long been committed to a centralized and uniform nation state. Combine these political tensions with an inexperienced, but majority, Quebec caucus, and an electorate that has voted NDP on a probationary basis, for national as well as social reasons, and Jack Layton has a huge challenge ahead of him.

Nor has the NDP had a major breakthrough in English Canada. Outside of Quebec, the party increased its share of the vote, from the Ontario working class and recent visible minority migrants, but its seat total only rose by 7. Still, if the party can consolidate a serious Quebec base, it will be perceived as the dominant alternative to the Conservatives in 2015.

And in the Class Struggle?

Major class struggles are on the horizon. Canadian postal workers have been without a contract and recently voted over 94% to take job action. A national strike could begin at the end of May. Provincial public sector workers have been subjected to wage freezes. But K-12 teachers in Saskatchewan and British Columbia have rejected zeros as inflation passes 3%.

Lenin once declared the Bolshevik parliamentary representatives were ‘the least important members of the party’. What he meant by that was not a sectarian dismissal of parliamentary politics, but that bourgeois democratic politics were subordinate to the direct struggles between workers and employers – and the state that supports employers. Only out of the hard experience of trying to cope with and ultimately replace capitalist economic relations do workers come to the realization that a higher form of democracy, workers power, is required. Such struggles are emerging.

But the election of 2011 is also relevant to the class struggle. It is potentially a turning point in popular consciousness in putting social class as the fundamental denominator in Canadian parliamentary politics.

Harper Conservatives welcome this. They believe that the Canadian economy is stable and that the majority will naturally gravitate to the party of capitalist order. To make sure that the majority see the Conservatives as that party, the Tories will continue to fight a dirty ideological war on their main bourgeois competitor, the Liberals, and demonize social democrats as economically incompetent. To that end the Conservatives will end public subsidies for political parties. This will immediately favour the Tories as the party of big business.

Whether the NDP can consolidate its role as the main alternative to the Conservatives is debatable, given two challenges: balancing between representing the needs of workers and the needs of the market/nation state; and the democratic challenge of supporting the national rights of Quebecois and aboriginal peoples. Other bourgeois alternatives may revive, or be invented, if it can’t – the Liberals, the Bloc, or the Greens. The failed example of Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government in the 1990s, and Liberal revival, shows the price to be paid if consolidation can’t be managed.

The paradox is that if the NDP is successful nationally in becoming what Lenin described as ‘a capitalist workers’ party’, the NDP may adapt so much to the market, imperialism, and minority nationalist bourgeois elites, that it opens up a space for the socialist left that hasn’t existed since the 1960s - in the unstable reality that is Canadian capitalism.