The NDP should stay true to its socialist roots

Published by the Toronto Star

On Wednesday, April 3, delegates to the upcoming convention of the New Democratic Party received a message from our president, Rebecca Blaikie, about yet another suggested replacement of the preamble to our constitution.

That the party brass is taking another shot at changing the constitution comes as no surprise to any New Democrat. This is, at least, the third consecutive convention where we’ve seen similar attempts from the top. At the 2009 Halifax convention, there was suggestion that the “New” in the NDP’s name might be dropped so that we’d become the “Democratic Party.” Together with the presence of many Obama strategists at that convention, it suggested a rightward shift that would turn the NDP into a party of the centre like the American Democrats. The opposition to any such move was so great that it was not even proposed.

Then there was the 2011 convention in Vancouver. A few months after the massive Orange Wave, the party brass imagined a “love-in,” where all resolutions coming from the top would be voted in without much debate. This included a now-infamous motion to change the preamble to the party constitution so that it would no longer include the word “socialism.” I’m not exaggerating when I say this caused a revolt from the floor. Hundreds of delegates were angry at this move and the line-up at the “no” microphone was so long that it reached the doors of the hall. It included such recognized party leaders as Members of Parliament Libby Davies and Niki Ashton. Then-president Brian Topp intervened with a compromise suggestion not to vote on the motion and to defer the issue until the next convention.

Now, with less than a week before the convention, we are faced with another “new” preamble. Except there is nothing new about it. It is another attempt at erasing the democratic socialist foundations of the NDP that are enshrined in the party’s constitution.

The existing preamble couldn’t be clearer. It says that “social, economic, and political progress of Canada can be assured only by the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs.” It then goes on to define these principles with three simple rules: production should be organized for need not profit, there should be economic and social planning and “toward these ends and where necessary the extension of the principle of social ownership.”

The newly proposed preamble is more than twice as long, but says much less. Trying to prevent another floor rebellion a la Vancouver, it offers lip service to the party’s traditions, mentioning the NDP’s association with “social democrat and democratic socialist parties.” When it comes to detailing actual policies, it says the party believes in a “rules based economy” where “governments have the power to address the limitations of the market” but, unlike the previous preamble, doesn’t specify in what fashion and to what goal. Gone are all the references to the principle of social ownership of resources. It thus accepts the primacy of the market precisely at a time when the capitalist system is facing a global crisis. Most shockingly, it erases the commitment to the “abolition of poverty.”

It’s no surprise that the ascent of the NDP to Official Opposition has prompted some soul-searching. This is an exciting moment for all New Democrats; the possibility of a NDP government seems very real for the first time in generations. But this opportunity also raises crucial questions. Will a NDP federal government fight for the cause for which the party was founded? If the voters finally try the “Orange Door,” will it offer them a substantially different government?

The newly proposed preamble doesn’t have a single sentence that differentiates the NDP from the Liberal Party. Far from making the NDP “electable,” it poses a severe threat to the party’s electoral aspirations. It makes us redundant. If people want to vote for the Liberals, they might as well go for the real thing. Furthermore, the political consequences of an NDP government that abandons its principles would be grave. Just look at Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario in the 1990s. Rae went on to become a Liberal but in the process destroyed the Ontario NDP’s chances for a generation. The NDP’s only chance for electoral success is to offer a real alternative to the status quo.

The NDP is rooted in the movement of farmers, labourers and socialists who built its predecessor, the CCF, in 1933. A lot has changed since them but these times do bear a striking similarity to the moment of the CCF’s founding.

The 1930s, too, had a global economic crisis that wreaked high unemployment and opened the door to austerity agendas everywhere. Our movement was founded on the idea that, to quote the Regina Manifesto of 1933, “both the old parties in Canada are the instruments of capitalist interests and cannot serve as agents of social reconstruction” and that the “time has come for a far-reaching reconstruction of our economic and political institutions.”

Now, with rising inequality and unemployment in this country and across the Western world, Canada needs a party that will stand on socialist principles to offer a true alternative to the status quo of free-market capitalism.

A different future is possible. In the coming months, there will be a lot of voices that will try to push the NDP toward the centre. They will say that socialism is a pipe-dream, impossible to achieve. New Democrats know better than this. We must remember Jack Layton’s departing message: “Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”

Arash Azizi is an elected delegate from Toronto-Centre to the upcoming NDP convention in Montreal (April 12-14). He is among dozens of NDP members organizing against the proposed changes to the party constitution.

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