Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Left" is no longer a unifying concept

This period of fragmentation on what used to be called the "left" requires calls on us to engage in analysis (includes issues of naming and framing), negotiation, and organization (includes strategy and execution). It's not exactly that the "left" doesn't exist any more, but it is no longer a unifying concept.

What the left really can't stand is that intellectual vigor has shifted to the right. You can disagree with Fraser Institute ideologues, but you can't call them lazy or stupid. They have recently produced a re-examination of Indian policy that just may be more rigorous--not agreeable or even palatable, just rigorous--than anything produced by the Government of Canada or any major political party downwind of the Kelowna Accords. You can call Michael Ignatieff right-wing with some justice, but he does his homework and asks the tough questions.

  The coalition episode revealed just how ignorant Canadians are of their bizarre democracy. Yet not one party of five showed any inclination to leap on the loose ball.

On the center-left, the NDP can't make up its collective mind whether to resume their traditional embrace of a 19th century ideology or join the bad guys who keep kicking their asses. The result? In May 2007, the NDP voted against a Liberal motion to bring the troops home from Afghanistan not later than 2009. The Bloc voted for it. The NDP voted with the Conservatives and "justified" this strange and unprincipled behavior by saying they wanted the troops out NOW! (i.e., before 2009). Not that they had a plan.

It's 2009, and they continue to suck and blow. They frittered away their only opportunity to bring the troops home before 2011. With Liberal help, the Conservatives have effectively removed Afghanistan from the political agenda. It is already clear that Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Teams will be in Afghanistan till 2015; bringing the troops home will likely have to wait till after that. But the point is that NDP "strategy" appears to have been crafted by a precocious high school students council vice-president or maybe her budgie.

Note also that NDP Middle East policy has collapsed since Sven Robinson turned himself in. Layton is a good municipal politician with a principled and well-developed position on homelessness and other municipal issues. In foreign policy, however, he got blown off his bicycle years ago, and the party has no answer for this deficiency.

Finally, consider the coalition. The NDP was being urged to form a coalition before the election. They demurred. When they came back, they voted along with practically everyone else for the Fall Throne Speech. Then--and only then--did they decide to form a coalition. Bad timing. The missed opportunity that is as good as a mile. By the time the coalition hit its peak, the Government still had near unanimous de facto support (NDP, Bloc, Libs). The Governor General had practically no choice but to prorogue Parliament at Harper's request. Good game plan this time, rotten execution. Poor attention to detail. C- and yes, this will be on the final exam. Witness a "left" that has earned its fragmentation.

Socially and economically the Greens are all over the map. After almost 30 years in Canada and with persistent and un-deserved attention from the national media, the Greens have barely been able to elect someone to a school board. A strategic re-think is overdue. They aren't hungry; they aren't desperate; they aren't out pounding the pavement, knocking on doors and discovering the "social libertarian" vote, debating with anarchists, and figuring out how to serve a real consituency or two.

Instead, the Greens have persisted in the strategy of running a candidate in every riding, even though it is almost certainly not a prudent use of their limited funds and has not delivered results. The half-baked campaign here to promote STV as the only democratic reform they favour isn't likely to get off the ground either. We don't need larger ridings; in the Interior, we need smaller ones, but the Greens aren't listening.

Furthermore, the lesson of stolen elections in the US should alert Canadians to the perils of a complex and invisible method of counting votes. For those of a more traditional left persuasion, there is a famous quote from Stalin that makes the same point.

For what it's worth, the process was handcuffed from the beginning. The BC Greens along with the rest of us accepted the premise that there will be no more representation, just a shuffling of how the representation is elected. BC has a huge rural-urban divide that leaves the Greens particularly vulnerable unless they can bootstrap the vigor for a comprehensive re-examination of fundamental questions. The coalition episode revealed just how ignorant most Canadians are of their bizarre democracy. Yet not one party of five showed any inclination to leap on the loose ball.

The Greens may be too grateful for the money that the parliamentary subsidy provides them. It saves them the inconvenience of having to go door-to-door with a coffee can. But there can be no doubt that the parliamentary subsidy for political parties serves the status quo. It didn't deliver in the 2008 election. Combined with STV, success of this grand strategy might result in one seat in parliament, probably at the expense of the NDP.

That's not good enough. Any analysis that ignores the 30-35% of registered Canadian voters who decide not to vote isn't good enough. That seems like a good starting place. To that, I would add that a federal strategy which refuses to work with separatists is unlikely to get beyond the regionalism that characterizes the current configuration.
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Chrystal Ocean said...

Couldn't agree more. Talk to the separatists. Talk to non-voters who, contrary to media hype, are not apathetic, but disgusted with both our politicians and an electoral system which doesn't properly represent the vote.

Unknown said...

Much fodder for thought here - thanks for taking the time to get it down. Yay to calls for vigor. But your take on New Democrats and coalitions, especially, is off the mark.

First, pre-election "demurring" on coalitions was about ... pre-election coalitions. That is: you offer citizens full choice at the ballot box, then work with the House they elect, including coming together in coalitions. I don't know how many gazillion times I heard Layton reiterate this.

Second, you say the New Dems supported the Fall Throne Speech, then frame an argument from there that leads to giving them a "C" for "attention to detail." But they voted against that Throne Speech.

Jim Terral said...


I don't believe for a minute that the coalition should have run in the election as a coalition. The time was obviously not right for that.

But to succeed the coalition had to propose forming a government (to the GG) on the coattails of a vote of no confidence not later than the Throne Speech.

As it was done, the Government had the actual confidence of the House, all the hot air to the contrary notwithstanding. The coalition were a day late and a dollar short.

That kind of move (i.e., striking while the iron is hot) requires timing, a plan, maybe even practice. In sports it's called execution. At the time of that vote on November 27, there was clearly no plan--just like Afghanistan. I didn't give them a C; I gave them a C-. The lowest possible pass--for good intentions. Faint praise. No cigar. The sound of one hand clapping. No laurels to rest on.