Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Modernizing the NDP: Who is pinker – Brian Topp or Thomas Mulcair?

They're off! The race for the new leader of the Official Opposition party – the NDP – is now on, with one major announced candidate (Brian Topp) and the other major candidate (Thomas Mulcair) setting up a panCanadian team before throwing his hat in the ring.

The interim leader of the NDP has called for and welcomed a spirited, ideas-driven campaign for the leadership.

The most important issue:

One topic that will definitely be raised by the media (even if the two major contenders prefer not to talk about it during the six month long campaign), is a vital one for the future of the NDP. The decision by the party on this issue will determine whether the NDP remains simply a party of protest, or can be regarded as a real contender for the next government of Canada.

That topic is simple to express:

Is the NDP to continue to be the only federal party in Canada that is a socialist party, intent on the nationalisation and state  control of the private sector (including public ownership through the federal government of major manufacturing and distribution companies)? Or is the NDP to adapt to the times and become a social democratic party along the lines of those found in Europe?

This battle was fought and won in the UK by Tony Blair, who pushed the old Labour Party into the modern world, to become New Labour.

For Blair, the battle revolved around Clause IV of the Labour Party's constitution. For Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair, the battle revolves around the old preamble to the NDP's constitution, and the proposed changes to it. Those changes were shelved at the last convention, when protests erupted on the floor. The party brass hastily withdrew the resolution to modernize the preamble, and punted  it into the future.

That future is now.

Any person wishing to become leader of the NDP will need to explain to the media, to current party members, to voters being sought to become potential party members during the massive signup of new NDP members before the cut off date in mid-February, and to Canadians at large, exactly where he or she stands with regard to this issue.

Degrees of Pinkness of Topp and Mulcair:

Just how pink is Brian Topp? And Thomas Mulcair?

Are they still in favour of the NDP remaining a socialist party dedicated to public ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods and services in Canada, and the dedication of all economic activity to purposes other than profits?

Or are they prepared to support and actively campaign for the revised Preamble to the NDP constitution?

Why is it so critical an issue for the NDP?

Why is this issue the overriding issue in the leadership contest? The reflections of Tony Blair on his efforts to modernize the Labour Party cast some light on the importance of this issue. In his biography, A Journey – My Political Life, Blair describes the many months of thought and action that took place before old Labour became New Labour and then set about trouncing the Tory Party and becoming the government, winning 3 back to back elections.

Clause IV was the core statement of the Labour Party credo in its constitution, just as the preamble is in the NDP constitution.

Early on, Blair formed a clear view that "the constitution should be rewritten and the old commitments to nationalisation and state  control would be dumped."

What was in Clause IV?
Thomas Mulcair

Among other things, it called for "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange." ...What was mainstream  leftist thinking in the early twentieth century had become hopelessly unreal, even surreal, in the late-twentieth century world in which, since 1989, even Russia had embraced the market.

Blair's take on Labour intellectuals:

During New Labour's soul searching, Blair came to realize that many intellectuals in the party had reached a position which prevented the party achieving its aim of forming a "governing coalition" of voters:

The intellectuals' belief in equality strayed dangerously into the realm of equality of income, not equality of opportunity. The latter was a liberator; the former would quickly become and be seen as a constraint.
Brian Topp

What happened in the UK?

Tony Blair was prepared to resign as leader if he could not achieve the changes to Clause IV. The debate inside the party took six long months, before it was replaced.

When explaining the disconnect between the Labour Party's Clause IV and the views of most voters in Britain, Blair has this to say (words which the NDP should consider very carefully if it wishes to become a party capable of governing the country, rather than simply a protest movement):
When a party has defined itself in a particular way which is not to the public's liking, the definition has an uncomfortable habit of sticking around, like the smell of decay in an old house. You can use some air freshener, you can throw open a few windows and you can jolly people up a little with some positive description of how it's going to be better; but the only thing that works, in the end, is to say: this place stinks, we're going to make it over, i.e. keep the structure, revolutionise the rest.
Blair analyzed the Labour Party as really consisting of three groups:
I assessed that where were three types of Labour: old-fashioned Labour, which could never win; modernized Lour, which could win and keep on winning, which was my ambition from the outset; and plain Labour, which could win once, but essentially as a reaction to an unpopular Conservative government. The last could not win on its own  terms with sufficient clarity, breadth and depth of support to be capable of sustaining victory through the inevitable troubled times of government.
The NDP Constitution:

The issue essentially is the same for the NDP as it was for the Labour Party.

The current and proposed changes to the preamble of the NDP are as follows (my underlining, to show the similarity with the Labour Clause IV):

7-01-11 Resolution to Adopt a New Constitutional Preamble
Submitted by Resolutions Committee

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the existing Preamble to the Constitution be deleted;

"The New Democratic Party believes that he social, economic and political progress of Canada can be assured only by the application of socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs.

The principles of democratic socialism can be briefly defined as:

• That the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the
social and individual needs of people within a sustainable environment and economy and not to
the making of profit;
• To modify and control the operations of the monopolistic and distributive organizations through economic and social planning. Towards these ends and where necessary the extension of the principle of social ownership;
• The New Democratic Part holds firm to the belief that he dignity and freedom of the individual is a basic right that must be maintained and extended; and
• The New Democratic Party is proud to be associated with the democratic socialist parties of
the world and to share the struggle for peace, international cooperation and the abolition of
poverty. "

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the following preamble be adopted:

The New Democratic Party believes that social justice, equality, and environmental sustainability are vital to achieving a strong, united and prosperous Canada for all.
To that end, the New Democratic Party is dedicated to the application of social democratic principles to government.
These principles include an unwavering commitment to economic and social equality, individual
freedom and responsibility, and democratic rights of citizens to shape the future of their communities.
New Democrats hold firm to the belief that individual freedom and dignity are basic rights that find the fullest expression in healthy and prosperous communities, where individuals can realize their full potential and contribute to a stronger Canada.
Established in partnership with the Labour movement in 1961, the New Democratic Party is the voice of working people in the Parliament of Canada, advocating and implementing laws that advance their collective and individual interests.
New Democrats are proud to stand in solidarity with its allies around the world working for international peace and justice, ending discrimination and exploitation, eliminating poverty and ensuring that wealth and power are in the hands of the many and not the few.

The Changes Blair made to the Labour Party constitution:

New Labour had the same struggle. To quote Blair:
The words mattered, to both party and public. For they party they had to convey a genuine conviction. For the public, they couldn't be a fudge.

So, we kept at the beginning the phrase "democratic socialism", but what came after was a plain statement of values which rejected any association of those values with the state as the principal actor:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone so as to create for each of us the means to realize our own true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
The question for Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair:

Just where do they stand on the Preamble of the NDP?

Will they fight to preserve the socialist (government ownership of means of production and distribution) aims of the NDP,  or will they fight to modernize the NDP by adopting the revised Preamble?

They owe Canadians an explanation of their stands.


  1. The truth is that if any leader does to the NDP what Blair did to the Labour Party, then it would be better that it stay as a protest party for now because so-called "New" Labour was little more than a Conservative Party which instituted Neo-Liberal policies while pretending to represent the cause of average people and then sent the country into near bankruptcy by failing to institute a proper tax policy. It seems that all recommendations of the Liberals for the NDP amount to telling the NDP to become Liberals.

  2. kibycairo, are you in favour of the current preamble or the new one proposed by Jack Layton?

    And where do Topp and Mulcair stand on replacing the old preamble?

    That's the issue, not your concerns about Tony Blair.

  3. kirbycairo, another thing.

    If the NDP preamble contains a core statement of the NDP credo that the NDP is still in favour of nationalizing the means of production and distribution, and that all economic assets must be used for purposes other than profit, then there is absolutely no way that the NDP will ever become the government of Canada. That kind of nationalization of private property policy will - when it becomes clear to voters that this is what the NDP will seek to do if it becomes a majority government - scare of a huge majority of voters.

    So, if the NDP does not change its policies to walk away from this, it's future as a serious contender for government is questionable.

    If, however, it moves closer to the European model of social democracy, then it has a bright future.

    The choice is the NDP's.

    And voters have a right to know where Messrs Topp and Mulcair stand on nationalization of production and distribution assets ...

  4. I am an NDP member and have never read the preamble in question. It is even less likely that the average voter, who may or may not lean to the NDP at a particular election, will bother to do so. Practical politics doesn't work that way. Party leaders will create a general impression of their supposed competence, will appeal to the hopes and fears of a selected portion of the electorate, and will present policies crafted in accordance with the political climate of a specific time.
    Only a certain type of enthusiast worries about constitutional preambles.

  5. FJP - the Harper Tory attack machine will pay attention to the NDP preamble and constitution - about $10 million worth of attention, starting soon.

    Remember, last time they tied the NDP together with the separatists in an unholy attempt to foist a tripartite coalition government attempt on unwitting Canadians. Then they used the term "socialist" to blacken the NDP.

    If the NDP constitution is not changed and the party does not move towards the mainstream as the social democrats in Europe have (and as New Labour did), Harper will cut the new NDP and the NDP itself off at the knees. And when that barrage of half-truths and truths is over, so too will be any chance the NDP might have had of increasing its MPs beyond its current 104 seats.

    The NDP and the leadership candidates ignore this issue at their peril.


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