The NDP and the Left in Nova Scotia

526403_10151567911942264_1879557877_n-1A recent opinion piece by Chris Brisbane entitled, “Nova Scotia: Why a Dexter NDP government defeat would be a progressive victory” got me thinking about how the left in Nova Scotia should debate and orient towards the NSNDP.

The article lists a litany of sins the NSNDP has committed since its election in 2009 and concludes that a defeat of the NSNDP would be a victory for progressive forces in the province. I think it is fair to say that Brisbane’s simplistic analysis does not reflect the realities of struggle on the ground in the province, nor a truly radical perspective.

This article, however, does pose the question how should the left understand the NDP in Nova Scotia? I would say that there are roughly five lefty readings of the NSNDP that I have encountered:

The first is the obvious blind partisan support for the party. The second is a more qualified take on the NSNDP in power — they did some good and bad things but on balance they are better than the other options. The third is Brisbane’s moralistic orientation; we should vote them out to send a message to the party to get back their progressive roots. The fourth is the ultra-left’s maximalist line of opposing anything that doesn’t espouse full-on socialism. The last reading is the one that puts class struggle, the balance of forces between workers and capital in the province, at the centre of understanding the NDP and parliamentary politics. I will examine each of these perspectives in turn.

Blind support for the NSNDP

Let me be clear here, my political orientation is one that sees capitalism (in either its neoliberal or Keynesian form) as fundamentally opposed to the interests of workers and the poor. There is no system or political practice that can satisfy the interests of workers and capitalists simultaneously.

So with that in mind I obviously think it is correct to dismiss blind support for social democratic parties. They have failed and will continue to fail to create a system that benefits the working class above and beyond the immediate interests of capital.

There is of course a qualification here: the NDP and other social democratic parties have at times been pushed by their base to institute real gains for workers. These gains have at best been temporary and in reality often serve the aggregate interests of capital. For instance having a regulated banking sector or labour relations or healthcare reform can actually benefit capitalism as a whole by creating stability within a crisis prone system, even though individual capitalists may kick and scream about particular reforms.

Qualified support of the NSNDP

Those having a qualified support are about half right when it comes to looking at the NSNDP. The NSNDP has not been the boon for the left that many were expecting. The list of NDP negative stances and policies is almost too long to list here. They have turned their backs on the students, who have staged a valiant struggle over the past three years (which for some reason Brisbane fails to even address). The NSNDP has raised tuition and are trying to implement policies that amalgamate universities such as Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University.

They have also failed to really do anything for labour beyond streamlining certain labour laws and bringing in first contract arbitration. In fact they have even outsourced unionized government jobs to big corporations like IBM. Most egregious for labour, the government has refused to bring in card check certification for unions, which would make it easier for workers to organize unions.

All the while Premier Darrell Dexter and the NSNDP have not been shy about doling out corporate subsidies to firms such as Cooke Aquatic or backing the absurd P3 that is the World Trade and Convention Centre in Halifax. The government has also refused to even consider placing the much hated monopoly power corporation, Nova Scotia Power, back under public ownership.

The rhetoric of responsible economic stewardship led them to institute an austerity lite agenda in the province to manage the inherited deficits from the Conservatives and from the global economic downturn.

Those who offer qualified support for the NDP point out some marginal reforms they brought in or stood for such as the promise to reduce clear cutting in the province by 50 percent, the increased amount of money going toward affordable housing, childcare subsidies, the plethora of minor improvements to the healthcare system and the fact that premier has been forcefully standing up to Harper’s reactionary approach to healthcare.

These and other reforms are not totally insignificant. Even modest reforms are a vast improvement over the scandal-ridden history of Liberal and Tory governance. The Liberals and Tories are both pro big business reactionary parties that in essence are two cheeks of the same ass. So qualified support does reflect a practical political calculation, though this reading by itself misses some key perspectives, which I will discuss below.

A moralistic critique of the NSNDP

This brings us to the notion that an electoral loss by the NDP is somehow progressive. The thinking here is that if the NDP is sent a strong message at the ballot box the party will learn its lesson and move back to the left and stay there when it comes to power again. There are a lot of big assumptions here that make this analysis fairly shallow. First of all there is no guarantee nor precedent that a defeated NDP will be more left leaning the second time around (just look at the how the NDP in British Columbia positioned itself in the last election, or how the NDP in Ontario has not run hard to the left).

The second problem with this is that political balance of power in the province will swing right, because the NDP will have been defeated not by progressive forces, but by reactionary ones. It is not a matter of the NDP winning or losing, but the terms upon which either of those take place. Lastly this reading is in a real sense a reactionary understanding of politics — if only we had better leaders and a better social democratic party, etc. The point is not to have a better leader or party to do things for us, the point is to have movements that empower us to take democratic control over our lives and our labour.

The ultra-left critique of the NSNDP

The ultra-left reading of the NSNDP is unequally unhelpful. We need to understand the NDP brass is different from their base. Anyone who has ever knocked on doors for a political or labour campaign in this province understands to simply dismiss any orientation or understanding of the NDP from an ultra-left position is to miss an opportunity to speak to the hopes and inevitable disillusions of the working class in Nova Scotia.

To fault the NDP because it doesn’t fulfill the radical left’s ideal of socialism is ridiculous, but it does bring up an interesting point about left expectations. What do we expect from the NDP, socialism, social democracy, or a small amount reforms mixed with confusing rhetoric about working families and responsible economic stewardship?

I would say that the left has done a bad job in Nova Scotia and beyond in articulating a rational expectation of the NDP in power. By this I mean left wing activists really shouldn’t be disappointed by the meekness of the NSNDP (or the NDP elsewhere). They were destined to underwhlem us with centre-left mediocrity.

I mean I used to play in a basketball league with Darrell Dexter and the man had only one move: go right and pull-up with a two-handed jump shot. That’s his move: go right. I am completely baffled by activists on the left who expected otherwise, or who think that the NDP has sold us out. They haven’t, they have clearly been ready to move to the right before they ever took power.

The NDP and class struggle

This brings me to the last way of reading the NDP, which I believe is a much more nuanced and useful way to approach the issue. The question of the NDP should be looked at through the eyes of social movements and class struggle. Is the NDP in and of itself going to make life better for Nova Scotians, clearly not. Does having the traditional leftwing party create the conditions for others to do so, yes.

This is the case for two reasons, first off the NSNDP provides a little bit of breathing space for the left to reconstitute itself and organize. The NSNDP has brought in austerity measures and attacked students, destroyed Yarmouth, contracted out government jobs, done precious little for labour and barely ponied up for other progressive and environmental causes.

However, when compared to the Liberals and Tories in government it is understandable why workers and some on the left see the NSNDP as a vast improvement. This space to organize affords the ability to not have to exert all of our energy on resisting the worst neoliberal reforms and begin to wage offensive battles.

Much more importantly though, having the NSNDP in power allows those to the left of the NDP who have a critique of capitalism and parliamentary democracy to point to the limits of social democracy. Sure, we can and should squeeze reforms out from the system, especially when the NSNDP is power, but we should also be making the point that NDP, within the confines of pure electoralism, has limits. It is not just that they won’t bring about substantial changes that improve the lives of most Nova Scotians, it is, that they can’t.

We thus need to look at the broader balance of forces in the province, not simply what reforms the NSNDP do or do not enact. We have to understand that working class people in the province still largely orient towards the party and therefore we can’t simply dismiss the NDP out of hand. Having the NDP in power is an opportunity for those to its left, however, this opportunity is no guarantee of a swing to the left. We need to have committed and strategic organizations willing to press the NDP, or whoever is in power. We need to have a strategy that puts pressure on labour leaders to stand more forcefully for strategic reforms, such as card check.

The NDP is not going to substantially alter the fundamentals of capitalism, but having the correct perspective of social democracy can allow the left to navigate towards growing workers power, rather than simply moralizing about it.

This article first appeared on


5 responses to “The NDP and the Left in Nova Scotia

  1. Beautiful caricature of the “ultra-left” position, Dave.
    If communists were actually incapable of distinguishing between the NDP’s leadership and its rank-and-file, its voter base, etc., we’d have no choice but to give up! On the contrary however, what we’re positing is far more optimistic – that the “base”, with the emergence of communist leadership, is capable of overcoming the social-democratic misleadership of bureaucratic parasites.
    Framing conditional loyalty to bureaucratic parasites is a laughable proposition at best, and reminds me of the sad petering out of the Quebec Student Strike, where similar logic was used to justify the pragmatic resignation of students to order. The result, unsurprisingly, was their thorough defeat even in terms of their minimum demand – no tuition hikes.
    You need to get out of academic labour studies. It’s doing funny things to your class loyalties.

  2. I am not sure where I frame conditional loyalty to the NDP brass as class struggle in this piece? As per the ultra left reading – ” It is not a matter of the NDP winning or losing, but the terms upon which either of those take place.” should be the way in which we discuss social democracy. The ultra left does a great job in my experience of moralizing about issues rather than presenting a viable strategic frame to discuss growing workers’ power.

    “On the contrary however, what we’re positing is far more optimistic – that the “base”, with the emergence of communist leadership, is capable of overcoming the social-democratic misleadership of bureaucratic parasites.” I am not sure who the we is you are referring to are? Is this we in NS actually doing anything? What is this time frame? It seems too abstract and not concrete. Wishful thinking is no substitute for lived struggle.

  3. While I agree that a class struggle approach is the right one, I think things are more complicated than the idea that “having the traditional leftwing party” in office “create[s] the conditions for others to” make life better for working-class people.

    In Manitoba,14 years of NDP governments have contributed to virtually eliminating what was already a weak extra-parliamentary left. Having the NDP in office can be demobilizing, especially when workplace and community self-organization is weak and confidence in winning gains through struggle is low. Nothing automatic here, but it does need to be acknowledged and factored in.

  4. David, I think obviously A does not lead to B in regards to social democracy in power = boon for the far-left. It is as you say conditioned upon other factors such as the strength of working class movements. However, as I said in the piece “this opportunity is no guarantee of a swing to the left.”

    It really depends on the organization and strength of the far-left to push strategically. And let me be clear, the opportunity is not one of simply winning reforms but of winning people and movements to a more thorough critique of social democracy (what better way to show the limits of the NDP than pushing on them while they are in government – in opposition they can always swing to the left and make promises they can’t, or don’t intend to keep).

    I also grant that in Manitoba the conditions may be different. But if the far-left is so weak than perhaps (And I could be wrong) it matters little in practice who is in power.

    NDP governments clearly would like to demobilize their left and often this happens. However, this danger of demobilization clearly has a flip side which is that it creates an opportunity to grow and entrench political space to the left of social democracy.

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