What happened to working class politics in Canada?

12109012_10101083716905335_8523900990176731273_nThe NDP lost this election and lost it big. They bled over one million votes despite an increase in voter turnout, while the Liberal’s vote share doubled and its total vote jumped by over four million. The Conservative’s voting block, despite nine years of rule, remained relatively stable, losing only 230,000 votes. This means the Liberals not only won over NDP voters, but captured huge swaths of new and young voters. The NDP were completely routed in Atlantic Canada and Toronto, losing some of their more progressive MPs in the process. Although this is the third highest percentage of votes the NDP has gotten since 1980, it was greatest percentage drop off of support since the 1993 election. In that election Chretien’s Liberals swept into power, virtually wiping both the ruling Progressive Conservatives and the NDP off the electoral map. Much has been written about why this current sweep happened and what this means for the NDP, I wonder what this tells us, if anything, about the state of working class politics in this country?

Back to the 1990s restructuring

The 1993 election came in the midst of a major neoliberal restructuring of the Canadian state and the economy. Under the previous Mulroney regime the government initiated a wave of privatizations and attack on public services. While this mirrored similar efforts at economic restructuring taking place in the United States, Great Britain and in parts of Europe the objective economic political and conditions in Canada were hardly the same. Union density for instance peaked in the early 1980s in Canada, while in the United States it had been on a slow decline. The manufacturing sector was also relatively stable throughout the 1980s in comparison to the United States.

The 1980s saw the first major battles over deeper economic integration with United States. The Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Canada proposed, negotiated and signed between 1985 and 1988 – Mulroney actually opposed the idea of the FTA in the 1984 election. The FTA was followed by NAFTA, which was negotiated and signed by the Conservatives and implemented by the Liberals. These free trade deals were a useful tool that helped accelerate economic restructuring.

However, it was the early 1990s recession, which was the major catalyst. It was far deeper in Canada and specifically Ontario than elsewhere, precisely because the wave of factory closures, attacks on labour, downward pressure on wages and benefits experienced in other countries in the previous decade had largely been avoided. This was in part due to the already low labour costs, relatively high state subsidies going towards employers, the existing auto-pact, tariffs protecting key industries and the low Canadian dollar.

But this was not to last. The international economy was headed towards significant recession by the late 1980s. The spike in oil prices, a credit crunch, the implosion of the Japanese asset bubble along with a deep restructuring of the Soviet Bloc caused significant global economic turmoil. The impacts in Canada were severe; the economy didn’t recover until 1997. The dying days of the Mulroney years were met with deep discontent with his government across the country. The destruction of the fisheries in Atlantic Canada saw one of the largest layoffs in Canadian history. The impact in Ontario was severe, half of all jobs lost in the country between 1990 and 1992 were in the Greater Toronto Area. The attack on public sector workers, the implementation of a flat sales tax, the collapse of the economy and the on-going protests this turmoil stoked was enough to push Mulroney to resign before his term was up.

In 1993 the Liberals campaigned on scrapping the GST, NAFTA and brining in public programs like universal childcare. Facing a large deficit when assuming power, their red book promises went out the door within months of being elected. Introducing his first budget as finance minister Paul Martin stated, “for years, governments have been promising more than they can deliver, and delivering more than they can afford. This has to end. We are doing it.”

They slashed and changed Unemployment Insurance by dramatically reducing payments and tightening up qualification requirements. This caused severe hardship in the midst of a recession and it reduced the power of workers as a class. They froze transfer payments for education and welfare and they slashed jobs. The following year they made the single largest budget cut in Canadian history with 7 billion dollars being cut from provincial transfers from welfare, education and healthcare. CN Rail, Air Navigation and Petro Canada were privatized. Tens of thousands of jobs were cut from the federal public service. The harsh austerity of this period also took the form of readjusting the OAS payments, robbing the newly named Employment Insurance fund and the public sector workers’ pension funds to help balance the budget. A tradition the Harper Conservatives continued.

Austerity at the provincial level

The Liberal attack on social welfare program was mirrored by the provinces partly responding to the decrease transfers from the federal government and partly responding to the economic situation and the demands of big business. It was during this period that provinces like Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, British Columbia all implemented major budgetary cuts targeted at social programs and services (like welfare, education, healthcare) passed legislation attacking labour and the poor (labour was dramatically rewritten in favour of employers, while new policing strategies and laws were sanctioned against the poor), and dramatically shifted the balance between labour and capital in favour of the latter.

In Saskatchewan, for instance, the NDP government under Romanow attacked healthcare and alienated the NDP/CCF’s rural base by closing rural hospitals. Facing an economic crisis, international financial pressure and a fiscal mess the NDP in Ontario government turned on its working class base by first abandoning promises such as public auto-insurance and then implementing furlow days on public sector workers. The Tory regime that swept into power in 1995 wasted no time attacking and beleaguered and demoralized working class: labour laws were rewritten, privatizations ramped up, public sector workers were fired, social welfare and public services were subjected to deep. This trend, though uneven in its severity, was the new normal at the provincial level across the country.

With the passage of NAFTA, the attacks on social welfare state, the massive assault on labour in the 1990s is quite possibly the greatest period of social restructuring since World War Two in Canada. Of course it would be wrong to think that this went unchallenged. Provincial governments were challenged in dramatic fashion, with unprecedented levels of mobilization by unions and the working class. In Ontario the Days of Action turned out hundreds of thousands against the cuts. The rotating general strikes and plant occupations were but the most visible sign of the militancy. In Nova Scotia John Savage’s attack on the public services and workers was meet by dogged protests and social unrest, to the point where he had to resign. In Alberta, Ralph Klein’s Tories meet stiff resistance from workers in Alberta’s healthcare sector who went on a wildcat strike and forced the government to back down on its planned cuts in the sector. This mood against the cuts was present right across the country, albeit at different levels.

What was left in the 2000s

The resistance to austerity was in large part checked by the end of the 1990s. The cuts to the social safety net along with the growth of corporate power and a union movement unable and unwilling to ratchet up the fight back meant the adoption of strategies like strategic voting by the labour movement. In the run-up to the 1999 Ontario election, OPSEU, CAW, ONA and the teachers’ unions created the Ontario Electoral Network which advocated for strategic voting against the ruling Ontario Tories. They proposed to vote for NDP incumbents and Liberals who could unseat the Tories. This rear-guard action failed as the Tories were returned with a great share of the popular vote. It is in this light we should understand that strategic voting as a product of the defeat of working class politics at the time.

The NDP’s collapse in the 1990s at both the federal level and in Ontario was grim. The party hung on with governments in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. However, the politics they pursued was well within the belt-tightening neoliberal orthodoxy of the time. Over the early 2000s the NDP slowly built up its voter base and local riding associations through each election. The labour movement without an alternative clung onto the electoral strategy, though somewhat split on the question of who to support. The union movement grew older and its local power bases, with some notable exceptions, waned after the 1990s. It also struggled to find a way to organize in the booming service sector, thereby shutting itself off from young and precarious workers.

Throughout the 2000s the edifice of working class politics remained. The NDP was wounded at the ballot box in the 1990s, but not mortally so. It rebuilt its networks, riding associations and increased its vote share at the national level. This in part was buoyed by the New Politics Initiative, which sought to align the party closer with the existing social movements of time. The NPI failed to pass its resolution for change at the NDP’s special conference in 2001. After the election of Jack Layton the NPI as a cohesive pole within the NDP faded. In these years the NDP even won some notable elections in Manitoba, Nova Scotia and recently in Alberta. The union movement’s density stabilized by the end of the 1990s and has remained relatively consistent, despite the major losses in the private sector.

For its part the far-left’s trajectory mirrored the movement of the class. The early 1990s saw the decimation of the Communist Party and the shattering of the international appeal of socialism with the fall of the USSR. Most of the New Left Maoist organizations had died by the early 1980s and what remained was a relative rump. The largest socialist group in the 1990s, the International Socialist split in 1996. These events and the eventual defeats of the working class in the 1990s left socialist politics relatively untethered from the working class. The far-left had a resurgence around the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. That movement revitalized the radical milieu amongst a whole new generation of activists. The anti-war movement, which followed it, did something similar.

The edifice of working class politics today

However, beneath this edifice the atrophy of working class politics was apparent. The NDP had moved well to the centre, the union movement despite radical sounding rhetoric was unable to organize in whole sectors of the economy. The militancy and its confidence was sapped, days lots to strikes continued to decline. The petering out of the anti-war/ anti-globalization movement was not replaced by anything approaching the same level of activity. Young workers and the campus left while always present dwindled in numbers, replaced by the growth of NGO type campaigns and an anarcho-liberal ethos. The slow death of manufacturing and the growth of the service sector and the energy extraction sector meant huge pools of workers were for the most part disconnected from the left and labour. The organized far-left likewise operating in a shrinking pond shrink did not grow. Of course there were notable exceptions to this trend like Occupy, Idle No More and the Palestinian solidarity movement. But the full-scale retreat of a coherent working class politics had by then already sunk in, despite the increasing appeal of class based political demands like taxing the rich.

The ability of the Liberals to capture huge amount of votes and young voters with their rake thin message of #realchange speaks not just to the centrist path of the NDP, but more importantly to the inability of the left to create any sort of political pole of working class politics: Nationalization of key industries, taxing the rich to any great extent, advocating for a green new deal and strong social safety net based on universal programs etc.

This election, perhaps more than any other I have seen, shows how ramshackle the edifice of working class politics has really become in Canada. Sure the NDP held onto parts of its working class voter base, but its failure, along with the union movement and the broader left’s inability to articulate and organize increasingly larger sections of the class, shows that the left’s organizational capacities have few roots in the working class, despite obvious openings for leftist ideas. This is not to say it is an insurmountable problem, rather that it should at least give us pause, as we pick up the pieces and continue the fight.

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2 responses to “What happened to working class politics in Canada?

  1. Though I find little to disagree with here, what bears greater emphasis here is that notwithstanding the deterioration of these various programs, receptivity to a truly democratic socialist platform makes this election an appalling lost opportunity–a Corbynista or at least Sanders-like platform was there for the taking, and at 37%, a conjuncture there for the NDP to ride to electoral victory, something neither of those other movements may ever see.

  2. I would echo what Anonymous has posted here. The lost opportunity of a Blairite turn to the centre-right and consequent loss to the Liberals who tacked ever so slightly to the left of this trajectory is a self-defeating anachronism that should have been followed by calls for mass resignations, beginning with Mulcair and his backers, as well as their strategists, at the very least. For now, Canadians will be so grateful for Harper’s departure and the “sunny ways” symbolism that it will be years before we begin to notice–really, Paul Martin as a “progressive” financial management campaign prop?–whether we have Obama lite or something, conceivably, worse.

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