Sunday, May 13, 2007

Uniting the Left Untenable

But Don't Ask the CBC

Anyone who tuned into CBC's The National on May 10, 2007, was treated to a unique postulation on behalf of the CBC about the possibility of a united left. In the piece, "The Divided Left", Leslie McKinnon explores the idea of a united left, compares it to the united right, and wonders just why they can't seem to "get the job done".

McKinnon points to the recent non-competitive pact between Stephane Dion and Elizabeth May as "the first tentative step" toward a merger of (allegedly) leftist parties in Canada.

It's hard to see where McKinnon herself stands on this particular issue, if the piece is examined solely for explicit statements. If one reads into the subtext, however, it begins to seem as if McKinnon is very much in favor of, if not an outright merger, at least cooperation between the various parties. At the 3:32 point of the segment, McKinnon even explains how voters could accomplish such a goal.

"The truth is, if progressive voters want to stop vote splitting in order to prevent another Conservative government Green Party numbers are too small," McKinnon explains. "The vital player that these voters need is the NDP."

She then seems to level the finger of blame at the NDP for the current government. "Last election, it was abundantly clear that cooperating with the Liberals is not in the NDP's game plan."

"Far from it."

In the 2006 election, the NDP locked their sights firmly on the Liberal party, urging Liberal voters to cast ballots in favor of the NDP. Knowing how many ridings were capable of swinging based on a defection of voters, Layton convinced Liberal voters in many ridings to switch their allegiances -- whether permanently or temporarily. The result was 10 additional seats.

This, however, was a reversal of the 2004 election, wherein the spectre of a "scary" Conservative government enabled then-Prime Minster Paul Martin to rustle up extra seats at the NDP's expense, using precisely the same mantra of strategic voting. Naturally, having won power on the back of this tactic, the Liberals went right back to the well in the next election, with far less success.

One of the segment's talking heads, University of Victoria Political Scientist Reg Whitaker notes, "[The NDP] have defined themselves essentially as in a death struggle with the Liberals to command the centre-left and if the collateral damage is that the Conservatives get a majority then so be it. That seems to be the thinking."

McKinnon also points the finger of blame at Ed Broadbent for not "siding with the anti-free trade Liberals" in the election of 1988.

For the record, The Liberal party would eventually switch to a pro-free trade stance, (just as the then-Progressive Conservatives had previously opposed it).

Broadbent netted 43 seats for the NDP. According to Whitaker, "that was a success but the result was they divided the anti-free trade vote, which actually represented the majority across the country and reelected a [Progressive] Conservative majority which then enacted free trade."

McKinnon insists that "ancestral resentments and intense party loyalties keep [the four centre-left parties] apart."

In reality, the divided left remains divided by issues of principle and political culture.

The NDP -- arguably portrayed as the villains of the segment -- were founded as an outright social democratic party. Originally estabished as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a party designed around the protestant social gospel, the party combined with the Canadian Labour Congress, largely divested itself of its religious underpinnings, and founded a broader social democratic party.

Although often taking arguably anti-business positions, the NDP has sought to become a party for middle class Canadians. As a result, it has often struck anti-elitist positions and advocated for wealth redistribution from wealthier Canadians to poorer Canadians, in combination with an expansive social safety net.

The Bloc Quebecois is, by nature, a Quebec separatist party. With the secondary purpose of representing Quebec's interests in Ottawa, the BQ's first goal is to advance the cause of separatism from Ottawa.

The Green party, for all its futile efforts to broaden its tent, is strictly an environmental party, although Elizabeth May does hold some very interesting views regarding abortion.

The true misnomer in the idea of a united left is the Liberal party. While purporting itself to be a left-of-center party, the fact is that there is very little in the Liberal party's record to account for that claim. Throughout the party's history, it has proven just as conservative as their primary Tory opponents. On the few occasions in which the Liberal party has enacted truly left-wing policies, it has always done so as a result of pressure from the NDP.

The Liberals have proven adept at following the Mackenzie-King model of "swing" politics, in which the party "swings" left to relieve pressure applied by a powerful NDP, or "swings" right to alleviate pressure applied by potent right-wing parties.

When "swinging" to the right, the Liberal party has often proved beyond conservative. The Liberals' budget-slashing endeavours following the 1993 election have been described by many observers as text book neo-conservative fiscal policy.

But that isn't where the Liberals' flirting with neo-conservatism ends. The party has always endorsed a Straussian view of elite rulership, while most recently spreading the "noble lie" of the Conservative hidden agenda. In fact, when compared to the ideological underpinnings of Straussianism, the Liberals meet a remarkable portion of neo-conservative criteria.

So, in essence, the four players of McKinnon's dream scenario match up like this: socialists, separatists, environmentalists and neoconservatives. However, it is much more complex than this.

The socialists dislike the neoconservatives, for obvious reasons. The neo-conservatives and the environmentalists are quite amicable to each other (despite the failure of the neo-conservatives to address the issues favoured by the environmentalists, or even keep that issue under control). The environmentalists see the socialists as not left-of-centre enough for them, while the separatists have a long-standing rivalry with the neo-conservatives. To top this all off, the separatists want to separate from all of them.

If that doesn't seem like a recipe for political disaster, it isn't immediately apparent what would.

How will, for example, the Liberals, NDP and Greens accomodate the BQ within this new party? Will the new party advocate separatism, or at least accept it within their ranks? Will the NDP and Greens adopt an elitist stance to match that of the Liberals? Or will the Liberals divest themselves of their elitist tendencies?

These questions have no suitable answers. Despite all the pie-in-the-sky dreams of the "unite the left" movement, this is an impossible goal.

But it isn't the goal that makes the "unite the left" movement dangerous.

In the end, the entire "unite the left" movement has one underlying goal: ensure that a Conservative government never again comes to power. Those who single-mindedly advocate for this union prove themselves more than willing to disregard the principles of each particular party involved in order to make this happen. And why not? When one is power hungry, nothing appeals more than a stranglehold on the political system.

How can any political movement that chooses to disregard issues of principle in order to unite in pursuit of a monopoly on political power represent anything more than the political enslavement of anyone who chooses to disagree with that movement?

Even under Elizabeth May's "virtual merger" vision of a European coalition wherein potential swing ridings held by left-of-centre candidates are kept safe by the absense of competing left-of-centre candidates, uniting the left can only result in a political environment that is less competitive, and fundamentally unjust for all Canadians who disagree with a potential united left-wing party.

McKinnon notes that, in Canada, the majority of voters traditionally support these left-of-centre parties. In a democracy, the majority rules.

But then again, what Dion, May, McKinnon, and all those who share their vision of Canada want isn't majority rules. It's majority dominates. It's a betrayal of the principles the country was re-founded on, both prior to and in 1981.

The healthiest democracies are the ones in which power alternates between competitors. Yet advocates of the "unite the left" movement seem intent on preventing this from being the case in Canada.

One actually wonders what they're afraid of.

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