Hoping for a Canadian Corbyn

Gabriel Pierre looks at the turmoil inside the New Democratic Party, but doubts its electoral loss will lead to a resurgent left

Post-election discontent. (Photo via Matt Jiggins)

Canada shrugged off a decade of Conservative rule last October, ejecting Stephen Harper’s Conservatives from Regina in favor of a Liberal majority headed by Justin Trudeau. While much of the international media coverage surrounding the election focused on the new Prime Minister’s youth or his celebrity status as part of the country’s first political “dynasty” (his father Pierre Trudeau was a two-time Prime Minister), I have to admit that my attention was on the swift, indeed downright impressive, electoral collapse of the New Democratic Party. Just a month before election day most polls put the NDP neck-and-neck or ahead of the Liberals. They were in serious contention to form their first federal government since the party’s creation in 1961; instead, they plummeted from 103 MPs in the last election to just 44.

In all fairness, this was still their second best showing in their history despite the rout, but all the same the party is in a demoralized state. To any sensible commentator the reasons for the defeat are clear. The NDP leadership, even after the increased bureaucratization of the party and the removal of “socialism” from the party constitution, made a calculated shift to the left at the beginning of the campaign. The party rose in the polls as it professed support for raising corporate taxes, a $15/hour minimum wage and $15/day child care, and opposition to Canada’s involvement in Syrian imperialist intervention and Bill C-51 (analogous to the USA PATRIOT Act.)

But the dividends of this reformist rhetoric were promptly squandered as the New Democrats turned back to the right. Leader Tom Mulcair was at pains to stress the party’s ‘fiscal responsibility’ and favorable attitude to capital, going so far as to criticize the Liberals for supporting a modest tax increase on the super-rich! Naturally, there’s been a fair amount of dissatisfaction within the ranks since October 19. Somewhat surprisingly, Tom Mulcair has not stepped down, but he will most likely see a challenge to his leadership position at the party’s federal conference in April. Ontario MPP (member of the provincial parliament) Cheri DiNovo, known for her clashes with the party brass, has publicly called for his replacement as a first step to renewing the party’s commitment to “democratic socialism.”1

DiNovo cited Bernie Sanders as a potential source of inspiration for her party, a faulty comparison despite some superficial similarities with the U.S. Democratic Party very much a capitalist party incapable of being wielded by the working class. The comparison to Corbyn’s victory in the British Labour Party leadership election is much more apt: like Labour, the New Democrats are still what Lenin characterized as a ‘bourgeois workers party,’ albeit one with the bourgeois pole firmly in control. Unfortunately, the left wing of the NDP is less well positioned to make gains inside the party than the Labour left in the U.K. – don’t count on a Canadian Corbyn emerging any time soon. Who would play the role? Niki Ashton MP, while she can be counted as among the NDP left, lacks a support base in the party. When she ran for leader in the most recent contest to replace the deceased Jack Layton (with, for what it’s worth, the endorsement of the small NDP Socialist Caucus), she won 5.7% of the members’ vote. Respectable, but no ‘Corbynmania.’ While it’s by no means certain, the most likely outcome in April is Mulcair hanging on in the absence of a credible left challenge.

All this being said, the prognosis for the Canadian left as a whole isn’t completely negative. The fact that there is discontent inside the NDP at all is a good sign. The “official” Communist Party of Canada and the Marxist-Leninist Party got a combined 13,500 votes2 – dismal, but proportionately higher relative to the size of the electorate than the far left’s typical vote share in the United States. And Québec solidaire, probably the most politically advanced sizable left party on the North American continent, has encouraging connections to various social movements (though its program is left-reformist and the province’s labor movement for the most part is still tied to the bourgeois nationalist Parti québécois.) The class struggle continues regardless of the political left’s ability to intervene in it; as long as Canadian revolutionaries remain stunted by sectarian divisions they will be unable to work out a strategy for getting from present conditions to a mass communist party.



  1. http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/01/06/ndp-angst-goes-public-as-mpp-cheri-dinovo-calls-for-tom-mulcairs-head-walkom.html
  2. http://enr.elections.ca/National.aspx?lang=e