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Observations on Canadian NDP leader Mulcair and the politics of class

2012 March 30
by Ian Welsh

Last weekend, the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) elected a new leader: Thomas Mulcair, an MP from Quebec, who was a minister in the provincial Liberal government there, before he resigned rather than open a park for development.

Mulcair was the front runner, and his victory was hardly a surprise.  Many NDPers thought that he would move to the center and would abandon left-wing principles in pursuit of power, and a number of key members of the prior leader’s team have left.

I had my doubts, but Mulcair has gone a long way to assuage them in just a week.  First, this, in his first day in Parliament:

Speaking to reporters afterward, he laid out his concerns for the state of the Canadian economy and accused the federal government of neglecting workers as it promotes the extraction of natural resources, mainly in Western Canada.

“That’s driven up the value of the Canadian dollar, made it more difficult to export our own goods. We’re killing our manufacturing sector,” he said. “The way the Conservatives are acting has had a devastating impact on good jobs with pensions.”

There was a lot of whining from Alberta about this statement, but it’s just a fact.  The classic Canadian economy was a mixed one, which combined resource extraction and manufacturing.  When manufacturing does well, resources generally don’t.  When resources do, manufacturing doesn’t.  In the old model this was considered a strength, since it meant that part of the economy was doing well, no matter what resource prices were.  And when one sector was up, it was meant to subsidize the other sector.

Resource booms always end.  Every single one.  The oil boom will end, the question is when.  If Canada doesn’t have a manufacturing sector left when the boom ends, we will become a basket case South American country.  And Alberta will become the new Maritimes (remember, the Maritimes was originally a resource boom area.)

Politically speaking, this is also smart, because the NDP just isn’t going to get a lot of MPS out of Alberta in specific or the Prairies in general.  If attacking the tar sands, and calling for Canada to add value to resources before shipping them out of the country costs votes there, so be it.  The battleground is not Alberta.  Alberta went all in with the Conservatives, and they have to live with that.  There’s no point in pandering to Albertans, it would take a huge shift in voting to gain many more seats.

The places in play are the Maritimes and Ontario, and it is there that the election will be won or lost.  It is Ontario which has been losing its manufacturing due to the high dollar, and the Maritimes has been treated shoddily by the Conservatives as well.  So on both politics and economics Mulcair’s stance is a good one, which appeals to the regions where the NDP can make gains and pisses of people who would never vote NDP anyway.

Then there was this, yesterday, when the Tory austerity budget was unveiled:

“The Conservatives have caused the problem by gutting the fiscal capacity of the government,” Thomas Mulcair, the newly crowned NDP leader, said Wednesday.

“Now they’re saying, oh, gee whiz, no more fiscal capacity in the government, we know what we’ll do, we’ll start cutting the services of the government.”

Oh my, pointing out the obvious.  Conservative tax cuts and reckless spending caused the defict.  But tax cuts for rich people are sacrosanct, so old folks will have to wait till 67 to retire.

And this:

“Everything indicates the Conservative budget will be synonymous with cutbacks and job losses. A few months ago, the Prime Minister promised textually, in this House, that he would not touch pensions, would not cut health transfers to the provinces, would not touch services to the population?” Mr. Mulcair said. “Will the Prime Minister live up to his word, or will he break his promise?”

And then, Harper cut pensions and cut health transfer to the provinces.

Ouch.  That had to smart.

Yeah, I’m liking Mulcair.

One of the things which has distressed me most about the West is that no one on the left has really been willing to hammer the politics of class.  Mulcair, who has also hit inequality, shows some signs of doing so.  It is conventional wisdom that tax increases won’t fly, but the polling data doesn’t support that, at least not if you want to tax the rich and make that clear.  Heck, if even Globe and Mail readers (the primary business newspaper in Canada) want tax increases and more spending, I think we can conclude that it’ll fly (yes, I’m aware of the limitations of that particular poll).  But even the upper middle and lower upper class think that the true rich should pay their share.  Coming out of Quebec, which is somewhat insulated from the political culture of the rest of North America, Mulcair seems willing to play class politics, and seems to know how to do so.

So far, so good.  And as for the budget, Prime Minister Harper isn’t going to get the cuts he wants from the public service without causing great pain.  Nor is cutting other forms of spending going to help the economy.  Harper better get down on his knees and pray to God that there isn’t a major downturn in China, because he’s betting everything on resource prices.  If they crumble, the Canadian economy will go with them.  And so will Harper’s job.

This is opposition politics 101: whatever the government does, you oppose. If Harper’s bet on the resource economy works, then the Conservatives will get another term.  If it doesn’t, the NDP needs to be seen as the party which opposed his policies.  Mulcair is positioning them for that, and doing so in a way which allow him, if he gets in power, to put in place policies which will reward the constituencies he needs to win—everyone not attached to the oil teat.

14 Responses
  1. March 30, 2012

    Yep. I couldn’t believe the bellyaching over Mulcair and the pining for the well-intentioned boy and girl scouts who were his competition, the most popular of which apparently had no seat in the House (!!!). I don’t care for Mulcair’s history on the Palestinian question (again, !!!), but it’s frankly besides the point. Canada needed an opposition who was a good opposer, and needed it fast, and Mulcair was (at least up to now) the best available candidate.

  2. someofparts permalink
    March 30, 2012

    Good for Canada. Here’s hoping for the best for you.

  3. Morocco Bama permalink
    March 30, 2012

    IMO, there’s no way to sustainably develop the tar sands. That can of worms should never have been open, and now that it is, and significant investment has been given to it, there will be no turning back. The genie’s out of that environmentally destructive bottle, and it’s not going back in. If Mulcair wants the price of tar sands crude to reflect all costs, it wouldn’t be profitable to develop that shitty oil from tar and longer, so we all damn well know the true costs will never be reflected, despite rhetoric to the contrary. And, is it true that one of the policy planks of the NDP as it relates to carbon is carbon trading? Screw that. Carbon trading is just more bullshit using global warming as cover for hedge funds to blow yet another bubble whilst warming and pollution continue unabated.

  4. Julien permalink
    March 30, 2012

    He’s a pitbull and that’s what the left needs, desperately. When you’re faced with an opponent as uncompromising as the current Conservatives, you need to hit them, hard and often and Mulcair can do that. During the NDP leadership race, people wondered if his abrasive temperament would be a weakness in uniting the party. I saw it as a strength when going up against the Cons.

    I wish him the best of luck, he’ll need it. But if it can be done, if the Conservatives can be beaten, he’s the one to do it. Now if the Liberals would have the good grace to just disappear quietly into the night, that would seal the deal, but that’s probably too much to ask for.

  5. March 31, 2012

    Julien:
    Does Dion have any pull in Canada any more? Someone Tweeted something that he was bellyaching about not wanting to take a back seat to the NDP. Basically, he was being a patsy for Harper.

  6. March 31, 2012

    I’m a bit envious. If only America had a political opposition…

  7. March 31, 2012

    Phil, Dion hasn’t been leader of the Liberals since 2009. He’s a backbench MP. Former (NDP) Premier of Ontario, Bob Rae is the current Liberal (interim) leader, pending a leadership contest to be held in mid 2013. The Liberals are the third party in a majority government parliament so other than being guaranteed the ability to ask a few questions during Question Period, and having their representatives invited onto most TV discussion panels, they have very little sway.

    Dion also wasn’t a patsy for Harper that I know of. He ran on a credible carbon tax plan, and was an awful communicator, but I think he is (was) a good person but a bad party leader. You may be thinking of Ignatieff who probably better deserves that label for killing the coalition deal immediately upon taking over the party in early 2009.

  8. Ian Welsh permalink*
    April 1, 2012

    I’m noticing that now that the NDP has a leader, the media is going with him first, and Rae second (at least in print press, not sure about TV.) His response is put above Rae’s in stories.

    Dion was not a strong leader, but he is not a bad man, and he certainly was better than Igantieff. Funny, because I’ve heard more than once that factions w/in the Liberal party sabotaged Dion’s deal by encouraging the Governor General to allow the pro-roguing, so they could get rid of Dion.

    That sure worked out well for them.

    Assholes.

  9. April 1, 2012

    Ian, that comports with what I observed (as an outsider) during Dion’s tenure – a steady stream of anonymous Liberal insiders backstabbing over everything he did with media leaks.

    I get why people had reservations about Dion, but I really never understood what the Liberal mucky-mucks saw in Ignatieff, a completely unproven political commodity. That he was so amateurish to not even maintain a decent Commons attendance record just opened the door for any other leader to trounce him. It was Layton who actually did so, but any of them might have. Checking the voting percentages and attendance is an old trick, and one which Ignatieff as a US political observer saw employed against Kerry, Obama and McCain not so long ago.

    I wonder if this is how the demise of the UK Liberal party went down in the 1920s.

    It looked for a bit like the NDP might have had an “anyone but Mulcair” vote that could have catapulted one of the runners up to #1, and it’s probably best for the NDP that this didn’t happen. NDP HQ probably isn’t as rotten as LPC HQ but it’s best not to test this with a leader who starts weakly out of the gate.

  10. B Lager permalink
    April 1, 2012

    My main worry during the excruciatingly long leadership contest was that the NDP has for so long habituated itself to third-party status that they would find a way to turn their own magical carriage back into a pumpkin, with no help at all from Harper and company. They may yet self-sabotage, but Mulcair’s win offers the best chance toward real power.

    Mulcair should wear a t-shirt to caucus meetings reading “POLITICAL POWER IS NOT AN ACADEMIC EXERCISE” in big orange letters.

  11. April 1, 2012

    Daniel De Groot:
    I forget where I saw it. But the interview was in print. Maybe it would have come off different in video, but his answer seemed like that of a sore loser.

  12. April 2, 2012

    I think my view on Mulcair pretty much tracks Ian’s arc here. I had doubts, because I’m very wary of “third way”, “we must be the sensible middle” language. But it seems he really was talking more about trying to put the party front and center and turn away from more academic language to more smartly political language, and does not seem to have stepped away from the core elements that make the NDP interesting.

    It may well be that this is purely strategy. He knows an opposition party needs to oppose and Harper is pretty much framing things in a way that means sticking to class, inequality, and the fight for Ontario and the Maritimes has a chance. Perhaps he has no core convictions there. I have no idea. But right now, I’m being more reassured than dismayed, and I’m happy with that.

  13. April 3, 2012

    I get why people had reservations about Dion, but I really never understood what the Liberal mucky-mucks saw in Ignatieff, a completely unproven political commodity.

  14. Brian permalink
    April 7, 2012

    I’m not so sure even if the resource boom continues it guarantees Harper another term. The resource boom isn’t helping Ontario, Quebec or the Maritimes. BC has also swung NDP rather quickly in the polls.

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