NDP or Bloc? Quebec left debates election tactics

By Richard Fidler. An interesting debate over federal election tactics has developed among socialists in Québec solidaire (QS), the new left pro-sovereignty party that confines its activity to contesting Quebec, but not federal, elections. For the first time since the 1980s, the federal NDP is being considered as a valid electoral option by some, while others advocate voting for the Bloc Québécois as the best means of forestalling the re-election of the Harper government. The debate also reflects an interest among some supporters of Quebec independence in the possibility of forging new ties with progressive-minded people in English Canada.

When the October 14 election was called, QS leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir held a news conference in which they said the challenge was to defeat the Harper government — its re-election would be a “disaster,” David said — but without indicating how opposition to Conservatives should be expressed in the election. The QS leaders focused their criticism of the Tory government on its cuts to spending on cultural activities and its moves to restrict women’s right to abortion. There was no mention of Canada’s war on Afghanistan, the environment or the threat to working people from the U.S. financial meltdown.

This position apparently did not sit well with many QS members. In a subsequent article, published in a number of newspapers, Khadir and David fleshed out their position, comparing Harper with George Bush, and citing among other things his opposition to Kyoto, his refusal to endorse the UN statement on aboriginal rights, and his “dragging Canadians into an interminable war in Afghanistan.” They urged progressive Quebecers to vote “for an ecologist Quebec, a Quebec of justice and equality, a Quebec in which the arts flourish and a Quebec that is open to difference.” Again, however, they did not indicate what form such a vote should take. The article did not mention the NDP.

Québec solidaire does not publish a newspaper, its website is confined to official statements, and there is no viable internal discussion bulletin either in print or on line. However, much of the subsequent debate has been published in the on-line journal Presse-toi-à-gauche (PTàG), which generally reflects views within Québec solidaire.

A “strategic vote”?

In its September 16 edition, Caroline Béliveau, in an article headlined “Vote against or vote for?,” wrote: “It is strange that Québec solidaire advocates such an approach, as it simply contributes to slowing down the rise of emerging and progressive parties like the NDP and QS.” The strategy of voting against, she said, amounts to “shooting ourselves in the foot. This is what has led the Bloc to parliament, and has now led us into an impasse.” She said she would be voting for the NDP candidate in her riding.

In the same issue, Bernard Rioux, a leader of Gauche socialiste, one of the recognized “collectives” or organized tendencies in QS, argued that voting for the Bloc could result in the election of the Liberals, like the Tories a party of Big Business. Liberal governments, he said, had been the first to turn to neoliberal attacks on the welfare state, had imposed the Clarity Bill in violation of Quebec’s right to national self-determination, had plunged Canada into the “criminal adventure” of the war in Afghanistan and initiated the massive increases in military spending. Furthermore, even holding the Tories to minority government status would be no victory. Liberals and Tories have voted together in Parliament on all important issues.

To vote for the Bloc, said Rioux, was to vote “for a nationalist and neoliberal alliance (PQ-Bloc) that has dominated the sovereigntist movement and led it into a complete dead end.” A vote for the NDP, he said, would “underscore the need for unity of the social movements in opposition to conservative policies…. The NDP’s discourse in this election is a sustained support for social mobilization against the policies identified with the Harper regime expressed in the call for withdrawal of the troops from Afghanistan, the denunciation of fiscal injustice, the desire to advance a policy of full employment, etc. The NDP defines itself as an ally of the movements on all these questions. That is why it must be supported.”

However, this support could not be unconditional, Rioux explained. The NDP’s “timid asymmetrical federalism, limited to a case by case policy, its lack of understanding of the aspirations expressed in the independentist struggle, demonstrate that the political left will have to replace this party on the federal scene in Quebec if a real political alliance against the federal state is to become possible.”

Also in that issue of PTàG, Pascale Rioux-Oliver attacked the QS leaders’ support of “strategic voting.” It presents the Bloc and the Liberals as “defenders of the people, as the only serious alternative for persons on the left who seek… greater social justice,” she wrote. “This habit of voting to block the most right-wing party benefits only the ever-lasting official opposition parties which, once they find themselves in power, govern the country with the same neoliberal policies.”

The Bloc and the Liberals, in the last Parliament, had never combined, as they could have, to counter the Harper government’s destructive policies, she noted. Where was this “opposition” when more and more soldiers were sent to Afghanistan; when military spending was multiplied; when the Tories blocked the anti-scab law, opened the way to further oil sands development, defied the Kyoto protocol on climate change?

A system of proportional representation — a long-standing campaign demand of Québec solidaire — would add “a little democracy” to our society, said Rioux-Oliver. “But perhaps it is time to look a little further than the end of our nose and to begin to think about the repercussions the succession of all these ‘strategic votes’ will have over several years.” What is needed, she said, is a party that reflects our convictions. That is “our best bet.”

The case for the Bloc

In the following edition of PTàG, dated September 23, François Cyr made the case for voting for the Bloc, “the party that in most of the 75 [Quebec] ridings, is best placed to do useful work.” Cyr is the former chair of the Union des forces progressistes, one of Québec solidaire’s founding components. His argument followed on an earlier contribution he had co-authored with Pierre Beaudet of Alternatives, a federal-government funded NGO, that also defended the Bloc Québécois.

“I cannot vote for the NDP, even if the correctness of its position on the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan stands in courageous contrast with the Bloc’s procrastination on the issue,” Cyr wrote. “While its trade-union roots wither and it stands squarely in the centre of the left, the NDP appears as the most nationalist of the Canadian parties, as testified by the fact that its leader was unable, despite his promises, to block the support by his parliamentary wing to the Clarity Bill.”

Moreover, the Quebec spokesman for the NDP, Thomas Mulcair (the party’s only MP from Quebec) had quite recently served in the Quebec Liberal government, after a career as a lawyer where he had helped fight Law 101, Quebec’s popular language legislation, on behalf of the Anglophone lobby Alliance Quebec. “Some of our political friends, independentists in fact, will vote NDP forgetting that in its essence Canadian nationalism, the party’s ideological substratum, has been forged in part in opposition to Quebec’s historic demands.”

Cyr drew attention to the divisions of party allegiances within Quebec’s social movements, comparing unfavourably some of the NDP’s candidates — such as Mulcair and former Liberal MP Françoise Boivin, “the NDP’s new rising star, recently converted to Canadian social liberalism” — with some Bloc candidates “from the social movements,” such as Luc Desnoyers of the Canadian Auto Workers or Viviane Barbeau of the Federation of Quebec Women. While some “exceptional” NDP candidates were worthy of support (“where the Bloc has no chance”), “Mr. Mulcair’s team clearly controls this campaign.”

While Cyr predicated his support of the Bloc primarily on its support of Quebec sovereignty, he also saw merit in some other aspects of its program. “The Bloc, over the years has departed from its partly conservative roots, those of Lucien Bouchard, and taken fairly progressive positions, except on the intervention in Afghanistan.” The Bloc’s positions on such issues as employment insurance, anti-scab legislation, French-language rights of federal employees, etc. showed that the Bloc, a coalition party, was “now strongly influenced by its progressive wing.” And it was the “only force capable of slowing down this rise of the right, both neoliberal and neoconservative.”

Is Quebec sovereignty the only difference?

In an article also published in the September 23 edition of PTàG, André Parizeau of the Parti communiste du Québec expressed much the same position as Cyr. The pro-sovereignty PCQ, which parted company with the Communist Party of Canada two years ago, is also a recognized collective in Québec solidaire. Parizeau expressed the unanimous position taken by its central committee, also published in PTàG: vote for the Bloc except in a few ridings such as Mulcair’s Outremont, where the NDP could be supported.

Both the Bloc and the NDP are social-democratic, Parizeau wrote. “The only real difference of importance lies in the fact that there is one (the NDP) that consistently says it is against Quebec independence, while the other says it is for, although it tends to tail behind the PQ (which is another problem). When all is said and done, I fail to see how sovereigntists could continue to claim that the NDP would be somewhat better.” And the Bloc has more support within the unions and “popular groups” than the NDP, he added.

In fact, the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) leadership has come out squarely behind the Bloc Québécois, while the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) urges an anti-Tory “strategic vote” for the Bloc, the NDP… or the Liberal candidate, whichever is best positioned to beat the Conservatives. The other major union federation, the CSQ, has not expressed a position on the federal election.

In a remarkable article also published in the September 23 PTàG, André Frappier put the fight against the political right in a broader context than other contributors to the debate. Frappier, a leader of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in Montréal and a prominent member of Québec solidaire, was an NDP candidate in the 2004 federal election.

Frappier urged his readers to join in building an anti-Harper demonstration being organized for October 5 in Montréal by a broad coalition of unions and women’s and other grassroots organizations. “This gathering should become a high point in the election campaign, to advance our demands and publicly proclaim our rejection of conservatism and neoliberalism. The political battle must also be conducted in the streets.” He continued:

“But in the longer run we cannot disparage the need for a progressive political alternative at the pan-Canadian level. Otherwise, we are condemned to leave the political horizon either to the Conservatives or to the Liberals, we are condemned in each election to fight the party in power without having any real perspectives. This is a luxury we can no longer afford, particularly in the context of globalization and the predominance if not interference, both political and military, of the American government.”

Can the Quebec left reach others through the NDP?

We have built Québec solidaire, he noted, despite the ever-present pressure of the strategic vote. The anti-worker record of the PQ governments showed us how urgent it was to build a left-wing political alternative. However, he conceded, the special problem on the federal level is that the national question is also posed.

The Bloc’s response to this question is the opposite of what it should be. “Instead of weaving links with progressives in English Canada, the Bloc… adopts positions much more closely aligned with U.S. policy.” The Bloc claims to defend Quebec values. “Is sending Canadian troops to Afghanistan part of those values?” He quoted the Bloc’s program: “Canada will always have a role to play both in Afghanistan and within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) [NATO's Afghan command] to which it belongs. It must be available to accept another, less offensive, type of mission.” Furthermore, the Bloc supports NAFTA, Frappier noted.

The NDP, on the other hand, had some good positions on social and economic as well as international questions. It was the only party to oppose the Security and Prosperity Partnership; it had opposed NAFTA and the war in Afghanistan.

What about the NDP’s position on the Quebec national question, then? Frappier drew attention to an article by English-Canadian feminist and socialist Judy Rebick after the previous federal election, when she wrote: “In my view the election was a disaster for progressive ideas and movements in Canada. While the Conservatives are carefully constructing a majority for the next time, the left is deeply divided and demobilized….

“When Jack Layton announced out of the blue at the beginning of the campaign that he actually supported the Clarity Act, any chance of unity with the left in Quebec flew out the window….

“The pressure of electoral politics in the age of neo-liberalism and a relentlessly right-wing media is enormous. It is difficult for a social democratic or even a socialist party to stand up to these pressures. The only way that can happen is for social movements to pressure the party from the other side.”

Frappier said he had run for the NDP in 2004 under the influence of NDP leader Jack Layton’s professed readiness to oppose the Clarity Act, and that with party approval he had identified openly as a sovereigntist. Today, under electoralist pressure, the pendulum had swung the other way.

“However, the NDP currently represents the only vehicle on which we can push in order to indicate to progressives in English Canada the importance of recognition of Quebec’s self-determination. That choice will be made in Quebec and we will not accept interference from Ottawa. But it will be important, when the time comes, to have supporters who will fight for respect of our position. It is a shocking idea, even for many progressives in English Canada, but it is also a shocking idea in Quebec to undertake the construction of a federal party.

“But this dynamic, allied with mobilization in the streets, can alone enable us to go further, to weave a political solidarity between trade unionists, women’s groups, and community groups in English Canada and Quebec, in order to emerge from this impasse.”

An important debate

This is an important debate among progressive pro-sovereignty Québécois. None of the participants questions participating in the federal election; no one calls for abstention, as most sovereigntists did until two decades ago. All are looking for a political alternative to neoliberalism and capitalism, although they differ on whether or how that alternative can be expressed at this time. They see the importance of waging the fight against the federal regime on federal terrain. The NDP is increasingly a factor in the debate, although even those tempted to vote for it are highly critical of its positions on the Quebec issue. (They also tend to exaggerate the progressiveness of some key NDP positions.) The labor movement, as always in recent decades, is divided on electoral tactics as on political strategy in general.

This debate among Québec solidaire members and supporters is much needed. After a promising beginning, as a fusion of various political and social forces on the broad left, the party has stalled, in part because its sole focus on Quebec electoral politics has contributed to a certain parochialism and electoralism that inhibits its ability to develop a coherent program on international and class questions and a mass-action strategy to implement it.

The crisis of perspectives of the sovereignty movement, and the threat to Quebec working people from the neoliberal offensive orchestrated by the federal government, are encouraging some rethinking among Quebec socialists on the question of alliances between the left in Quebec and the Rest of Canada (ROC).

Socialists in the ROC need to take note, and respond positively to this opening. If nothing else, the NDP’s inability to develop as a credible contender for federal office — in large part because of its historic opposition to Quebec’s self-determination — is striking proof that the left in both nations suffers greatly from their lack of mutual solidarity and a common, coordinated political strategy by which to express it.

Richard Fidler is a Socialist Voice Contributing Editor. This article was originally posted on September 25 in his blog, Life on the Left.

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One thought on “NDP or Bloc? Quebec left debates election tactics

  1. admin Post author

    A response to two Socialist Voice articles on the elections, including this one, has been submitted by Marc Bonhomme, an activist in ATTAC-Québec and in Québec solidaire. It appears on this website as a Comment following the article “Canada’s Elections: What’s the Alternative to the Tories?” It can be read here: http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=336

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