The NDP, the Coalition, and the War

Two articles by Paul Kellogg “What this Tory surge exposes very clearly is the folly of the Coalition strategy. A backroom deal with one of Canada’s corporate parties did not build the NDP — it built support for Harper and his Tories.”

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Coalition Gives Harper New Life

We now know that there was nothing spontaneous about the coalition gambit initiated by Jack Layton and the NDP in the dying weeks of 2008. Far from the “grass-roots” affair as it was painted by the NDP press room, the coalition idea was nurtured “on secret NDP ‘scenario committees’ during the past three federal campaigns.”[1] The fact that it was a backroom deal has now exploded in Layton’s face.

Had it been driven from the grass-roots, the NDP would have been looking down, responding to its base. But the NDP was doing the opposite. Layton was looking up, to a deal with the Liberals — indistinguishable from the Tories as a corporate-backed party. Part of the deal he had to strike was to put on the shelf both the war on Afghanistan and increasing corporate taxes. This made it impossible for the NDP to appeal to its base — because the base of the party is anti-war and anti-corporate.

But while Layton was looking up and disorganizing his base, Harper was doing the opposite. He knows his base precisely, and in unleashing a vicious Quebec-bashing campaign, he suddenly had an army of reactionaries ready to do battle.

And then Harper found out he didn’t need these bigots. A much bigger wave was coming his way, a wave of revulsion. Ordinary people instinctively dislike secretive backroom deals. The smell of opportunism was all over the coalition, and suddenly, this translated into an evaporation of support for the NDP and the Liberals in English Canada, and a sudden surge in support for the Tories.

Three polls done in the immediate aftermath of the coalition announcement had Harper sitting in majority territory. The Strategic Counsel had the Tories at 45 percent nationally, Ipsos Reid had them at 46 percent, and an Ekos poll gave the Tories a crushing 20 point lead over the Liberals. Just weeks before the Tories had managed to win only 37.6 percent of the vote.[2]

The scary thing is — this surge in the polls was in spite of a collapse for Tory support in Quebec. The Quebec bashing in the first Tory counter-attack had the effect of destroying the Quebec base Harper had been trying to build. According to the Strategic Counsel, while Tory support was down to 18 percent in Quebec, it had soared to 53 percent in the rest of Canada, including 61 percent support in the West, and 50 percent support in the previously Liberal stronghold of Ontario.[3]

These numbers won’t last. Stephen Harper is unlikely to stay at these levels of support for very long. But what this Tory surge exposes very clearly is the folly of the Coalition strategy. A backroom deal with one of Canada’s corporate parties did not build the NDP — it built support for Harper and his Tories.

[1] “Inside a crisis that shook the nation,”, December 12, 2008
[2] “Canada’s Harper has crushing poll lead on crisis,” Reuters, December 5, 2008
[3] “Harper’s Conservatives versus Liberal-NDP Coalition: What is the State of Canadian Public Opinion”, Strategic Counsel,  December 4, 2008

Reprinted, with permission, from PolEconAnalysis. Copyright © 2009 Paul Kellogg

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Dear Jack: Do you really want this war?

Open Letter to Jack Layton, federal leader of the NDP

Everywhere I go they are burying Canadian soldiers. Walking down Donlands Avenue December 12, there were the cameras and the men in uniform — waiting outside the Metamorphosis Greek Orthodox Church for the funeral of Private Demetrios Diplaros, killed in Afghanistan the week before.[1] Back at work in Peterborough, preparations were underway at Calvary Church for the funeral of Private Michael Freeman, killed in Afghanistan.[2] But this is the war that you say you want to inherit.

Your only Quebec MP, Thomas Mulcair has told the press, “the NDP is putting aside its differences that have existed historically with the Liberals on such issues as Afghanistan.”[3] And Jack, your coalition government — if it gets its way — will stay in office till 2011. Will there be another 100 Canadians killed on its watch? Another 200? And how many thousands of Afghanis?

Knowing that the NDP was calling for an immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, was an enormous boost of confidence for thousands. Your actions have completely betrayed those thousands.

Last election, young people — the young people I see every day as a teacher, the young people that you and I both saw when we were both teachers at Ryerson University — just didn’t care about a choice between Harper, Dion or yourself. They didn’t see themselves in any of the parties. But I was able to tell them — in good conscience — that there was a big difference between your party and the others. Your party was committed to bringing the troops home — the troops sent to war by the Liberals, and dying in increasing numbers under the Conservatives. That argument worked. Young people hate this war. So when they were told that there was one party calling for an end to the war, they voted for you.

You have now lost their vote. You have sent them the message that principles like stopping a murderous, barbaric war are not as important — as what? What exactly did you get from your deal with the Liberals? Afghanistan is on the shelf. Taxing the corporations is on the shelf. The only thing you seem to have “won” is the promise of six cabinet seats. A religious man who greatly influenced me — an anti-war minister of the United Church — would have known what to call this — a mess of pottage. Look it up.

The coalition gambit was a top-down bureaucratic, back-room deal — and has been perceived as such by millions of ordinary Canadians who are recoiling in horror. The terrible effect of this backroom coalition adventure has been to bring Stephen Harper back from the dead — he’s soaring in the polls — and to accelerate the arrival of Michael Ignatieff as head of the Liberals — the same Michael Ignatieff who supported George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. Do you really want to sit at the cabinet table with Michael Ignatieff in the chair?

The war has come home, Jack. That funeral on Donlands was in your riding in Toronto, the riding that has time and again come out to the polls and sent you to Ottawa. If you say “troops out now” you have something to say to those folks. If you say “we’ll talk about it in 2011,” you have nothing to say that is any different from the Harper Tories.

Whatever. The movement goes on without you. We’ll be demonstrating April 4 in Toronto and in dozens of other cities chanting “troops out now!” You’re welcome to join us. There will be thousands of other NDP members there with us. But don’t expect a very warm welcome. On those marches, being against the war is a principle, not a bargaining chip.

[1] “A hero’s farewell,” Toronto Sun, December 12, 2008
[2] “Holidays delay Peterborough soldier’s funeral,”, January 2, 2009
[3] Murray Brewster, “NDP will not oppose Afghan war while in coalition,” Canadian Press, December 3, 2008

Reprinted, with permission, from PolEconAnalysis. Copyright © 2009 Paul Kellogg

5 thoughts on “The NDP, the Coalition, and the War

  1. Alastair Haythornthwaite

    The NDP is able to duck responsibility for its politics as long as it remains in opposition. If ever people are going to weaned off the NDP’s ever more flacid brand of social democracy, it will be after the exposure of the NDP as it takes a more central role the management of the bourgeois state.

    As long as the NDP style social democracy maintains a degree of credibility, it will be impossible to have a successful workers party due to the dilution effect of the NDP.

    As to the intentions of the CLC and other labour leadership, I cannot say. They have their political alliance with the NDP though it grows more arms length with time. Will they ever either force the NDP back towards the Regina Manifesto or abandon it to move left or right?

    Again, better that true colours are shown, than being fed platitudes and the results of focus group polling.

  2. John Riddell

    Alastair– Thank you for your comment. It is important to see the NDP-Liberal coalition venture in terms of the main working-class movement in Canada, the trade unions. The coalition is a big step toward the union leadership transferring their allegiance from the NDP to the Liberal Party — from a party of opposition, with strong ties to labour, to the central party of capitalist government.

    I do not see how this can be viewed as a step forward.

    The question you must answer is whether it is helpful to the labour movement for its leaders to hitch it to the Ignatieff wagon. Suppose you were a delegate to a labour convention voting on the NDP-Liberal coalition project — how would you vote?

    I don’t think that labour support to the Liberals is excusable on the grounds that it may do the NDP some harm. I am sure you agree.

    John Riddell

  3. Paul Kellogg

    The coalition government may not be on the agenda in the short term. However — it seems clear that Jack Layton’s commitment to a coalition approach with the Liberals is still very much on the cards. See this article in the Globe and Mail

    It is the orientation towards the Liberals itself which does damage, even if it never means a formal coalition government in the short term.

    Thanks for picking up these pieces.


  4. Alastair Haythornthwaite

    We Cannot Skip The In-Between Steps When Making Change

    The questions raised by the coalition and about an appropriate action by the NDP are of significance. Sometimes, we jump to the end without looking at the ground that must be crossed to arrive. Often the short term battle to defend and improve workers’ rights (economism) is confused with the long term struggle to bring about a modern society with the priority of the state to be the needs and aspirations of the producers (socialism).

    Politically conscious workers and allies know that no band-aids or restructuring can bring a stable and just society when the basis of our current society is the exploitation of workers, domestically and abroad. But the mass of our population is not clear that a complete break is necessary and the NDP is a panacea to this view.

    As long as the NDP remains outside of power, the nature of its politics will never be revealed to the broader population, charitably we can say, for good or ill. Until the NDP has been at least part of government, the people cannot have the direct lessons of its nature.

    We cannot jump over the ground between us today and a new bright future for our nations. For that reason, a Lib-NDP-Bloc coalition could be a milepost on the long trek that will, in all likelihood, not end in our lifetimes.

    For those who have a vision of a better world, the economic collapse allows us, for the first time since the 1930’s, to engage people about the unsustainable nature of a society based on profit. At the same time, we cannot abandon the day to day struggle for workers’ political and economic rights. There is nothing black and white about these challenges and the exposure of the NDP’s politics of connivance is an important step towards the growth of a viable workers party, a party to rally workers towards a new dawn.

  5. John Riddell

    The two articles by Paul Kellogg reprinted here in Socialist Voice provide a useful balance sheet of the efforts to oust the Harper government by installing the Liberals in power, with NDP participation.

    When the NDP and the trade unions began campaigning to replace Harper with a Liberal-NDP coalition government, socialists divided three ways: some supported the project; some were indifferent; some were opposed.

    Now the popular movement to oust Harper, limited as it was, is behind us. The coalition deal survives, not as a framework for a popular movement to oust Harper, but as a perspective for political struggle by the CLC and its allies.

    It now seems unlikely that the coalition will come to be. The newly chosen Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff has shown little inclination to support it, while Harper has been taking a more conciliatory approach in his relations with the Liberals. But the NDP and Canadian Labour Congress remain committed to the project of installing the Liberals in government. And even if the coalition proposal lapses in the coming months, it will still set the framework in which the NDP and labour will face the next federal election – unless there is a change of course.

    We do not know how many programmatic concessions the NDP made to get the original deal. But as Paul Kellogg points out, one such concession has been admitted: an NDP pledge to accept the Liberals’ policy on Afghanistan. Sure enough, although the death toll of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan has mounted quickly in recent weeks, the NDP has fallen silent, shackled by its coalition commitments.

    The NDP and CLC leaders, along with some socialists, argue that the Liberals in government would be a “lesser evil” compared with the Tories. But as we know, for more than a century, the Liberals have been the principal governing party of Canadian capitalism. In recent decades, they have played the central role in imposing vast cuts to social programs and democratic rights in this country. As Nathan Rao argued in Socialist Project’s The Bullet on October 30 (, the strategy of working for a Liberal-led “centre-left” government is incompatible with that of building the independent power of working people.

    Some socialists argue in favour of remaining silent on the coalition issue on the grounds that party politics are not that important, and that union and social activists should focus their attention and activity at the rank-and-file level. Many young activists share this view. And many working people, especially the young, are alienated from party politics.

    Yet all workers’ and social movements, when they achieve some size and influence, have to grapple with the task of influencing governments. The conventional way to do this is through lobbying, cap in hand, and through exchanges of favours with capitalist politicians. The coalition project feeds into this trend, by chaining the workers’ movement to a capitalist government-in-waiting. Unwillingness to publicly oppose this project is equivalent to acceptance; socialists have to project an alternative course.

    A united and effective socialist movement cannot simultaneously support, oppose, and ignore capitalist governments. This also applies to capitalist governments that carry the NDP label. A choice must be made.

    Those of us who took divergent approaches to the Liberal-NDP coalition in December should now explore the possibilities for agreement around a strategy of building an independent, working-class alternative to the capitalist government. Working out such a common understanding will take discussion. The sooner this discussion takes place, and the farther it reaches, the better.

    John Riddell

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