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Ginny Roth: The NDP don’t take themselves seriously, so why should we?

Commentary

What is the point of the federal New Democratic Party? It would appear that it’s not to win elections. That’s fine, as far as it goes. There are other purposes for political parties. Some are single or double-issue protest parties, like the Christian Heritage Party, but those tend to be very small, rarely if ever winning seats in Parliament. There are regional parties, like the Bloc Québécois, which runs candidates only in Quebec, advancing their narrow interests with some success. There have historically been splinter parties, like Alberta’s Wildrose Party or the Reform Party, each of which, by splitting historic voting coalitions, had influence over their movements’ reunifications, altering the makeup of the future United Conservative and federal Conservative parties forever.

But none of these alternative strategic imperatives or political identities applies to the NDP, which despite meagre election results, both in the popular vote and seat count, continues to insist that we take it seriously as a mainstream party.

But why should we? Since the so-called Orange Crush of 2011, when Jack Layton brought the federal NDP up to 103 seats in the House of Commons and official opposition status, the NDP has been on a steady political decline. They dropped down to 44 seats in 2015, 24 in 2019, and essentially held in 2021, gaining one seat. While the grand narrative of the last few elections has focused on Trudeau besting his primary opponents in Canada’s Conservatives, his utter dominance over the NDP, convincing progressive voters at every turn that to stop the right-wing bogeyman they’d have to vote Liberal, is an under-discussed dynamic. It also seems to be an under-examined phenomenon when it comes to the NDP’s own political strategy. 

In 2021, when the Liberal seat count reduced their 2019 minority even further, the NDP should have seen their opportunity. As the Conservatives grappled with their loss and contemplated new leadership, the NDP could have used their balance of power to wedge the Liberals. Instead, they struck a deal to reliably prop them up in exchange for the square root of nothing, giving the Liberals a coalition without the sacrifice of cabinet seats, and letting the government take credit for NDP policy ideas (as they always have), not even holding them accountable for funding and execution.

And you can’t chalk the nature of this bad-deal dynamic up to a one-time negotiation. Just a few weeks ago, the NDP had the Liberals over a barrel. The government and the Liberal caucus were starkly divided on the NDP’s Israel-Palestine opposition day motion and by forcing it to a vote, the NDP could have laid bare its opponent’s disarray and incoherence. Instead, they agreed to last-minute amendments, allowing the government to whip the vote in favour, effectively neutralizing the political threat. 

“But we got the policy win!”, some NDP pundits unconvincingly spun after the fact, flailing as they have for months, unable to point to a motive or end game for why their party seems so intent on perpetrating political malpractice. Since then, three more veteran NDP Members of Parliament announced they wouldn’t be re-offering in the next election, causing analysts to rightly remark that it would likely be Conservatives, not Liberals, picking up some of the non-incumbent ridings in the next election.

This is the challenge for the NDP in 2024. Despite the Liberal crash in popularity and the accessibility of previous Liberal voters, they have not been able to capitalize on converting them. Indeed, many from what would have traditionally been an NDP pool of supporters—working-class labour union members—make up Conservative leader Poilievre’s growing coalition. This should be all the more galling for NDP rank-and-file members when you consider that we’re in the middle of an affordability crisis. Canadians are lining up at food banks in record numbers. Isn’t this sort of supposed to be their party’s moment?

And herein lies the problem. Canada’s NDP were supposed to have a purpose. The party emerged from the cooperation of western agrarians and national trade unions, bringing together rural, urban, western, and eastern working-class people. But almost from the beginning, they struggled to reconcile their materialist left-wing economic inclinations with the trendy left-wing social causes of the day. It’s been working-class populists versus champagne socialists since day one.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

In some of Canada’s provinces, particularly out west, NDP leaders like John Horgan have built winning working-class coalitions. But at the national level, particularly as public sector union members, comprising wealthier urbanites, crowd out lower-income private sector union workers, the party never seems to know what it stands for or who it’s speaking to, finding that the message designed to appeal to a downtown Toronto museum curator doesn’t really resonate with a boilermaker in Northern Ontario.

If the NDP want to break out of their downward election cycle trend, they need to give voters a reason to vote for them instead of the Liberals. And by the look of the upcoming budget, the Liberals aren’t going to make it easy for them. Breakfast programs, supports for renters—this isn’t the Liberal Party retaking the political centre, it’s them shoring up support by scooping NDP/Liberal switchers in urban centres. The NDP should look at where Liberals are wedded to stakeholders that they are not (corporate Canada comes to mind) and contemplate policies that would wedge the government and set them apart, creating some appeal for working-class Canadians fed up with the status quo. 

Why not push for curtailing record-high immigration numbers? Make the argument that increasing labour supply suppresses wages, hurting Canadian paycheques and distorting the labour market. Why not push to protect more Canadian supply chains from trade exposure? Make the argument that unfettered free trade erodes onshore manufacturing employment and threatens the kind of good, high-paying union jobs our parents grew up with. Of course, we know why not. These arguments, while popular with working-class Canadians, are not on trend with our country’s urban elite. Unfortunately for the NDP, they’re what a party that wanted to win would consider talking about. 

This brings us back to the opening question. The point of the federal NDP seems neither to be to win or even to advance a narrow cause. It seems simply to exist for its own sake, occasionally finding comfort in passing party policy resolutions that read like half-baked social studies masters’ theses. Maybe they’re OK with that. But it doesn’t mean the rest of us have to take them seriously. 

Patrick Luciani: How the Irish saved womanhood

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani takes a look at Judith Butler’s Who’s Afraid of Gender? (Knopf Canada 2024), and connects the book’s radical ideas on gender to two referendums recently held in Ireland concerning amendments to expand and replace current gender and family definitions in the constitution—both of which failed over social and cultural concerns about what changing the traditional language would mean.

In early March, Ireland held a referendum to amend two provisions of its constitution. The first was to change the definition of the traditional family and instead replace it to recognize “durable relationships.” The second would remove references to “women” and “mothers” and broaden the definition of care in the welfare of a family. Both amendments lost by a wide margin, which dealt the progressives and major political parties supporting the amendments a shocking blow, thwarting their attempts to bring the language of gender into the 21st century while giving victory to those concerned about encroachments on the traditional language. 

The Irish aren’t immune to reform. In 1995, they approved gay marriage and later allowed for divorce. In 2018, they approved legalized abortions. Ireland is only one of four nations that approve of medical sex-change operations based on self-determination. But the question of eliminating the ancient idea of family and especially the concept of motherhood in a once deeply Catholic country where the cult of the Virgin Mary still lingers was asking too much. This despite the insistence of Ireland’s elite, including the National Women’s Council of Ireland, who fought hard for the changes, even placing the referendum on March 8, International Women’s Day. 

In the same month, Judith Butler, the American philosopher and arguably the most acclaimed gender studies teacher worldwide, was promoting her new book Who’s Afraid of Gender? The Irish elite who pushed to reform Ireland’s constitution was no doubt influenced by Butler’s work on queer and gender theory. Butler wants to eliminate the very idea of motherhood and women, arguing instead that biological sex, like gender, is nothing but a social deception. Butler, who uses the pronouns they and them, goes further and claims that the body’s genitalia is itself socially constructed. Sex isn’t an obvious fact simply “based on observation.” We are born as a blank slate without the influence of biological connection. That’s why gender studies advocates refer to assigned sexes at birth, meaning that we are not rooted to them in our behaviour if we so choose. 

What we believe about the differences between men and women isn’t based on any eternal concept of nature but on social power dynamics and customs, is the claim. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum reminds us this is nothing new. John Stuart Mill said the same thing in his The Subjection of Women: “What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing.” Where Mill understood that women were kept in subjugation by hierarchies of power, Butler teaches that “nature is not the ground upon which construction of gender happens.” This is an extraordinary admission even though our species, as writer and podcaster Andrew Sullivan says, existed “before we even achieved the intelligence to call it a sex binary.” 

Butler demands that only an understanding of culture, history, languages, and anthropology can answer the question of what a woman is. We must see the changing nature of women and their roles through time. In other words, the privilege of knowing what a woman is belongs to a select few gender studies scholars. The idea of gender is a continuum with countless definitions of gender behaviour, ever-expanding preferences akin to identifying new chemical elements on a Periodic Table. And the only reason we define women as we do today is through the social demands of the patriarchy, heterosexuality, and, finally, white supremacy. 

In Who’s Afraid of Gender? Butler continues the assault on our misguided perception of gender by widening the door that defines what a woman is to the point that any man can claim membership. Transwomen are now allowed membership and the special honour of accessing women’s spaces. Suppose a man wishes to exhibit their preferences to take on feminine attributes. But why can’t the definition of manhood expand rather than intrude on the definition of women and their spaces? 

Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks during a Friends of Ireland Caucus St. Patrick’s Day luncheon in the U.S. Capitol, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP Photo.

Butler’s book wasn’t written to answer questions but to attack critics of the very notion of gender and transwomen, including trans-exclusionary feminists such as J.K. Rowling and Unherd writer Kathleen Stock. They are accused of “fascism”—a word Butler uses liberally—to attack Evangelicals, Christian Orthodox, Catholics, or any organization in favour of traditional families. The author even accuses defenders of families of using “junk science” to defend their case—a curious claim given that gender studies is hardly a field based on established science. Butler lives in a Manichean world of good and evil where enemies must be destroyed. But who are these enemies when a growing number of liberals and leftists are resisting the move to diminish the rights of girls and young women? 

Butler claims that attacks on gender are a “phantasm” or an illusion invented by the enemies of gender to hide behind the world’s real problems of capitalism, neoliberalism, destruction of the environment, attacks on immigrants, poverty, Indigenous Peoples, and the oppression of Black and brown people. And any resistance to Butler’s idea of gender is seen as an attack on liberal democracy. 

The Irish referendum wasn’t only about rights, tolerance, or one’s right to choose a preferred gender identity but about the nature of language. When the Irish were asked to vote, they knew intrinsically that words matter, and changing the constitution by abandoning the phrase “mother” or “woman” to satisfy the political trends of progressive gender advocates would have a deep and lasting effect on their culture and identity. That was a step the Irish weren’t willing to take.