Will elections ever save us? No, but a strong Labour movement will.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for some real change in Canada’s political and economic systems. For decades Canadian elections have swung between two narrow, uninspiring choices: the Conservatives Party (the party of cuts to social welfare) and the Liberal Party (the party of apathy toward the working class).

Photo: Patrick Tomass

What Canadians truly need cannot be given to them from above: we need to get active and demand what we want from parliament. There are plenty of demands that could be made from the Canadian Left, that simply aren’t a part of our regular conversations. These will be discussed at the end of this article.

The recently held election was incredibly uninspiring to those of us who care about social justice and economic democracy. Even the general public seemed to be uninspired as the largest share of votes went not to a single party, but those who didn’t to show up to the polls at all – about 10 million people didn’t vote

There are definite reasons for this. Calling a snap election during a pandemic was not a good idea. Such a short timeframe for campaigning didn’t allow for much public debate. There was also little time to register and cast a ballot while fewer polling stations were made available by Elections Canada. This didn’t help either. All this while students were given the cold shoulder; Polling stations on campuses were not set up as they usually are, and some would argue that this constitutes voter suppression.

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Pandemic election… seriously?

When all was said and done, we were basically where we started with the election. Trudeau got to keep his minority government, with a few seats swapped here and there. 

The Conservative party seemed to bleed a sizable chunk of its more fringe, far-right base to the People’s Party of Canada, whose growth in this election is alarming to many. 

This brings us to the party that, as things stand today, is the most likely vehicle for change for the working class, historically speaking: The NDP. Full disclosure, it’s the party that I cast my ballot for. The NDP’s performance with Jagmeet Singh as leader was underwhelming, although we should be happy that we didn’t lose any ground, I guess.

One thing that can be said about the NDP is that it seems to be forever shut out of being in a position to actually make federal policy. Sure, there are times when it does cling to the balance of power as it did during the first year of Covid-19, and it may continue to do so in 2021, which could push the Liberals to the left. 

The problem is that the Liberals have 159 seats out of the 338 in the House of Commons. There isn’t any reason why the Liberals will just vote with another party, even the Conservatives, to get their agenda passed through. 

This may come as a shock to many as the Liberals and Conservatives portray themselves to be polar opposites. This is simply not true, as they have “voted together more than 600 times in Parliament since 2004, blocking dozens of progressive bills” according to Breach Media. Clearly, there is an interest convergence here.

Indeed, Justin Trudeau may even prefer it this way. It’s a pretty good excuse for him not to pursue progressive, pro-worker legislation after all. If he can rely on conservative support to pass through Liberal Party legislation, it becomes much easier to accuse the NDP of proposing legislation that is “pie in the sky” or “unrealistic,” et cetera. Legislation like universal pharmacare, which has been a Liberal Party promise since 1997 if you can believe it.

So what’s missing here? If the revolving door between the Conservatives and Liberals won’t produce results for the working class, and the NDP can’t gain enough power to enact legislation, what do we need?

A strong, grassroots, Landback, Labour movement

The NDP, since its inception, has tended to gain a relatively small amount of seats in the House of Commons ranging between 15 and 30 seats. The one major exception to this is 2011 when Jack Layton managed to score 103 seats putting the NDP in the position of the official opposition. This was largely in part due to an implosion of the federal liberal party at the time.

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Pexels.com

Many have written about the need for the NDP to return to its grassroots support. The simple answer is that without a broad coalition between the NDP and grassroots Indigenous, labour, environmental, feminist, LGBTQ+, immigrant, disability, and other organizations, the NDP will forever be stuck in 3rd or 4th place in parliament.

Many young workers have been put in precarious working conditions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has shown capitalism to be wholly inadequate in dealing with public health crises, forcing many to work in potentially dangerous, non-essential environments. There is also evidence that younger people across Canada are more inclined to vote NDP over the Liberals and Conservatives. Reaching out to them will also be key for a future labour movement. 

Building a lasting movement of left-wing coalitions will take time, but it is our only shot for the Canadian Left to create meaningful, lasting change. 

What Kind of Change?

Many popular ideas that will improve the conditions of the working class are floating around the Canadian Left these days. These include a guaranteed livable basic income, job guarantees, proportional representation, etc. All of these are great, but here I would suggest a few lesser talked about ideas that a Labour movement could rally around.

First and foremost, a Labour coalition would have to work with First Nations on a truly nation-to-nation basis. It is all well and good to promote the nationalization of industries such as energy generation and distribution; what we must not do is then reproduce the same colonial horrors of the past that explicitly require both the loss of land and the life of Indigenous people.

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The following points are 5 lesser talked about ideas that will help build the power of Labour in Canada, that the Left should push.

1. Land Back 

Due to the recent discoveries of graveyards on former residential school grounds – Oops, did I say school grounds? I meant to say genocidal re-education camps – the Canadian public has started to take notice of the Land Back movement. One powerful example of how this movement helps both the working-class and Indigenous people is the Senakw development of the Squamish Nation.

The Squamish nation won a long-fought legal battle (because colonial governments don’t actually like giving back the land they stole, apparently) in 2002 to regain a fraction of their land in the heart of what we call downtown Vancouver. In this dense urban area, the Squamish First Nation is building 6000 housing units, of which most are affordable rental units. These units will be available to all, not just the people of the Squamish First Nation.

2. Four day work week with no loss of pay

In other countries such as Germany, Denmark, and Norway, workers work significantly less than Canadian workers do. A four-day workweek may seem like a big step, but it is entirely possible and worth fighting for.

Isn’t this what working people in the current moment deserve? Decades of wage stagnation have occurred while the cost of living keeps increasing. This is despite productivity increases and is due to right-wing economic policies. It’s about time workers got some relief.

3. Wage earner funds

In Socialism: Past and Future, Michael Harrington talks about the policy of Swedish Socialists that could prove to be a pathway toward collective worker-ownership of the economy. Wage earner funds are explicitly reformist in nature although they could lead to some amount of democratization of the economy.

How wage earner funds work is a simple idea: company profits are taxed and put into funds controlled by democratic worker’s organizations. These organizations then use these funds to buy shares in companies in order to transition from private to collective ownership of companies. It’s a starting point toward socializing the means of production, at least.

4. Give workers control over Employment Insurance

Currently, employers are the ones in control over employment insurance benefits, which all workers pay into. This means that if a worker decides to quit a job voluntarily, they are not eligible to receive EI payments.

This was not always the case in Canada. In Canada, A working history, Jason Russell describes the slash to workers rights in employment insurance:

The Conservative government altered employee insurance rules, then called unemployment insurance (UI), so that workers could only receive benefits if they were terminated from their jobs, whereas it was previously possible to also collect benefits after resigning from a job. This change put employers firmly in charge of who received UI benefits, which meant people could only get away from a difficult working situation by immediately finding another job.

5. Co-determination and European-style Works Councils

The most popular example of this is in Germany. The main idea behind co-determination is to increase worker’s participation and control of a company by allowing workers to elect fellow workers into the board of directors of a corporation.  

Works councils work similarly: workers elect other fellow workers into a separate body that has the power to negotiate with the employer on the employees’ behalf. These works councils often work with trade unions to advocate for better working conditions.

Voting every few years isn’t enough

To the more radical elements of the Canadian Left, these would be considered reformist, rather than revolutionary ideas. This is true, as all of these could be incorporated into our present-day capitalist system. These are simply meant to be some practical policy ideas for the Left to use to build the power of the working class. These should also be pushed alongside other more common policies like proportional representation and UBI.

Giving Labour more power within the capitalist system should be seen as a win for the Left, especially after decades of neo-liberal decay. Historically, elections have conceded some working-class gains such as publicly funded health care, but they have failed to expand this into important public spheres such as pharma care and dental care for decades now. 

If we are to progress as a society, building worker’s power within a strong intersectional, labour, and Indigenous coalition would be a great starting point. Change only comes from the streets.

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