Saturday, August 23, 2014

On broken connections

The CP reported here on Sana Hassainia's resignation from the NDP caucus and the immediate aftermath. And it's worth taking a look at both the narrow view that seems to have led Hassainia (among others) to choose to be isolated from party politics, and the unfortunate response from the NDP.

I haven't commented much personally on the Gaza crisis, so I'll quickly summarize my take on the NDP's official position. Initially, Mulcair did seem all too eager to take the same line as the other federal leaders: the NDP's position included no questioning whatsoever of Israel's incursion into Gaza, and gave little voice to Palestinian humanitarian considerations. But to be clear, that position doesn't seem to have been forced on other NDP MPs, who have taken at least some of their own action from the beginning.
And that wasn't the end of the matter either. In no small part in response to what seems to have been some strong internal pressure, the NDP's official position has come to include both far more recognition of the Gaza humanitarian crisis, and direct criticism of the IDF's most galling actions.

Now, that position doesn't go as far as some within the NDP - including Hassainia herself - would like to see. But it's well worth noting that internal influence seems to have had a real effect on the party's public position - an area in which the NDP stands alone among federal parties. And one would think an MP hoping to shape the course of events would recognize the opportunity offered by a place within that type of caucus and party.

Instead, Hassainia resigned from the NDP caucus - making for a particularly interesting choice in light of the normal pressures on MPs. 

The best explanation as to why most MPs toe the party line is the need for party support and leadership approval in future elections. And Hassainia's decision not to run again in 2015 would have eliminated any perceived need to curry Mulcair's favour - or indeed to remain within the caucus at all.

But by the same token, Hassainia's intention not to run again also left her effectively immune to the most obvious forms of leadership control over an individual MP. And it's hard to see how she'd expect to have more influence as an independent with no plan to run for office again than as a caucus member for the next year.

Which leads to a more general problem for many of the people who are (at times rightly) frustrated with top-down party politics. To my mind, the only practical means of reversing that unfortunate trend is to ensure that parties themselves are forced to be responsive to members through effective internal mechanisms. And the choice to walk away from the most significant group of reasonably like-minded people in the country hardly seems likely to build the movement needed to ensure that check is in place.

Meanwhile, Mulcair's response to Hassainia's departure unfortunately seems to reflect the worst of politics as sport. Just as individual activists should have every reason to want to maintain a relationship with like-minded people within the party structure, so too should any party want to maintain the best possible relationship with people who agree on most issues - as appears to be the case for Hassainia.

Instead, the choice to personally criticize Hassainia as she departed - particularly on questionable grounds - merely ensures that somebody who was willing to run for the NDP an election ago (and the people around her) will have reason to carry a grudge long after the immediate context of her departure would otherwise have been forgotten. And all to accomplish little more than to entrench as "us versus them" mentality.

In sum, then, Hassainia's resignation should serve as a cautionary reminder of what should be obvious points. Activists are best served cultivating party connections rather than withdrawing from the only system that can possibly effect the change they seek; likewise, parties are best served working to build and maintain positive connections among people of all levels of involvement and connection (including those who have raised tough questions), rather than going out of their way to attack anybody who dares to wander out of their tent. And the more we forget those simple principles, the harder it will be to build a people-powered alternative to the politics we recognize as problematic.


  1. Anonymous8:05 PM

    "Mulcair did seem all too eager to take the same line as the other federal leaders"

    And this is still the case. Mr. Mulcair has been suckered into a pseudo-populist approach. He has utterly lost touch with the political importance of the NDP. The NDP has been fooled by a BQ backlash that has nothing to do with drooling after more seats by pandering to MSM reporters.

  2. Well, Mulcair made no secret of his support for Israel when he ran for the leadership; I was disturbed by that at the time and still am now, but nobody should be surprised about it. I do think it's poor politics for the NDP to support Israel; I'd say there are more people critical of Israel in Canada than there are people planning to vote NDP. There are already two parties uncritically supporting Israel, I don't see what we gain by being the third, even if it were moral which it isn't.
    As to your broader point, Mr. Fingas, it is a well-thought-out and carefully expressed version of the "lesser-evilism" argument. I find myself ambivalent about it; while it seems nuanced, your position is actually pretty absolute. Is there ever a point in your view at which the best available party would not be good enough? What if the best available party were the US Democrats? What if the best available party were Ukraine's Svoboda? Is "working from within" always without exception the best policy? This seems unlikely. There must come a point where the system/group you want to work within is not going to express or push for anything resembling the position you hold and are involved to forward; at that point the only way it will get expressed is if you do so from without. Just where that point is must necessarily vary depending on what your personal ideology is and where your priorities lie. I don't think we can just blanket dismiss decisions such as Sana Hassainia's.

    1. I wouldn't think "working from within" is always the best policy - and you'll well know that I strongly reject the "lesser-evil" take on politics generally.

      But I'd think one has to draw the line as to when to reject the best available party based on two factors: whether that party is in fact responsive to internal activism, and whether there's a feasible prospect of developing an alternative which will better achieve one's ends.

      In the post, I discuss how the NDP still does fairly well by the former standard (despite Mulcair's initial inclinations), meaning that there's something to be gained by working within it. And on the latter point, I don't see any plan at all to turn concern over the NDP into some alternative structure - let alone one which would offer a more plausible means of effecting change than the network of progressives already within the NDP.

  3. It isn't about "lesser evilism" at all. Say what you will about the party's position on an intractable conflict on the other side of the world, the NDP is pretty much the only party that can be relied upon to protect, shore up and extend our health care system. As someone who has an autistic nephew, this is no trivial matter. It's the only party that's talking seriously about a national pharmacare program. It's the only party that is looking seriously at ways to eliminate seniors poverty.

    Moreover, what other party can be trusted to make long-needed investments in the nation's crumbling infrastructure? Again, not a trivial matter. In fact, every policy mentioned is fundamental to what a social-democratic party is supposed to do: much more so than making statements on an intractable conflict taking place on the other side of the planet, a conflict over which not even the President of the United States has influence, never mind an opposition party in Canada.

    While my politics are further left than the NDP's, it's important to recognize that a real party in the real world has to meet the electorate not as it wishes it to be, but as it finds it. For better or worse, the current electorate in Canada is very middle of the road. The closer the NDP gets to government, the more it will need to moderate and/or modulate its positions on any number of issues.

    That said, on core domestic ones, the NDP remains solid. Criticize it all you want, but we'd all damn well better hope it forms the next government.

    1. I'll agree with the emphasis on the difference between the NDP and all other parties on social programs. But the second-last paragraph does look like a dangerous one: the polling I've seen suggests the electorate is perfectly comfortable with progressive positions on a wide range of issues and with the NDP as a voice for those positions. And I don't see "modulating" important principles in the name of chasing some mythical centre as helping the cause of forming government at all.