Party Politics or Coalition Activism?

By Mackenzie, David | Canadian Dimension, December-January 1994 | Go to article overview

Party Politics or Coalition Activism?


Mackenzie, David, Canadian Dimension


Canadian labour must come to grips with questions about the nature of its political affiliations and practices. The question is: Does the Canadian labour movement orient its political activity through an electorally competitive social democratic party or does it reconceive itself as essentially a partner of extra-parliamentary social coalitions? Party politics or coalition politics?

The issue is not new. Since the sixties, academics have talked about the rise of the new social movements (feminism, environmentalism, disarmament, localized neighbourhood formations, and single-issue groups) as the most important demographic development on the Left, particularly as contrasted with the downward trend lines throughout the Western world in the industrial working class base of social democratic movements.

Over the past two decades most of us have worked with the new movements out of support for the obvious justice of their particular purposes. There has always been a significant overlap among party activists and movement/ coalition activists.

Differences over tactics, strategies, and priorities have also always been present. Sometimes, as in the case of the Ontario "Campaign for an Activist Party" initiative in the mid-eighties, there have been organized attempts to get the NDP to re-direct some of its own energies away from electoral contest and toward building support for social coalitions. These attempts have not been frequent, but they do highlight tensions between the differing visions of Left politics.

The current debate is starting to feel like an either/or question in ways it didn't previously. We can no longer assume that the differences between the social democratic approach and the extra-parliamentary approach can be easily reconciled. Many in the new movement camp are uninterested in reconciliation. While I believe ultimate rapprochement is still achievable and certainly desirable, I also suggest that labour has to deal with the tensions and conflicts straight up if we have any hope of getting clear about our purposes.

Here are some over-simplifications for the sake of discussion.

* A defining feature of the party and labour approach has been the appeal to an all-encompassing vision. It takes shape as an inclusive political program that we campaign for and hope to implement. By contrast, it is a feature of single-issue groups and even broader movements not to view their purposes or purpose as components of a package, but rather as intrinsic priorities that should not be subject to the interest-balancing that goes into constructing a party program.

* That means the coalitionist's relationship to the party is different from the partisan's. The latter sees virtue in the total package and encompassing vision. The former makes judgments concerning the faithfulness of a particular policy and the priority it is accorded by the party. This is a contingent and instrumental view of the party.

* Election campaigns are not a primary trauma of coalition politics which relieves its activists of feeling responsible for a certain body of unromantic and often mind-numbing detail work. Coalitionists are normally tireless advocates of their cause, but are also normally able to spend more time on the content of the animating issue(s). This is particularly gratifying and exhilarating for those with a good education and verbal skills; they get little buzz from the technical campaign preoccupations of the party activist (indeed in my experience, many view such concerns with disdain). The party is a site of lobbying rather than something to be campaigned for and elected.

* This mercenary or instrumental view of party politics amounts to a denial of real-life politics on the ground. The instrumental view leads logically to appeals for so-called strategic voting, which in the Canadian context means electing Liberals. Some frank coalition activists even advocate a merging of Liberals and New Democrats. …

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