- Interview by
- Mitchell Thompson
Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) held its 2021 convention at the beginning of April. Although there were enough progressive resolutions passed to alarm Canada’s establishment media, there’s no guarantee that the party will actually follow the priorities set by its left flank. If party leader Jagmeet Singh and the NDP caucus neglect the new policy planks, they will alienate their grassroots members, take the wind out of the party’s sails, and enable Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to outflank them on their left once again.
Former NDP MP Svend Robinson has been a prominent figure of the party’s broad left since the late 1970s. Robinson was the first MP in Canadian history to come out as gay while in office. A critic of Canadian militarism and of Canada’s long-standing oppression of Indigenous people, an early proponent of environmental and LGBT rights, and a staunch critic of Israel, Robinson is the NDP’s longest serving firebrand. He recently spoke to Jacobin about the NDP’s past, present, and future, and the need for a socialist world.
This year’s NDP convention was well attended, with about two thousand delegates, and the NDP’s left wing seemed more organized than it has been in the recent past?
Absolutely it was. And it was exciting to see the results of organizing. A lot of young Palestinian activists, for example, working in solidarity with folks across the country. That really put this issue front and center on the political agenda. It was a hopeful sign.
One thing that distinguishes the NDP from the British Labour Party is that there hasn’t been as long a history of left-wing factions. The Waffle [a radical wing of the NDP in the 1960s and ’70s] is one of the few counterexamples.
Another highpoint was the New Politics Initiative [NPI], with me, Libby Davies, Judy Rebick, and Jim Stanford. We got 40 percent of the vote at the 2001 convention with a mandate to basically create a new socialist party of the Left.
It would have been a campaigning party that worked in solidarity with the labor movement — and social movements more broadly — to transform the political dynamic of the party. When Jack Layton became NDP leader, he took on some of those principles. Unfortunately, we moved on after Jack’s leadership into the Tom Mulcair era, which set the stage for the disastrous 2015 campaign.
I think part of the excitement and some of the organizing we’re seeing now is still a response to that, frankly. That “let’s take back our party” sensibility, and the recognition that our democratic socialist principles are more relevant than ever. The pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities in terms of race, class, and poverty at the national and global levels — like access to vaccines, for instance — in the most transparent way possible.
We’re saying: “We’ve got to be bold; we’ve got to be progressive; and we’ve got to fight back.” I think, increasingly, that young people in the party are not going to put up with the “mushy middle” with which we’ve been served for too long. This convention was in many ways a travesty in terms of how party officials manipulated and controlled and stage-managed proceedings. But at the end of the day, the delegates still sent some important, powerful, and positive messages.
The New Politics Initiative wasn’t long after your leadership run. Did the initiative receive support?
When I ran for the leadership in 1995, we had a tremendous grassroots campaign that spread all across the country. I did pretty well in that election. We won the first round and then there was a bit of manipulation after that.
Throughout the history of the party, there’s been a strong progressive current — whether it was the Waffle, the NPI, or other developments. In recent years, it hasn’t been as strong, but I felt very hopeful in the run up to this year’s convention that such activism is alive and well, and I hope it continues afterward.
At the convention, you cosponsored two motions — how do you think it went?
Obviously I was really pleased that the convention spoke strongly in support of the Palestine resolution that called for an end to all trade and commercial relations with the settlement products, and a military ban as well. The result was 80 percent in favor. I think it was also significant that the resolution had some significant backing from the caucus. Jack Harris, the foreign affairs critic, was in line to speak in support of it.
This is the first time since the founding of the party that an NDP convention has passed an explicitly pro-Palestinian resolution. I was a federal member of parliament for twenty-five years. During that time, I was foreign affairs critic, and I chaired the international committee of the party. There were certainly a lot of battles over the years to try to get us to take a strong, clear, and principled stand in support of the Palestinian people.
It was important to recognize the fundamental flaws with the argument that says, “Oh, there are two sides here and we have to try to balance both sides.” There is an oppressor and there are the oppressed — just as there was in South Africa. So it was significant and a very hopeful sign that the convention took a clear stand on that issue.
I was disappointed that we didn’t get a vote on the resolution regarding the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism, which imposes limits on what people can say about Israel. But I’m sure that if the resolution had come to a vote, there would have been a similar outcome. That resolution had more support than any single resolution in any subject area going into the convention.
It had backing from almost fifty riding associations, and there was strong support from labor and from the Young New Democrats. Me and Libby Davies worked very closely with Independent Jewish Voices, Canadians For Peace and Justice in the Middle East, Palestinian activists, and others. While there may not have been a vote at the convention, the membership still sent a strong, clear message to the NDP caucus.
Along with resolutions to defund the military and police, there was a call to invest in health, transit, and basic public needs.
This is another issue that I’m very much concerned with. The NDP has been largely silent on the massive increases in military spending that the Liberal government is proposing. I’m hoping that there’s a deep level of concern on this, even though there wasn’t a vote on those resolutions.
The 2019 election was a pretty miserable affair, albeit with a few bright spots.
Niki Ashton increased her vote count by quite a bit.
I give Niki Ashton full marks for pushing back against her critics. What happened to her recently was a disgrace. I give Niki huge credit for doing that event with Jeremy Corbyn from the British Labour Party. I also give her credit for standing up in the context of the elections for the party leadership.
It was absolutely appalling to see the way the leadership was willing to weaponize those attacks against Jeremy Corbyn. The attacks on him were made on the grounds of alleged antisemitism, but they were actually attacks on him as a socialist and as a lifelong progressive.
I met Jeremy a number of times while I was working in parliament. Tony Benn was a good friend of mine. Tony and Jeremy were colleagues, and their offices were not far from one another.
I’m always intrigued by Tony Benn stories.
Tony Benn and I were both in Baghdad during the — I won’t call it the Iraq war — the American attack on Iraq in the early 1990s. We both received death threats. And we each agreed that if the other was killed we would take the message back from one another. It was a pretty tense time at the Al Rasheed Hotel.
I used to have tea with Tony when I visited Westminster and Jeremy would be there. If you’d told me then that Jeremy would be leading the Labour Party, I would have told you that you were absolutely mad. But he did get elected as leader with the support of grassroots young people across the country!
More than five hundred people tuned into the event between Corbyn and Ashton — not bad.
It was exciting. And what is the federal NDP these days? The federal NDP as a party has been largely moribund. The only communication members receive are these pleas for funds every five minutes at critical points of the year.
There’s no grassroots organizing, there’s no outreach, there’s no engagement in social movements — whether anti-racism or environmental movements. And in my view, there’s no recognition that the crisis we’re facing now, the climate emergency, really compels us to take action.
You won’t be running if there is an election this year. Do you plan to remain active?
Yes, I have a one-year appointment as the J. S. Woodsworth scholar at Simon Fraser University, so I couldn’t make that commitment this year. I won’t be a candidate.
But I certainly will continue to speak out strongly on the issues that I’m passionate about and that got me back into politics in 2019 — particularly around indigenous sovereignty. I was nominated around the time that the Wet’suwet’en blockades were happening. I was deeply concerned that the NDP leadership was not clear enough on the issues of indigenous sovereignty and the coastal LNG project running through their land.
You were active on fighting the logging industry and standing with the Indigenous people who were threatened by it —
At Clayoquot Sound — I went to jail for that.
There were some really positive developments. When I stood on the line at Clayoquot Sound — or, prior to that, when I stood with the Haida First Nation in 1985 — there was an outpouring of support across the country for First Nation struggles. There was tremendous support for the Haida and some of the grandmothers who went to jail for standing in solidarity with the people at Clayoquot Sound.
In terms of the question of socialism, it has been argued that the conditions that spurred the movements behind Corbyn, Sanders, and the like aren’t transplantable. What is your reply?
When you look at the issues Jeremy Corbyn was championing, when you look at the issues Bernie Sanders is and was championing, they’re the only meaningful antidotes to our profound and growing inequality. A few individuals have made massive profits from this pandemic while so many have fallen by the wayside.
I’m hopeful that there’s a real base of support from people who recognize that time is running out. Capitalism is an economic system that destroys the environment, leads to obscene inequality, and ultimately to death and to war. It has got to go. The NDP is the political vehicle for our voice, and so I hope the leadership of the party and the caucus will catch up to the grassroots and adopt a sense of fearlessness and boldness that the times demand.
For a socialist Canada?
And a socialist world. Our vision has to be a global vision.