I didn’t grow up at a time that was particularly conducive to a young, West Coast left-winger’s becoming enamoured with the NDP: when I was 11 years old, BC elected Mike Harcourt premier (“Mike” being a diminutive for the man’s Christian name, “Milquetoast”); when I was 15, our nominally left-wing provincial government sent police and military to siege Sundancers at Gustafsen Lake, reminding us all that colonialism also comes in orange (a lesson that the dipshits in the New Brunswick NDP seem keen on driving home). At the federal level, the party was pounded into near oblivion throughout my grunge-scored puberty, despite a deficit-hawk Liberal majority that were governing as Conservatives avant la lettre (Hipster Paul Martin was gutting the CBC before it was cool, man.) During the last federal election before I was allowed to vote, the local candidates did an afternoon debate in my high school gym, and I, full of delusional young Trotskyist confidence, stepped to the microphone to denounce the capitalist parties. But the NDP candidate — Svend Robinson, a man for whom I had a reformist soft spot, even at the height of my revolutionary zeal — gently but sternly called my bluster-bluff, pointing out how his party’s platform contained pretty much each of the policies whose absences I was lamenting. After the debate, among the crowd of students gathered around him, I sheepishly apologized. I even sent a letter to the local newspaper, the Burnaby Now, refuting one sent by a Reform Party supporter angrily and unfairly complaining about something Svend had supposedly said during the debate. After reading my letter, and characteristic of his now-legendary constituency work, Svend phoned to thank me. Me: a teenaged Trot, not yet of voting age. In true 17-year-old fashion, when the phone rang, I had been in the midst of masturbating to Married With Children.
So if there was anybody who could foster some hint of warm-feeling in me for the NDP, it was Svend Robinson — which is, retrospectively, ironic, given his well-documented history of not-always-creative tension with the party’s leadership and caucus. But Svend was something of a secular saint in my household growing up: the MP who had helped my parents navigate the Byzantine bureaucracy keeping my dying mother from receiving her disability payments. I never got the details of the story from my dad, but the gist of it was always relayed to me with great admiration for the man: “We called him on Friday, the cheque was in the mail on Monday.” I didn’t know, at the time, that my father was also gay, and so would have had a whole slough of reasons for admiring our MP, the first out elected official in the country. I can only hazily remember casting my first vote in a federal election — i just know that it was in the room adjacent to my junior high cafeteria, and that I voted for Svend.
A little while ago, New Star Books — for my money, one of the best publishers in the country — put out a biography of the renegade MP, author Graeme Truelove’s ‘Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics‘; the almost-entirely sympathetic account of the man is, to my heavily-biased mind, absolutely terrific. Having moved beyond Married With Children onanism and into actual, reproductive sex, I now have a little baby to look after, so I’m making my way through the work pretty slowly — but according to my ereader, I’m 80% finished, and anyway I’m past the point of what Svend calls the “Vancouver Centre kamikaze mission,” his failed comeback race in 2005/06, in which I played my own small part, on the campaign team and as one of the people who encouraged him to run again. Reading the account last night was illuminating; I got a better sense of Jack Layton’s aloofness to his longtime friend and ally Svend through that whole episode — a stand-offish, hands-offishness that makes sense in Truelove’s account, but at the time, to me, seemed like the very worst betrayal (back then I took it out by defacing a cardboard cutout of Layton in the back room of the campaign headquarters).
But it was also in reading, last night, that I realized that this week marks ten years since the best MP in the country stepped down after stealing a diamond ring in the midst of what appears to have been a manic episode. A great big decade, as it turned out, in NDP history.
I imagine that those in the party who never liked working with Svend, or those who resented the far-left stake that he’d claimed in Canadian politics, are not only pretty happy to have him gone, but might even point to the party’s electoral successes as being at least indirectly related to his absence. On the other hand, those of us for whom Svend was pretty much the only reason to hang around the NDP in the first place can barely muster the energy to change our Facebook profile pictures to party colours at election time, searching desperately, and always a little bit more hopelessly, for signs of the next Svend; someone chafing against the most conservative, concentrated leadership that the party has ever had (a centrist drift and concentration of power carried out in no small part, it must be said, during Jack Layton’s tenure as leader).
Has the party’s post-Svend decade been a good one? That’s the sort of question that can’t really be answered in a value-neutral way. If you’re a seat-count hack? Shit yeah, the years have been tremendous. We’re #2! But there’s something pathetic about the federal party today, with more MPs and less ability to effect social democracy than ever in its history. As the old joke goes, “it’s not the size of your caucus, it’s how you use it.” Not only did Svend embody something different from the usual electioneering pabulum — a genuine belief in the righteousness and effectiveness of indigenous, environmentalist, and social movement direct action, for starters — but, as Truelove’s wonderful and readable and extremely well-researched book shows, he also showed how gadflies could still exercise real power and affect people’s lives. The episode in which Svend leads the successful campaign to keep “the right to enjoy property” from being enshrined in the Charter (Robinson worried that if it were, things like minimum wage laws and environmental legislation could be imperiled) is indicative; a recurring theme throughout the book is how a third party MP, sometimes even a backbencher, could make real and lasting legislative change. In the end, that might be what was scariest to conventional NDPers about Svend: not only that his radical politics and irreverence endangered the party’s ability to win enough votes to become official opposition or even government, but the fact that his own example showed that if they were smart enough, worked hard enough, and were willing to participate in and draw on social movements, they didn’t necessarily have to, if all they wanted to do was effect change (as opposed to winning). In a world of horse-race politics, where everyone’s killing themselves trying to get to the inside lane, Svend was off in the stables unionizing the jockeys and pointing out that the track was built on stolen land.
A decade after Svend stepped down, there are still good and decent NDP MPs, doing some good work. All of them are better “team players” than Svend ever was — as a result, they are far less likely to make history like he did. The party has officially removed “socialism” from its preamble and unofficially added “go along to get along” to its ethos. Svend got manhandled by Chinese police and IDF soldiers, arrested at Clayoquot, fought legally-enshrined homophobia; today’s NDP fights ATM fees and promises not to tax the rich. It’s been a long ten years.
Anyhow, read Truelove’s book. You’ll probably finish it before I do. I’m busy trying to raise the next Svend Robinson over here.