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The Impossible Dream

Thomas Mulcair at the NDP convention in March 2012. Credit: Matt Jiggins, Flickr

Todd Gordon makes the case for giving up on the dream of reforming the NDP, in favour of building a new political project based on new social movements. This is the second in a series of reflections in the aftermath of the April NDP Convention, first published by Jacobin. Murray Cooke provides a view from inside in his article "The NDP Convention: A Leap to the Left?"


The NDP Convention: A Leap to the Left?

This article by Murray Cooke is the first in a series of reflections on theaftermath of the April NDP Convention. For an alternate view, see Todd Gordon's article "The Impossible Dream."

There were two highly visible and significant developments at the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) convention in Edmonton on the April 8-10 weekend. As widely discussed in the mass media, delegates passed a resolution on the Leap Manifesto and they launched a leadership contest to take place within two years. Much less visibly and more tenuously, another potentially significant development occurred. For the first time in recent memory, there was a promising undercurrent of organized left activity within the NDP.

These are three positive steps, but do they amount to a leap to the left for the NDP? Pundits in the mainstream media seem to think so and warn that the NDP is headed toward far-left, electoral irrelevance.


Trainspotting Trump v. Sanders from Canada

by Hammerhearts

Like many people in Canada I have been watching the American primaries with a detached morbid curiosity. And this last week in American politics did not disappoint. Bernie Sanders pulled off a stunning upset against Clinton in Michigan on Tuesday. Both of the outsider candidates in the Republican race, Trump and Cruz, continued to rack up primary delegates. The Republican establishment is in full meltdown mode, leading lights and donors of the party secretly met in Sea Island, Georgia to plot against Trump.

Clinton had one of her worst weeks. She easily lost the Miami debate, saw the re-emergence of stories about Libya and Honduras, that reminded voters of her hawkish foreign policy. She pissed off one her core constituencies, the LGBTQ community – especially affluent gay men – by stating Nancy Reagan started the national conversation about HIV/AIDS.

She followed that up by her bizarre response to the Chicago anti-Trump protest, which didn’t condemn Trump but cautioned protestors about using violence with a nonsensical reference to the Charleston murders. And on top of that it looks like her 20-point leads in Illinois and Ohio have evaporated.

More importantly, a different dynamic beyond the election has emerged. The anti-Trump protest in Chicago, which cancelled the Trump rally, has asserted mass politics onto the national stage. While Trump rallies have been met with protests for some time now, the scale of the Chicago protest and its ability to shutdown down Trump was a game changer.

The broad coalition of Bernie Sanders supporters, Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter (BLM), trade-union, immigrant right and student activists who participated inside and outside the rally managed to do what no one else has: shut Trump up! The protest was well organized, but it also turned into a chaotic scene in Chicago.

The energy that the protesters tapped into was the same energy that has driven the Sanders campaign. By making Trump look weak and beatable they inspired and embolden others to take action. His subsequent rallies and public appearances in places such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, Dayton and Kansas City have been shutdown or marred by interruptions and demonstrations. Trump has lost the narrative. The story is about the protests, about his incitement of violence, about his bigotry.

The Sanders campaign and the anti-Trump movement seem to be feeding each other, at least for now. The Sanders campaign has not denounced the protesters and has blamed Trump for the violence. Trump has in turn blamed the Sanders campaign for the protests and even threatened to send his own supporters to Sanders’ rallies. The political field is polarizing with both the establishment of the Democratic and Republican parties in deep trouble.

Within the context of the economic decimation of the working class various movements have come to life over the last number of years – BLM, immigrant rights, Fight for $15, Occupy – that have successfully pushed their politics and caused innumerable fractures in American political life. Both the Trump and Sanders campaigns, from wholly different places, are speaking over the heads of the rotting political class directly to the American masses.

The Sanders’ campaign, when it works best, is giving voice to those social movements, raising expectations of the working class and directing this fear, anger and despair against Wall Street, corporate America and the political establishment.

Trump is not just taking that same energy and directing it towards racist and xenophobic ends, which he most assuredly is. As Thomas Frank notes, Trump is also speaking directly to people’s real fears about job losses and about free trade deals that have crushed American workers. The underlying conditions of the polarization of American politics aren’t the words of Trump or Sanders, they are the very real material circumstances of people’s lives and the debate now is who is going to give political shape and direction to them.

Lost in Canadian Translation 

In Canada, there has been no shortage of fascination with the Trump and Sanders campaigns. The former is viewed with a mixture of humour and fear, while the latter has captured the imagination of large parts of the left. Sanders’ campaign largely embodies what the NDP is perceived to be, a classic New Deal social democrat. But the NDP has tacked so far to the right over the last bunch of decades that Sanders serves simply as a reminder of what the NDP is not.

He supports taxing the rich, opposes free trade deals, he supports breaking up big banks, regulating the financial sector, implementing a $15 minimum wage, he has responded to pressure to and come out against police violence, he is against the guest worker program and he is willing to state he supports socialism.

Those within the NDP apparatus that are attempting to harness this Sanders phenomenon to reenergize the NDP, are with the possible exception of Gary Burrill, aiming at a cheap PR makeover. In this way the NDP party machine has more in common with Clinton, who sees politics as an eternal exercise in branding. Sanders is far from perfect politically but watching his campaign from north of the border shows how narrow our political discourse has become.

Those of us in Canada who are sympathetic to Sanders’ (or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter) message miss something fundamental when we ask, “where is our Sanders or Corbyn or party that expresses a strong left position?” This type of question guides people to look for quick fixes. Sanders arose out of moribund political expression on the left within a context of economic insecurity. The openness of the masses to more radical ideas was far in advance of mainstream political debate.

In this way Sanders’ rise to prominence should be seen as the result of political conditions that have been shaped by social movements on the ground (such as BLM, United We Dream, Fight for $15, Wisconsin Bail Out the People, Climate Justice and Occupy). Sanders’ campaign did not create these conditions but has so far reverberated them, given them political expression, which has served to stoke the latent contradictions within mainstream American politics. The Trump protests were significant because they highlighted what is so very true in this election; the masses are the real force shaping American politics.

Watching the American election is in many ways like watching our future. In Canada, those who want to shift the debate leftwards should think less about dumping Mulcair or changing the NDP and think more about building the movements and local left organizations that can create the conditions for a renewed and militant working class politics. If we fail to do so we are in much worse trouble than a bad election outcome.

Republished from the blog article first published on March 14, 2016.


Election reflection: Three questions for activists

The editors of New Socialist asked three activists Hassan Husseini, Niloofar Golkar and Russell Diabo to explain what the election of a Liberal majority means for their areas of social justice work. We're afraid, but not surprised, to hear that they are deeply sceptical that real progress in labour, environmental and indigenous causes will follow. We may have a prime minister who says some of the things people want to hear, but the Liberal past and current record speaks for itself. 


Three Reasons to Hope for an NDP Victory (in spite of what the party has become)

A statement by the editors of New Socialist Webzine
If you're not horrified by the 2015 federal election, you're not paying attention. As the long campaign rolls on, many people are turned off politics by the shallow rhetoric and tightly-controlled discussion orchestrated by the major parties and the mainstream media. Just as bad, the range of political options being offered to people by the leaders of the parties is shrinking.


The NDP Leadership Race: Sleepwalking toward the Centre?

By Murray Cooke

For the first time, the NDP is holding a leadership race that involves picking the leader of the Official Opposition and someone that can, with some credibility, claim a decent shot at becoming the next Prime Minister of Canada.


The NDP: Historic Breakthrough or More of the Same?

By Alan Sears


The New Democratic Party may be poised to make a historic breakthrough in the current Canadian federal election. In 2011the NDP won more seats than it ever had before, becoming the Official Opposition for the first time. Now polls suggest that they could win even more seats, possibly forming a federal government for the first time ever. It is important to ask if this represents a shift to the left in Canadian politics.


NDP Election Win in Alberta: Hope for Change?

By Donald Hughes

To the surprise of many, the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) was able to rally center-left and protest voters in Alberta to build a credible alternative to the governing Tories. The NDP’s leader, Rachel Notley, won a majority of the legislature’s seats with two-fifths of the popular vote in the May 5 election. The two main conservative parties (the governing Progressive Conservatives and the opposition Wildrose Alliance) won just over half of the popular vote. This was a drop from the right’s much more dominant position in 2012, when the two parties won almost four-fifths of the vote.


2015: Beyond "Anything But Conservative"

By David Bush

At the end of 2014, RankandFile.ca, an online labour news publication, ran a competition for Scumbag of the Year. While we received many nominations of bad bosses and terrible politicians from across the country, unsurprisingly it was Stephen Harper who topped our readers' list to win this prestigious award.


Layton's Legacy and the NDP Leadership Race

By Murray Cooke

With the death of Jack Layton, the federal NDP has been thrust into an unexpected leadership race, its future in question.


Austerity with a Smile: The 2014 Ontario Election

By James Cairns

It's always good to see Conservatives lose. And Tim "Zillion Job Cuts" Hudak was the biggest loser on election night in Ontario. Hudak's macho version of Austerity-by-Sledgehammer failed to win broad support. The Conservatives lost legislative seats, and their share of the popular vote dropped. Of course, they'll be back, refreshed by a new leader, and perhaps by the directionally-intriguing "enema from top to bottom" Doug Ford has kindly offered to give the party. For the moment, however, I certainly am relieved not to be waking up in Premier Hudak's province.


Reflections on the NDP at 50

The gains by the NDP in the 2011 federal election have made the questions of what the NDP is today and how people opposed to the austerity agenda should relate to it even more important. The editors of New Socialist Webzine are glad to publish this contribution by Murray Cooke on the NDP past and present.

As always, we welcome constructive comments and other submissions that address these questions. Readers may also want to read the article, "After the Election 2011: Building our Movements on Shifting Ground." 


After the Election 2011: Building our Movements on Shifting Ground

By Alan Sears and James Cairns

The federal election of 2011 drastically shifted the terrain of parliamentary politics in Canada.


The Neoliberalization of Social Democracy

Review of Social Democracy After the Cold War. Edited by Bryan Evans and Ingo Schmidt. 2012. Edmonton: AU Press. 

By James Cairns


The NDP Convention: The Decline and Fall of an Old Preamble (or A Social Democratic Party Becalmed)[1]

By Murray Cooke

Like the federal Liberal Party leadership race, the NDP policy convention this past weekend proved to be rather anti-climactic.


Mulcair's NDP: The New Liberal Party

Tom Mulcair has been the leader of the federal New Democratic Party for more than eight months now. His leadership has largely been as expected: solid, competent and moderate. Mulcair has continued Jack Layton's strategy of trying to supplant the Liberals as the middle-of-the-road alternative to the Harper Conservatives. It's not a particularly inspiring strategy and, looking toward the likely coronation of Justin Trudeau as the next leader of the Liberal Party, it's not a foregone conclusion that it will be a successful one. And supplanting the Liberals, even if that is solidified, isn't necessarily sufficient to defeat the Conservatives. Unless the Conservatives really implode or somehow manage to alienate their carefully cultivated base of supporters, they are going to be difficult to defeat in the next election.


The CAW-CEP Merger: A Political Reflection

By Bruce Allen

The approaching merger between the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) will create the largest private sector union in Canada with over 300 000 members employed in 22 sectors of the economy. As such it has the potential to profoundly affect the political direction of both the labour movement in this country and ultimately the political future of Canada.


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