Life on the Left
April 4, 2011
This was Québec solidaire’s sixth convention since its founding in 2006. Faced with two general elections within the party’s first three years, QS members had adopted election platforms in their first conventions addressed to major issues that could be dealt with in the course of a Quebec government’s term of office, but left the elaboration of a more sweeping program — outlining the party’s overall orientation and strategy “within a perspective of social transformation” — to a more prolonged process of debate.
That process was launched at the party’s fifth convention in November 2009, when delegates adopted positions on the national question, secularism, electoral reform and integration of immigrants. Future program conventions, to be held over the next two years or so, will address such topics as health and social services, education, social and legal justice, culture, agriculture, and international solidarity and altermondialisation (anti-capitalist globalization).
Go beyond capitalism?
The debate on the social and economic issues that were the subject of the March convention promised to reveal an underlying tension within the party that has existed from the outset — one that is familiar to virtually all broadly based organizations and parties of the left. The QS policy commission put the issue directly in its “participation booklet,” a preliminary document posing questions for discussion by the membership:
“As we work on our program, we should spell out the nature and limits of the system, and ask ourselves the following question: isn’t the capitalist system, based as it is on maximizing profit and irresponsible exploitation of nature, the main obstacle to social progress and a healthy relationship to the environment? We need a serious debate on the question so we can determine whether our social problems can be corrected by reforms that respect the logic of the system or if we need to adopt the perspective of going beyond the system.”
This was also the question put by the Québec solidaire leadership in a Manifesto they issued for May Day 2009, entitled “To emerge from the crisis, should we go beyond capitalism?” Although the Manifesto’s specific proposals to overcome the crisis generally failed to go much beyond a timid social liberalism, its anti-capitalist rhetoric met with a very favourable response in the QS ranks. Some members were more critical, however. Among these were François Cyr and Pierre Beaudet. In an article published just as the debate was getting under way, with the suggestive title “Québec solidaire must remain a rainbow coalition,” they argued that the task of a left-wing party is “to fight for immediate changes, realizable within the framework of the present capitalist state and system.”
“The very essence of a large mass party,” they wrote, is that it is “a permanent coalition capable of carrying out the compromises and arbitration that are necessary both in terms of program and the internal equilibrium of its networks.” Québec solidaire should “avoid confining itself to a terrain that is too limited.... it is necessary to unite all those who want to oppose neoliberalism and reaction....
“It is an error to think that the socialist perspective, even in its most interesting recent developments (ecosocialism, for example) now constitutes an alternative in Quebec. It must be admitted, it is not.”
A few QS members responded to Cyr and Beaudet with their own articles. Roger Rashi, a member of the party’s theme commission on environment and energy and of Masse critique, a recognized collective within QS, wrote:
“It is necessary to deepen the basis of unity of Québec solidaire by exploring the ultimate goal of the struggle against neoliberalism, by outlining the basic framework of an alternative, ecological, democratic and self-managed society without social inequality and without poverty, in other words an ecosocialist society. This does not mean eliminating Québec solidaire’s character as a political united front, or if you prefer a rainbow coalition, but it does mean getting this united front to evolve toward going beyond the capitalist system. The objective and subjective conditions are favourable to such an evolution.”
QS members André Frappier, a Montréal leader of the postal workers’ union (CUPW), and Bernard Rioux, a member of the Gauche socialiste collective, argued the case for programmatic clarity around a clear class line:
“...we must seek to attract broader layers of activists to Québec solidaire, in the popular, feminist and trade union movement. But will we do that by making programmatic compromises? And at what level, on what aspect? [Cyr and Beaudet] do not say. They argue that socialist ideas and practices have few roots among the people. That does not hold water. History is full of examples teaching us that the workers movement learns from the struggle.... Whenever parties claiming to be on the left have not indicated clearly where the class interests of the workers movement were situated, where the program confused mass struggle and class struggle, where the ruling classes’ interests were not identified, on each of these occasions the workers movement experienced a terrible defeat....
“What have we learned from the Popular Unity [government] in Chile? From the Popular Front in France? In neither case was the defeat of the workers movement due to an exaggerated radicalism, and certainly not to a lack of broad alliances, but rather to the programmatic confusion that deprived it of all its resources and enabled the bourgeoisie to survive and regain the initiative.”
A ‘serious debate’?
This initial public debate, however, unfolded largely outside the formal structures of Québec solidaire, in a few left journals and on-line blogs. Within the party itself, the “serious debate” on capitalism invited by the QS policy commission did not unfold in the preconvention discussion. One reason lies in the obstacles to conducting general discussions on perspectives within Québec solidaire.
Under the complex procedure the party has chosen for conducting its program debates, initial written submissions by the members (or by “citizens’ circles” composed of both members and non-members) must not exceed 800 words in length. The policy commission then compiles a “perspectives booklet” presenting concise demands based on what it considers the “principal orientations” in these submissions. These are discussed and amended or added to by QS local associations and general assemblies, following which the policy commission produces a “synthesis booklet” that arranges the revised demands by topic and, where appropriate, lists differing resolutions addressed to a particular issue as “options” (up to six, in some cases) for debate and decision at the convention — first in topic workshops, then in plenary session, where delegates are limited to two or three minute interventions from the floor.
Whatever the democratic merits of this procedure — and there are some, to be sure — it effectively precludes lengthier written contributions within the party structures that could outline a general strategic or programmatic framework on the given subjects and allow a broader debate among opposing approaches. Moreover, the party has no public or internal discussion bulletin or even an email discussion list that would allow such debates. And in this round, unlike the previous public debate leading up to the fifth convention, none of the members’ commentaries were published either on the intranet or public websites. (The website itself is dominated by statements on issues of the day by the party’s joint spokespersons, Françoise David, the QS president, and Amir Khadir, its sole elected member of the National Assembly.)
Despite these constraints, on many topics the delegates to this convention revealed a readiness to link demands for immediate reforms to a longer-range perspective of radical democratic and social transformation.
A green energy agenda
At this convention, Québec solidaire voted for a major turn to green energy, including:
- A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, and by 95% by 2050. Abandonment of fossil fuels by 2030.
- Opposition to carbon taxes, carbon trading and storage schemes, biofuels, and geo-engineering.
- “Public control” over energy firms, defined as majority participation of the state up to and including 100% nationalization as needed. Another proposal, for complete nationalization of energy firms, was defeated. Some delegates voiced concern that Quebec government nationalization might not respect First Nations jurisdictions.
- Prohibition of any new hydro-electric development. Production of renewable energies: solar, geothermal, wind, to limit to the maximum any supplementary resort to hydro-electricity.
- An end to all exploration and development of fossil fuels, such as petroleum in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Old Harry), shale gas, and LNG ports. Elimination of Quebec’s nuclear reactor system, and an end to the exploration and development of uranium mines. In recent months mass movements have developed in many Quebec communities against local gas and uranium exploration projects, and some delegates mentioned their involvement in these actions.
- Development of electrified transportation to ensure the accessibility, universality “or even gratuity” of public transit. A leaflet distributed at the convention by Montréal members of QS outlined some methods and proposals by which the party could deepen its involvement in the developing movement to stop the Turcot interchange, a major highway intersection. The proposals include a campaign for free public transit, massive expansion of public transit infrastructures, and conversion to efficient green energy sources.
- Support for a new, legally binding international agreement, and participation in the world movement linking climate and social justice. It was noted that this movement is inspired by the alternative peoples’ summit on the environment held at Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2010. A table in the convention foyer promoted the “Cochabamba Plus One” conference to be held in mid-April in Montréal, and pamphlets on ecosocialism produced by the Gauche socialiste and Masse critique QS collectives.
The convention voted by large majorities that the mining and forestry industries should be placed under “public control,” with up to 100% nationalization “as needed.” In both cases, the demand for outright nationalization received substantial support but was defeated. In addition:
- All resource industries to be subject to strict environmental regulations, and no project to be approved without meaningful public consultation in the communities concerned and a veto by local or regional authorities over development plans. Mining royalties to be increased and shared equitably between the resource region and the government.
- In the forest industry, elimination of laws allowing clear cutting and cutting in the boreal forest north of the 49th parallel. A reduction in disparities between natural and managed forests, and the need for prior agreements with the indigenous people in all regions under aboriginal treaties or land claims.
- Fresh water, whether surface or underground, to be considered a “non-commodified common good accessible to all but the property of no one,” with the state as guardian. Water used by industry and businesses to be considered a “loaned” public property subject to royalties and post-treatment controls.
Among the programmatic demands adopted by the convention — usually by large majorities, in some cases unanimously — are the following:
- Constitutional protection of the right to join unions, bargain and strike, including the right to political and solidarity strikes (strikes for political objectives and in solidarity with striking workers and students).
- Prohibition of lockouts, and strict controls on layoffs and shutdowns — including mandatory justification before a government agency, protection of company pensions, compulsory retraining and re-employment in similar jobs, etc. State assistance to employees wishing to form local worker coops when companies relocate.
- Union rights for farmworkers and self-employed workers, and the right to multi-employer certifications.
- Right of full employment in safe, stable, socially useful, ecologically sound work free of discrimination, with social protection in case of loss of employment, incapacity and ageing. Affirmative action for women, disabled, visible minorities and indigenous.
- Immediate reduction in the workweek to 35 hours, and “gradual” transition to 32 hours with no loss of pay, compensatory hiring and no speed-up in workload or pace. Legal restrictions on the use of overtime work. Delegates rejected demands for an immediate 32 hour workweek.
- An immediate increase in the minimum wage to the low-income (poverty) threshold for a person working full time, with a “gradual” increase to 50% over this threshold, indexed to the cost of living. This would mean a gradual increase from $10.66 to $15.99 per hour. Proposals to raise the minimum wage by lesser amounts or an immediate $15.99 were rejected.
- Expanded public employment in social services, construction, infrastructures maintenance and environmental clean-up.
- Accessible programs for job retraining, free and funded by employers and government.
The radical thrust of the positions adopted on the ecology and labour questions — many pointing, at least implicitly, in an anticapitalist direction — was not matched in the decisions on the economy, which necessarily addressed fundamental issues of how Québec solidaire envisages its proposed “democratic transformation” of the economic organization of society. In the plenary debate on “general orientations,” delegates voted by a large majority for a statement declaring, in part:
“To allow collective and democratic control of the principal economic levers of Quebec, QS ultimately intends to go beyond capitalism. It seeks to establish an economic and political system promoting the common good, with greater respect for communities and individuals, that allows us to define the objectives of our lives in respect for the surrounding environment. We propose a plural economy, based on values of equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, liberty, in conditions of ecological balance and efficacy, including the exploration of alternative economic systems.”
Another resolution proposed to abandon “the dual (private-public) economic model” in favour of adopting a “quadripartite model,” composed of
- a social economy composed of enterprises with a social and non-profit objective but also community, collective or cooperative organisms that render innumerable services to the people.
- an essential domestic economy based on the services provided in the family, by natural caregivers (primarily women) and more generally on free or volunteer services that we wish to find means of social recognizing and accounting for at their fair value.
- a public, state and parastate economy, the importance and social role of which in the equitable provision of accessible services to the entire population throughout the territory, inter alia, should be enhanced.
- a private economy composed of private enterprises the purpose of which is to sell products and services and which agree to function in compliance with the collective (social, environmental, etc.) rules that Quebec society establishes.
The emphasis on the “social economy” is a reflection of Québec solidaire’s social composition, its membership, and their activities — heavily weighted to professionals, social workers, and marginalized working class layers unemployed or precariously employed, with very limited trade-union membership. The attention to the “domestic economy” reflects as well the traditions and roots of many QS members in the feminist movement and its recognition that many important economic functions of society go unpaid or underpaid relative to other economic sectors.
Important as these economic sectors are — a recent study found that more than 80,000 people are employed in Montréal alone in the “social economy” of charities, NGOs, and volunteer social agencies — they are at best a complement to the fundamental competitive and exploitative wage-labour dynamic of capitalism.
These ambiguities were reflected in other resolutions on the economy, including:
- Québec solidaire aims for an eventual socialization of economic activities, based on a strengthened public economy (state-owned companies and nationalization of major enterprises in some strategic sectors), a greater role of the social economy (cooperatives, community-owned firms), and a controlled private sector, with much greater emphasis on promoting small and medium enterprises (SMEs). A number of delegates objected that SMEs and organizations operating in the “social economy” are generally low-wage sweatshops, SME owners being bitter opponents of trade unions. Their alternative motions were outvoted.
- Nationalized enterprises are to be operated in a framework of national and democratic planning, with decentralized management including representatives of employees, the community, and First Nations where applicable. Forms of self-management are to be promoted in place of bureaucratic oversight. Delegates were almost evenly divided on whether compensation for nationalized firms should take into account “unpaid taxes, monopolist super-profits, pillaging of resources and pollution”; after three successive hand votes, the motion was referred to the QS policy commission for later consideration.
- Economic growth must cease to be considered an objective in itself. A QS government will take immediate legal, regulatory, fiscal or other measures to discourage over-production, over-indebtedness, and over-consumption.
Some important omissions
The convention agenda did not allow sufficient time to cover all the issues before it and some items had to be dropped. Unfortunately, it was decided to postpone to a later convention the debate on some important topics. Among these were Banking and Financial Institutions, where the draft proposals on offer ranged from complete expropriation of the banking system and other financial institutions through to “socialization,” promotion of cooperatives and mutuals, competition by a state bank, or no nationalization at all.
Another postponed topic was Taxation. In its 2008 election platform Québec solidaire called, inter alia, for a 100% capital gains tax (except for family farms), an increase in personal income tax brackets, and exemption of necessities from the Quebec sales tax. Draft program proposals this year included putting salary levels 30 times the minimum wage in the highest tax bracket, reviewing consumption taxes as regressive taxes or even abolishing them outright, adoption of limited succession duties, and shifting the tax burden from individuals to corporations.
Banking and taxation were the subjects on the convention agenda that most clearly posed the national question, since many proposals under these headings could only be implemented by a sovereign Quebec with full jurisdiction in these areas. However, QS leaders have displayed a notable reluctance to formulate their proposals as a program for “another, independent Québec,” despite the party’s formal support of sovereignty. Was this a factor in the proposal to adjust the topics for debate to omit these points?
A party of the ballot boxes... and the streets?
Yet another important omission from the agenda of this phase of program adoption was a decision by the party’s policy commission a few months ago, in the midst of the party debate, to withdraw from discussion at this convention a proposal it had drafted on the relation between Québec solidaire and the social movements (including the trade unions). The draft text outlined a strategy by which QS, “as a party and as a government, should seek to strengthen the capacities of the social movements, encourage their unity in action and participate in them on the basis of a program of social transformation.” It proposed that QS members who belong to the various social movements be encouraged to “network” within the party — that is, coordinate their activities within the unions and other movements around a strategy of reciprocal reinforcement of the movements and the party. This draft text addresses an important lacuna in Québec solidaire’s activities.
Up to now, this extraparliamentary and extra-electoral aspect of the party’s intervention has remained largely under-developed. Since its founding, and particularly since Amir Khadir’s election in 2008, the focus has been increasingly on a strategy of building the party through the ballot box, to the neglect of extra-parliamentary action “in the streets.” A “development plan” adopted at the last National Council meeting, in June 2010, summarized the objectives for the next two years as “advancing our ideas in the population, gaining a greater presence in public debates, electing more MNAs and appreciably increasing our percentage of the vote in the next general elections.”
Québec solidaire works alongside the unions and some social movements in a number of coalitions, such as the pro-independence Conseil de la Souveraineté. But its modest campaign in relation to the public-sector unions’ negotiations with the Quebec government last year, labelled “Courage politique,” failed to mount a clear defense of the unions’ demands and was largely confined to a defence of existing social programs and opposition to privatization. The party has no organized presence as such in the unions; its social base continues to be heavily composed of students and workers in unorganized sectors of the work force such as the “social economy.” This lack of experience in the union milieu no doubt contributed to some of the abstractness of the convention debate on economic models.
‘Tactical agreements’ with other parties?
As it happens, this convention did debate “alliances” — not with trade unions and social movements, but electoral agreements with either the Parti Québécois or the Verts (Greens). Aware of the difficulty of electing more MNA’s under Quebec’s undemocratic first-past-the-post system, the national council had appointed a committee to study possible “tactical agreements” with other parties under which each party would agree not to run a candidate against the other in selected ridings. In its report to the convention, the committee favoured electoral agreements but was divided on which parties to approach.
It ruled out a “strategic alliance” with the Liberals, ADQ and PQ which, it said, “diverge a lot from QS programmatically.” But it put two options before the delegates: (A) a possible tactical agreement with the PQ and/or the Verts; or (B) a possible tactical agreement with the Verts alone, a “strategic alliance” with that party being conceivable if based on the Global Greens Charter, but ruled out for “practical reasons pertaining to internal decisions of the Verts in Quebec.”
The danger in the proposed alliances, of course, was that Québec solidaire might well blur its programmatic differences with the other parties, a major problem in the case of the PQ, a decidedly capitalist party. The proposed agreement with the PQ was sugar-coated with the argument that the PQ might accept such a trade-off as a virtual recognition of the principle of proportional representation. But PQ governments have always resisted implementing any form of PR. Furthermore, the PQ is apprehensive of the growing popularity of QS among many of its traditional supporters. Both QS and the PQ are addressing much the same audience: a progressive working class electorate, which may well be more inclined to vote PQ as a “lesser evil” to the Liberal government. QS needs to find ways to counter that reasoning, not reinforce it.
A third option, of course, was to reject any such alliances. And that is exactly what the delegates did in the opening Friday night plenary session, rejecting appeals from both Amir Khadir and Françoise David, among others, in support of either option A or B.
A CROP-La Presse opinion poll published March 28, the day after the convention ended, will have strengthened QS militants’ hopes for electoral breakthroughs. It reported that both the Parti québécois and the governing Liberals had lost support — the PQ registering 32%, the Liberals 22% in voters’ intentions — while support for Québec solidaire had risen to 15%, far above the barely 4% support it registered in the last Quebec election, when it nevertheless managed to elect Khadir in Mercier riding.
Khadir’s election brought welcome media attention to the party. His effective interventions in the National Assembly have given the party considerable media exposure, and he has been able to address many issues not previously associated with the left. Opinion polls have recently rated him the “most popular” MNA in Quebec, and no doubt this popularity is a major factor in QS’s polling results. It remains to be seen how durable it will be in a general election, however, when voters usually vote to make or unmake governments — and Québec solidaire’s support is strongest among young people, where abstention rates are highest.
‘Radical left’ marginalized?
Addressing a news conference after the convention, Québec solidaire president Françoise David expressed relief that her positions, especially on the “quadripartite economy,” had triumphed. She had feared the influence of “a more radical left,” she said, but was happy that the more left-wing members of the party still recognized that QS was the only party that could truly “go beyond capitalism” and “create other alternatives.”
No matter how many fine resolutions Québec solidaire members adopt in conventions, the reality in QS is that day-to-day policy — and the interpretation and weight given to the party’s formal program — is largely determined by its two “spokespersons,” who virtually monopolize media coverage of the party. Both Françoise David and Amir Khadir took pains during the convention to rally support for their conception of a “plural economy” with ample room for a regulated capitalism. A party news release issued at the close of the convention stressed that the delegates had voted to support “a plural economy in which the social economy — cooperative, non-profit community, public, domestic and private — have their place.”
At the convention itself, only hours after the members’ resounding rejection of tactical or strategic pacts with parties to the right of QS, David took a quite different stance in her closing speech. Centering her remarks on the just-declared federal election campaign, she issued a “solemn appeal” for a united front to defeat the Harper government: “My appeal is addressed not only to the members of Québec solidaire but to all the voters: You must not vote Conservative!” She left open the suggestion that a vote even for the federal Liberals was an acceptable option. A strange position for a party that purports to support Quebec independence! A QS news release explained that the party, while rejecting the Conservatives outright, will not advocate support for any other party, but will urge Québécois to vote for “progressives.”
This position will not satisfy many QS members, of course. We can expect a debate to arise on these issues in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Québec solidaire is launching the third phase of its program debate later this month. It will be addressed to issues of social justice, education policy, healthcare and cultural policy. The party policies will be determined at a convention now scheduled for December of this year.
 A resolution to that effect adopted by this convention defines the party program as “a proposal for democratic transformation of the whole of society over the medium and long term,” as well as “strategies...that will enable Québec solidaire, beginning now, to work toward the realization of its social agenda [projet de société] together with the social movements and the people.” The platform, on the other hand, is said to comprise immediate measures appropriate to specific situations and contexts. See “Définition du programme politique.”
 See “Quebec Left Debates Independence Strategy.” The resolutions are published (in French) on the QS website.
 Québec solidaire, “Pour une société solidaire et écologique...”, Cahier de participation au programme, Enjeu 2, June 2010, p. 5.
 “Pour Sortir de la Crise: Dépasser le Capitalisme? Manifeste de Québec solidaire,” May 1, 2009.
 Cyr is a former president of the Union des forces progressistes, a founding component of Québec solidaire. Beaudet is the former director of Alternatives, a Quebec-based international NGO.
 Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, “Québec solidaire doit rester une coalition arc-en-ciel,” June 15, 2010.
 Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, “Vers un parti anticapitaliste s’inscrivant dans un large mouvement de lutte au néolibéralisme,” August 17, 2010.
 Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, “Le défi de Québec solidaire, devenir un parti de transformation écologique et sociale…,” July 6, 2010.
 A valuable source of perceptive (and somewhat acerbic) analysis of Québec solidaire’s activities and debates is the blog of Marc Bonhomme, a QS member in Montréal.
 In the initial phase of the discussion, the policy commission received about 150 submissions. Following publication of the perspectives booklet, members submitted about 600 amendments and new proposals or comments from about 40 local associations or committees entitled to representation at the convention. (Introduction to the Cahier Synthèse – Programme) This suggests that most of the internal preconvention discussion was on the basis of the perspectives document, with its succinct specific demands.
 In a post-convention analysis, Bernard Rioux (QS – Quebec City) lauded the decision “to debate orientations on the basis of proposals for action to attain precise objectives and not general ideological definitions.” This approach, he said, “made it possible to outline the essential tasks before us without obscuring the existing diversity of objectives and strategies in this quest for social transformation that unites Québec solidaire.” But a debate confined to “essentials” meant that the convention “overlooked many issues the party will not always be able to evade. This approach to the debates will have to be modified to allow greater explanation... of the full implications of both the analyses underlying proposals and the strategies that will have to be deployed....” The party needs “more time for discussion and mastery of issues that are not always easy.” Bernard Rioux, “Québec solidaire concrétise son projet de société,” Presse-toi à gauche!, March 29, 2011.
 See note 1, above.
 For a detailed report on the proposals and debate, see Marc Bonhomme’s blog.
 To see Khadir’s interventions in the Assembly (there are hundreds of them since his election), click on http://www.assnat.qc.ca/fr/deputes/khadir-amir-25/interventions.html.
 “Québec solidaire veut marginaliser sa «gauche radicale».”