Lewis attacks Waffle, begins to purge faction from NDP

Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis delivered a major attack against the party’s left-wing Waffle group on Saturday [March 18, 1972] that is widely interpreted as the beginning of a move to force the Waffle either to disband or leave the NDP.

In an unprecedented action, Lewis devoted his entire keynote address to the party’s Oshawa Provincial Council meeting to a scathing attack on the Waffle. Party members were stunned by the bitterness and uncompromising nature of Lewis’ speech.

It was apparent, however, that it was not merely an emotional outburst but part of a carefully planned move against the Waffle wing. One indication of this was the fact that the council, which meets every three months to set NDP policy, was attended by some 100 trade union delegates, considerably more than the 10 to 20 who usually attend meetings.

The union delegates are for the most part supporters of Lewis and the party right wing. Their appearance in large numbers was taken as clear proof that the right wing had been preparing for the event behind the scenes. The unionists voted almost unanimously for proposals concerning the Waffle moved by Gordon Brigden, Provincial secretary of the party and Lewis’ chief hatchet man.

Brigden’s proposals are less direct than the widely publicized Hamilton Mountain Resolution which was shelved by the council on Saturday and which would have had the effect of immediately purging the Waffle.

Brigden’s motion merely instructs the party’s executive to prepare a statement on the Waffle which will be proposed for adoption at the next council meeting, in June. Both Lewis and Brigden, however, made it clear in the substitution of their motion for the Hamilton Mountain one that they were merely pursuing a different route to achieve the same end. Only seven members of the 28-person executive are Wafflers; most of the rest are from the right wing of the party, and can be counted on to prepare a strong anti-Waffle statement.

It is believed that the party leadership chose the tactic it did in order to put pressure on the Waffle in hopes of splitting the group. The Waffle is a heterogeneous organization, its membership ranging from NDPers who want the party’s election program to be more left-wing, to Marxist revolutionaries who believe the group must leave the NDP when it is strong enough to do so.

The NDP leadership hopes that many Wafflers will be persuaded to disband the group, allowing themselves to be submerged back into the party rather than run the risk of letting themselves be expelled. At the same time, they hope that left-wing Wafflers can be thrown out of the party or that they will leave on their own after the group is disbanded. This approach, they believe, is more likely to succeed, without gravely weakening the party for the coming election, than an immediate move to purge the Waffle.

The fact that Lewis and the right-wing leadership are willing to move so strongly against the Waffle so shortly before a federal election, and at a time when the Waffle has considerable support among the rank and file of the party, is taken as a clear sign that they view the group as a distinct threat to their position.

Union leaders especially are worried at the inroads that the Waffle has made into the labour movement. And the party establishment is frightened by the strength of the group’s challenge to middle class-oriented, reformist politics of the NDP.

Both the tone and the content of Lewis’ speech, and of the debate which followed, made it clear that the issue of the Waffle is the major concern of most party members. Waffle support among the rank and file of the party is estimated to run between 30 and 40 per cent, although the group was able to muster only 25 per cent of the votes at the weekend council meeting.

Lewis’ attack centered mainly on the fact that the Waffle maintains a separate organizational structure from the party, rather than on its politics. In this way, he tried to appeal to the fears of party members who find the Waffle’s politics attractive, but who fear the creation of schisms in the party.

The NDP could not accommodate “a highly structured competitive group within it which is often opposed to its goals,” Lewis said. To call the Waffle anything but "a party within a party", he said, was merely to play at semantics.

“A strong polarization is under way. Groups within the party are meeting separately and secretly. Nominations are being fought on whether you are a member of the Waffle wing or not.”

As a result, he said, “The energies of a powerful political movement are being drained in internal struggles.” ”This cannot work. We are in conflict in almost everything we do. We hold separate press conferences and we have separate membership lists and make separate membership contributions.”

“I did not become leader of this party,” he said, “in order to preside over its dismemberment.”

He attacked Waffle for pouring its energies into “internecine warfare” and into organizing for itself rather than for the party. The time has come, he said, to meet the issue head on. “The party can no longer continue like this.”

He also blasted the Waffle for its attacks on established union leadership. The group had nothing to offer labour, he said, except “insulting adolescent abuse”.

The Waffle’s politics, he said, were “markedly at variance with party policy”. Much of it, he claimed, consisted of “self-righteous dogma” and “manipulative jargon.”

During the course of his speech he also attacked many members of the Waffle individually by name, including Jim Laxer, Mel Watkins, and Steve Penner, the three men generally considered to be the group’s leading public spokesmen.

In the debate that followed, other speakers reiterated his charges. Wafflers replied by proclaiming their loyalty to the party and by defending their right to organize in order to change the policy and politics of the NDP.

Lewis and the leadership, they charged, had put them on trial, and now were giving them almost no opportunity to reply. (Speakers in the debate following Lewis’ hour-long prepared speech were given a maximum of three minutes to speak.) They also charged that the meeting had been packed with right-wing unionists.

Wafflers at the council meeting met twice during the weekend to consider their reaction, but decided only to call a meeting in the near future to consider the crisis facing them. Most of them expressed both surprise and worry over the developments. They decided to issue no public statement until local groups and the Waffle’s communications (executive) committee had met to consider a response.

The only public response to Lewis’ remarks came on Sunday from the New Democratic Youth, the party’s radical youth wing. The NDY scrapped its scheduled report to the council and used the time slot allotted to it to respond to Lewis.

Those who support Lewis, said Ulli Diemer, speaking for the NDY, are “making a mockery both of the democracy and the socialism which the party is supposed to represent.” He called the suppression of the left “a pattern as old as social democracy itself.”

He paralleled the attack on the Waffle with the attempt by the party establishment to destroy the NDY by cutting off its funds. The left was being attacked, he said, “because it threatens the position of those holding entrenched power in this party, because it has been able to win large numbers of grassroots riding members and trade unionists to its point of view.”

Published in The Varsity, March 1972

Related Topics: New Democratic Party (NDP)Waffle MovementNew Democratic Youth (NDY)