The NDP--2: Choosing the Leader of a Very Tribal Party

Article excerpt

May 2, 2011. Jack Layton led the federal New Democrats beyond the limitations of their history, and within sight of the promised land of government. Just over one hundred days later, his death opened the New Democrats to a leadership contest at a point when the party is stronger and more vulnerable than at any time in history. The choice it makes in March 2012, at its leadership convention in Toronto, will be a good sign of whether the party is ready to challenge the Conservatives for government or will sink back into obscurity.

Only one candidate is positioned to complete Layton's transformation of the NDP into a party that can take on Stephen Harper. To become leader Thomas Mulcair will have to overcome the suspicions of a very tribal party and develop a new base for a party uncomfortable with change. But change used to be, and could be again, the driving force for Canada's progressive party. Change is needed. Canada needs a party able to speak for the 99 per cent, not with slogans but with real reforms. A party that translates the values of a caring and cooperative Canada, where social justice is another way of describing the way people want their country to be: their communities, their relationships, their lives. Canada became a rich country despite the problems of exploitation and exclusion because we have been a progressive country, overcoming our problems together, becoming better.

New Democrats who see balanced books and strong social programs as complementary, not contradictory, are scattered across Canada. While the Saskatchewan and Manitoba branches of the NDP have long inspired social democrats with their combination of solid financial management and efficient, activist government, the NDP elsewhere has tended toward woolly thinking. Sensible socialists have had recent successes. In 2009 Nova Scotia became the first new province to elect a NDP government since Ontario in 1990. Unlike now-Liberal Bob Rae, who alternately appeased and enraged the union movement, business and just about every other group, Darrell Dexter has managed a careful government, even paying down provincial debt after an unexpected budget surplus in 2011.

For most of its history the federal NDP was the less serious option for ambitious prairie New Democrats. It became a playground for the more extreme activists, held at bay by an often rigid party establishment experienced in deflecting new energy and ideas. In Regina and Winnipeg, and sometimes in other provinces, the NDP offered a path to power. Ottawa offered the sterility of a party comfortable with its also-ran status.

A decade ago British sociologist Anthony Giddens described Canada's federal New Democrats as "the last unreconstructed social democratic party in the Western world." By that he meant the party had not confronted the failures of centralized economic planning, or absorbed the energy of the New Left movements of the 1960s. Before returning to New Brunswick and politics in my home province, I worked for ten years with a major international NGO (the National Democratic Institute) offering advice on political party development in many developing countries. My experience is that most parties have a lot in common. But the NDP stands out as the only party I have worked with where winning elections is not a key goal for members. Many are honestly comfortable with the New Democrats serving as the self-appointed "conscience" of Parliament. The NDP may revere Tommy Douglas, but except in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Yukon and, decades later, Nova Scotia, his ambition had minimal impact on NDP leaders.

This reflects the federal NDP's complicated past. Its precursor, the federal Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was the underachieving brother to a Saskatchewan party used to winning consecutive majorities. Decimated by the Diefenbaker landslide in 1958, the federal CCF, in partnership with the Canadian Labour Congress, created the New Democratic Party. …