Next NDP leader to define party

Campaign brings questions about what the NDP will stand for going forward

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      When New Democrats choose their new leader on Saturday (March 24), it will be about more than just anointing a successor to Jack Layton. They’ll also be choosing the kind of NDP they want.

      But defining the NDP may be as complicated as defining Layton’s legacy itself. It’s also the same legacy for which each of the seven aspirants professes to be the rightful heir.

      These are questions that matter to the party’s grassroots thinkers, like Stephen Elliott-Buckley of Vancouver.

      “It’s hard to really get a sense of what was Jack and what was the party,” Elliott-Buckley told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They’re very much intertwined, but it’s hard to know how much of it was him and how much of it was the whole movement.”

      According to Elliott-Buckley, the NDP didn’t have enough time before Layton died to figure out how and why the party was catapulted for the first time in its history to the status of Official Opposition in last year’s federal election.

      “With Jack Layton dying, there’s a necessity to define where we want to go,” Elliott-Buckley said. “And I think there’s lots of different visions from the different leaders. And how we define ourselves as a party has to link in to how we define ourselves as a movement across Canada, not just how many MPs we have in the House.”

      According to James Lawson, a political-science professor at the University of Victoria, there are many facets to Layton’s legacy. There’s his genuine connection to various social movements. There’s that set of personal deal-making skills that he took to a high level. There’s the breakthrough in Quebec last year, with 59 NDP MPs from that province making up more than half of the party’s 103-seat haul.

      “It would be wrong, for instance, to see the part of him that is pragmatic in how you present social democracy or whatever it is the NDP wants to see itself as,” Lawson told the Straight in a phone interview. “It would be wrong to see that pragmatic side of him as the whole story, because he’s not just about pulling the party to the centre. The social-movement side to his experience, the grassroots-movement side would belie that. Those ties continued throughout his time.”

      So where is the NDP now? “That is a question that can’t be solved by observers,” Lawson said. “It’s actually something that’s being resolved in the course of this leadership campaign.”

      However, Lawson noted that there are leadership candidates like Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar who “want to pull it further towards egalitarianism, an active state, pro-labour union, pro-worker, all those sorts of classical things that you’d associate with the NDP. And that includes environmentalism.”

      And then there are those who want to “finesse things and really finish off the Liberals”, according to the UVic professor. Holding on to Quebec is key to this, and leadership aspirants Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair are deeply connected to this project.

      Leadership hopeful Nathan Cullen—who is Elliott-Buckley’s choice for leader—wants the NDP to establish some form of electoral cooperation with other federalist parties to defeat the Conservatives. Lawson doesn’t regard this position as a move to
      the centre

      A group within the party, which calls itself the NDP Socialist Caucus, has endorsed Niki Ashton for leader. Another candidate, Martin Singh, describes himself as a “pro-business member of the NDP”.

      Mulcair likes to tell a story about being told by a party activist that if New Democrats form government the next time around, it will mean that the NDP has completely sold out.

      For now or at least until a new leader steers the party in another direction, the faithful should be reassured by what UBC political-science professor Richard Johnston thinks of the NDP.

      “The NDP is pretty squarely on the left, and there are parts of each appeal that we tend to forget about,” Johnston told the Straight by phone. “It is a labour party for one thing…like parties called Labour or Social Democrats in other countries. It never has been a party that in the past at least has felt the need to cover the middle.”



      Arthur Vandelay

      Mar 22, 2012 at 7:33am

      "And then there are those who want to “finesse things and really finish off the Liberals”"

      Oh brother. Someone's certainly gotten full of themselves. Have fun while it lasts my utopian friends. Water always finds its own level in the long run.

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      Mar 22, 2012 at 11:26am

      i'm with Nathan Cullen. this country is populated by a progressive majority, but run by a conservative minority.

      Mulcair wants to change the NDP to become more centrist, in order to sway other progressive votes. but Cullen wants NDP, Liberal and Green voters to keep their faith, and cooperate to strategically topple the Cons. his way will strengthen all progressive parties.

      THAT'S doing politics differently.

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      Mar 22, 2012 at 11:43am

      "Have fun while it lasts my utopian friends. Water always finds its own level in the long run."

      The Liberal Party has been in decline since 1980, the last election in which it won a majority of seats in Quebec. Chretien's majorities in the 1990s were made possible by the fragmentation of the right and a temporary slump in support for the NDP. As 2/3 of the party's seats were won in Ontario during this period, the Liberals ceased to be a national party and instead became what they remain to this day: a regional party.

      AV's comments remind me of the Black Knight in Monty Python's "The Holy Grail." After losing all his limbs, he insists "it's only a flesh wound."

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      Arthur Vandelay

      Mar 22, 2012 at 12:56pm

      @Stephen - So then by your definition, the only truly historic non-regional party is the NDP (i.e. LPC in Ontario/Maritimes, Bloc in Que and CPC in west) and they are the true representation of all of Canada? And by their "temporary slump in support", I assume you meant some period of time shorter than the 76 years up to 2011? Optimism is a truly wonderful commodity. Good luck with the bar matrons and high school kids and coming up with policy that means something to more than 20% of the population.

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      Mar 22, 2012 at 5:08pm

      Canada's party system has evolved through several distinctive phases. Prof. Ken Carty identifies four of them to date--the fourth dating from 1993--with a fifth party system possibly in the making since the 2011 election (although it's too early to tell on the basis of a single election).

      The Liberals were at their zenith during the era of the second party system (1921 to 1957), when they had substantial support in every region of the country and, not coincidentally, were almost continuously in office--hence Reg Whitaker's moniker, "the government party." During the third party system, the Liberals, which had been the preferred party of western Canada, lost ground to the Progressive Conservatives, and went into a long-term decline in that region. Still, with solid support in other regions of the country--especially Quebec--they dominated the first stage of the third party system (1958-1984). In 1984, Quebec ceased to be a Liberal redoubt. Since the West remained barren ground for the Liberals, their subsequent election victories (1993-2004) were founded on an increasingly narrow regional base: Ontario and parts of the Atlantic. Thanks to the PC-Reform/Alliance schism during the Chretien era, the Liberals were able to form consecutive majority governments by winning nearly 100% of the seats in Ontario. The slump in NDP support from 1993 to 2003 also helped--although the party's breakthrough in Nova Scotia in 1997 was a sign of things to come.

      Now that the Conservatives have regained most of the ground formerly occupied by the old PC party and the NDP has regained and, more recently, far outstripped its traditional levels of support, the Liberals certainly have their work cut out for them. My point is that their current malaise was a long time in the making.

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      James G

      Mar 22, 2012 at 7:21pm

      The NDP leadership is on the verge of becoming a poisoned chalice. The attack sites on Thomas Mulcair are out of proportion to his actual positions and real value to the party. The Topp campaign looks more and more like it was a stop-Mulcair effort from the outset.

      Presuming there could be a replica of the 2011 campaign, merely replacing Jack Layton in the drivers seat with Brian Topp is unlikely to work. It is as if the party was replacing Jacques Villeneuve with one of his pit crew and hoping the fans won't notice. It doesn't matter if you put the best pit crew boss that ever lived behind that wheel, the voters will see that he is not Jack, just as race car fans would see he is not Jacques. In Mr. Topp's case, he has declined to even once sit behind the wheel even when an easy lap was available in Toronto Danforth.

      It isn't only the candidate I support who has been under attack. I myself have expressed no love for the ideas of Nathan Cullen but not because I dismissed him as not a contender. I believe he is unknowingly being used as a Trojan horse for undermining the party. It has happened elsewhere as observers of Vancouver municipal politics will recall. Even is his "CeNDPede" project could be put together, I am certain Bob Rae would weasel his way into the front position and although no fan of Mr. Cullen, I would not want that fate for him. It is more likely though, that the party would be torn asunder with infighting over any such proposal, rendering them impotent, broke and without too many volunteers going into the next election. That would be such a gift to Liberals and Greens but not in the way it is being advertised.

      I understand the reluctance to let go since I feel it myself but I think Mr. Broadbent has again tried to overstep his own imprint on the N.D.P. It is thought although not proven that he could not accept Dave Barrett, as astounding as that seems in retrospect. Other party stalwarts were quite indiscreet and net result was a leader who lost even official party status. A rigid road, however high often can't accommodate heavier traffic headed in new directions -- and that direction now is into government.

      My vote is already cast and unwavering for Mr. Mulcair. Second and third votes went to Ms. Ashton and Ms. Nash who are closer to my point of view and for that matter substantially to my right.

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      I have your left nut right here

      Mar 22, 2012 at 9:26pm

      Jack was certainly charming and handsome but I think many older folks are missing the point. Jack didn't get the vote for his moustache, Jack got the vote because there is an entire generation that understands that they have few prospects. They understand it. It is not spin or charm or politic - it is a deep understanding that their nation is becoming a banana republic right before their eyes.

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