The life of the party

Post-recession, post- Obama win, the NDP reimagines its future

The life of the partyThe penultimate day of business for the House of Commons this spring would have passed without incident were it not for 10 words from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “the government will comply with the court order.”

With that sentence, the government signalled its intent to relent and allow Abousfian Abdelrazik to return home from exile in Sudan. It was the NDP’s Paul Dewar who had first raised Abdelrazik’s plight in the House, more than a year earlier. But it was Liberal Irwin Cotler, asking that the government accede to a federal court ruling that the Canadian be granted safe passage, who was honoured with an answer. When Dewar attempted to follow up, he was unceremoniously rebuffed. “The one place we will not get advice from on this,” Nicholson huffed, “is the NDP.”

Dewar was similarly stymied in the foyer afterwards, left to compete for attention between Cotler, the celebrated human rights lawyer, to his left and Bob Rae, the lionized political performer, to his right. Dewar, the youthful, tousle-haired MP for Ottawa Centre, beamed all the same. “It’s a great day for a Canadian citizen,” he said. “I’m just—hallelujah, finally he’s coming home.” So began another summer of hope and doubt for the NDP—of belief in the righteous path, even if others see it leading nowhere.

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Even by the normally quixotic standards of the NDP, it has been a strange year. For a fleeting moment in December, it appeared Jack Layton was going to be a cabinet minister in a coalition government. By the end of June, Michael Ignatieff had a deal instead with Stephen Harper, and the Prime Minister was addressing the party in Parliament’s far corner as the “Bloc Anglais.”

The leader of the NDP, now six years into his tenure, remains relentlessly enthusiastic. “It was a fascinating eight months,” Layton says, explaining himself next with duelling metaphors. “I always say to folks: get ready, I’m a long-time sailor; I don’t go tacking back and forth to try to catch the lightest little gust of wind. When I ran for leader, I laid out a plan and I said it’s like a construction project. You’ve got to start with the foundation and you build, brick-by-brick, block-by-block.”

No matter the impatience of Ottawa, this remains the mantra. Layton talks about the “process.” Brad Lavigne, the party’s national director, talks about the “project.” Either way, by Layton’s estimate the foundation is nearly finished. From 13 seats in 2000, the NDP grew to 37 (now 36). And though opinion polls continue to give the party its traditional share between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the electorate, victories in St. John’s, Montreal and Edmonton will allow the NDP to expand its base, Lavigne says. For everything that would seem to once again doom the NDP—a resurgent Liberal party, a resilient Conservative government—there are counterpoints and pleas for patience. Newly elected NDP Premier Darrell Dexter, Lavigne notes, needed seven years to form a government in Nova Scotia. Manitoba Premier Gary Doer waited more than a decade. “For the New Democrats,” Lavigne explains, “success is dependent upon systematic, methodical, prudent achievements, seizing opportunities as they come along.”

Later this week the party will gather in Halifax for a national convention, the underlying theme of which, Lavigne says, will be “winning”—the still-theoretical house for which the foundation is being built. The keynote speech, on that note, will be delivered by Betsy Myers, formerly chief operating officer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, while Doer and Dexter will speak to their respective breakthroughs. At the same time, delegates will consider the proposal that the NDP change its name, potentially dropping the “new” in deference to the party’s half-century of existence—a flirtation with rebranding that has dominated most of the pre-convention discussion.

Whatever the party is to be called, it may need to be newly defined. Nearly tripling the party’s parliamentary caucus is impressive, but only in relative terms—Stéphane Dion’s besieged Liberals still managed to win twice as many seats in last fall’s federal election. The causes that once carried the NDP, notes political consultant Bruce Anderson, issues like women’s rights and the role of government in the economy, have been widely embraced, while the recession has not yet stoked the sort of class frustration that might be harnessed. And prolonged civic strikes in Toronto and Windsor, along with the near-collapse of the union-dominated North American automotive industry, have hardly enhanced the image of the labour movement with which the NDP is still associated.

And if the NDP cannot be the party it was, it is not yet clear what it should be. This spring, the press gallery was keen to focus on the duel of Ignatieff and Harper, while the NDP continued to insist on the business of parliament, pushing a series of largely symbolic private members’ bills that called for employment insurance and pension reform, an air travellers’ bill of rights, a ban on flavoured tobacco and new protections for credit card holders. But when the House broke, Gerald Caplan, a former party executive, publicly lamented that “the party of Tommy Douglas and David Lewis” was “increasingly marginal.”

Though perhaps not quite to the revolutionary standards of Douglas, there might still be something for a party that still celebrates forcing change on Paul Martin’s budget in 2005 and embraced a coalition last winter. “I do think that we’re into a period where people are saying competition in politics has turned into a bad thing that doesn’t produce better results,” Anderson says. “So when they look at politicians now, they really do like those who appear to be tackling problems from an angle of: ‘how can we develop good ideas that can help lots of people?’ ”

Such talk speaks to Paul Dewar’s stated motivations. Dewar, son of Marion Dewar, the late mayor of Ottawa and a former NDP MP herself, is a notable example in a party of insistent, eager parliamentarians. Though not without the traditional indignation of his party, he is talkative, hopeful, and apparently quite taken with the post-Obama belief in openness and participation. His, he says, is the party of ideas. His, he believes, could be the party of something new, especially now, less than a year removed from an election that saw less than 60 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. “I think the breakthrough will come when we’ve figured out how to engage with the 40 or more per cent of Canadians who don’t engage in politics,” he says, “and when Canadians look to us as not only the party of opposition and proposition but also a party that is going to really change how their voice is reflected in Ottawa.”

Such is the belief for which all the preparation continues.