January 25, 2003
NDP Leadership

I spent the morning listening to the speeches of the candidates for party leader at the New Democratic Party (NDP) conference. For those joining us from away, that's Canada's left wing party. It's nice that I could hear them at all; try as I might to imagine NPR doing nationwide full coverage of a Green party convention on a weekend, I fail.

What folks have been saying for a while is that it's a horserace between long-time Winnipeg parliamentarian Bill Blaikie and Toronto city councillor Jack Layton. So it's basically experience in parliament, relatively moderate, less slick (Blaikie) vs. connections with activism, media-friendly (Layton). Layton has the most money, and is heavily favoured. What a coincidence. But through some deal with labour, one labour vote counts for roughly 12 "normal" votes, so despite the one-member-one-vote campaign, some members are still more equal than others.

By far the most compelling speech, though, came from Pierre Ducasse a 29 year old Quebecker with less experience than the others and little funding. In what I venture to call the most compelling delivery of a political speech of recent memory, Ducasse layed down a compelling case for lefties to go mainstream, with "democratization of the economy and society" as a first priority. He's not going to win, but a lot of people are kicking themselves for voting early for Layton in the first round.

Here's what Ducasse reckons:

As democrats and socialists, our goal cannot simply be to accommodate or humanize the capitalist system, or to try and overturn it immediately. What we must do - using innovative, progressive and well thought-out policies - is bring deep changes to the existing economic structure so that, in the long term, we establish a social and economic system founded on social democratic principles. We are opposed to savage capitalism. But the party must promote gradual and structural measures that will bring about a real political, social and economic democracy.

Vague though it may be, it's a good foot to stand on, and I don't hear many other pols talking with anything like that kind of clarity. I think it's inspiring to a lot more people than just (soon to be post-) academic lefties like myself.

Me, I'm kicking myself for not remembering to register to vote in the leadership election until five days after the deadline for registration. Of course, it didn't help that the NDP did practically nothing to inform me, Joe Voter who talks to NDP members all the time, of when the deadline was or even that there was one-member-one-vote this time around (I heard from a friend, third-hand).

With apparent dependence on word of mouth, the NDP was still able to grow its membership by a full 50%. With a $1000 per city budget for flyers, pamphlets and posters, they could have easily pulled in twice that amount. Heck, a poster that said, in bold print "last chance to participate in a democratic political party" a week before the deadline would have got a lot of attention, at the very least. The campaigns that get run in New Brunswick consist almost entirely of spending a lot of money on signs; a few pamphlets highlighting key issues that the media ignores could change things dramatically. Instead: nothing.

The media, of course, (and as Lawrence Martin pointed out on Thursday in the Globe) is way more right wing than most Canadians, so the NDP gets nothing but grief. Some of this is deserved, but it's completely out of proportion with the willingness to criticize other parties. Indeed, the liberals may be criticized, but the NDP gets condemned, with little or no dissent in the mainstream media.

Equally damaging has been the NDP's unwillingness to play to their own strengths, though. Ignoring their advantages and playing to their weaknesses seems to be what they're best at, whether it's squandering the democratization of the party, ignoring free trade in the 80's when the majority of Canadians were against it (at least according to Rick Salutin, in the last paragraph of this column), or talking idly about health care when all the other parties were putting the same amount of emphasis on it.

All this is an outsider's rant, though, so maybe the reality is so complex that the most utterly obvious things can't be done. It's possible.

posted by dru in canada