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The NDP and left-wing populism

The NDP may well pull itself out of its self-created mess on the long-gun registry but not before using up a lot of good will across the country and a lot of political energy. It was a struggle that should not have been necessary. It leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth associated with support for this critical program. Instead of leading the fight to keep the registry, the NDP will be seen as having barely come through. Hardly a glorious day in the party's parliamentary history.

What is clear to me is that this whole ugly business reflects what people have known for years: that the NDP is now just a party machine and no longer a movement. While Stephen Harper can count on populist anger and mobilizing his base of party members and supporters, the NDP cannot. It depends strictly on paid political operatives, ensconced on Parliament Hill. If they had that capacity their strategy would have been to tell Harper to shove it and do serious education work in the ridings in question and counter the lies and fear-mongering put out by the government.

This lack of grass roots capacity is ironic if you consider the NDP's historical roots which were quintessentially populist. The CCF was socialist in its vision but populist in its politics. The term populist now has negative connotations because only the right can mobilize people on this basis. The CCF's populist anger was directed right where it should have been: the banks, the grain companies, the machinery companies and the gouging of other middlemen -- and against employers who squeezed every last dime out of their workers.

The CCF/NDP lost its populist character decades ago and has been an electoral machine ever since. The party cannot call on its members to mobilize at the community level and it has virtually no relationship with civil society organizations upon which it could call upon for allies in a fight like this one. It is almost powerless against the kind of politics practiced by Harper.

That is why rural members of the NDP were terrified of losing their seats. Even though all the facts are on the side of the registry, with a hostile and lazy media and no grass roots presence in the communities affected, the NDP MPs had to run for cover falling back on that old excuse of "representing their constituents." That ends up being just another way of saying opportunism. What happened to principle?

The only way the NDP will ever get beyond its historical high point of about 20 per cent in the polls and elections (it's now closer to 15 per cent) is if it re-tools itself to become a movement-party once again. A few years ago a project called the New Politics Initiative had as its objective exactly that. It found real support amongst many rank and file NDPers as well as among those, like me, from the social movement side of the ledger. One of its aims was to bridge the gap between the two. A resolution calling for such a change in the party achieved nearly 40 per cent support at a national convention.

Maybe it needs to be reconstituted.

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