Nathan Cullen and Peggy Nash in NDP family drama

There's a great family drama going on just beneath the surface of those nearly unwatchable NDP leadership debates. Watchable TV isn't everything.

We owe it to Nathan Cullen. He's the brat who insists on bringing up what everyone else at the table is determined, with gritted teeth, not to mention. It involves the fate of the nation. Good for naughty Nathan.

For three elections now, the split between Liberal and NDP voters has let Stephen Harper govern, turning Canada slowly in his direction. The two parties aren't the same but they take about 60 per cent of the vote and reflect a broad if mild social-democratic consensus among citizens. If we had proportional representation the two would easily have more seats than the Harper Conservatives and would likely form coalitions that agree on matters like the national child-care program that died with the Harper win of 2004 or the defunct Kelowna accord that made a serious response on aboriginal issues. But with our stupid first-past-the-post form of voting, Harper looks assured of future victories, too.

This week we learned his government supports torture as a way to gather intelligence. It's contrary to all evidence but so's their prison agenda. They're floating changes on abortion and capital punishment. This is less about specific policies than democratic process. Here's where Cullen comes in: since the voting system won't change short-term, he proposes Liberal-NDP co-ordination, like choosing a single candidate between them in ridings held by Conservatives.

It sounds highly discussion-worthy but nobody at the table wants to hear it. Look -- they shout -- we spent 70 years getting here. Finally we're the official opposition. At least let us enjoy it a while, Nathan. You can't be serious! Nathan could ask them to think about the country instead of their thwarted (till now) political dreams. Or he could say this is an ideal time to negotiate with Liberals -- because we're in the stronger position for once.

Among the candidates, Peggy Nash has responded most movingly. At last Sunday's debate, if you hung in that long, she seemed to drop the script and talk from the heart. She said Cullen's plan would betray the democratic impulses of party members who could never truly feel at home elsewhere.

That rings true. It doesn't apply to the NDP leadership caste. Most of them have middle-class backgrounds and could easily become Liberals -- as Bob Rae did. Jack Layton's dad was a Tory cabinet minister. But at NDP riding meetings, you see people who participate as if they have an inherent right to: a demographic who find a real place in the process only through the NDP. They could join other parties but they wouldn't feel they belonged in the same visceral way.

Nash feels this in her bones. She's the first in her family to attend university. After French classes at the U of T, she'd board the bus for her job as a clerk at the airport, wearing her Air Canada uniform with the pillbox hat, like the stews in Pan Am. She got involved in the union, which joined the autoworkers, which wasn't easy for a young woman in such a male environment. She's an instinctually proud member of the working class even if that sounds rhetorical -- they're my terms, not hers -- and the NDP is her party, though with her skills and personality she'd thrive in any party.

An NDPer in a rural riding told me last week how she'd just spent unpaid hours making the damn labels line up with the addresses for a mailing about a candidates' meeting. You'd only put up with it if it felt like family.

I'm sympathetic to this basis for rejecting Cullen's gambit, precisely because it's irrational, based on feelings of who you are and where you belong. There's also a rational rebuttal to him that says the hour of social democracy may finally have struck. The public support for the Occupy movements and their rejection of the neo-liberal economic agenda proves it's time for deep change. The trouble is, most so-called left-wing parties have been as or more neo-liberal than right-wing parties. Jack Layton was taking the NDP in that direction.

It may all sound chaotic and inconclusive. But not boring.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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