The crisis in the NDP

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As delegates prepare for its April 8-10 Edmonton convention, the federal NDP membership is in turmoil. As a group of Quebec members wrote, the party has lost its way.

The New Democratic Party needs to redefine itself in a new political environment.

Many NDP voters are happy with the Trudeau government; for example, 70 per cent liked its March budget.

Overall, support for the NDP has dropped to just-above single digits. At one point during the election, it was at 37 per cent.

The Liberals have announced their intention to transform their party from a membership-based organization to a party open to all.

Instead of only dues-paying Liberals nominating candidates, attending policy conventions, choosing a leader, or attending a party convention, anyone will be able to participate in all these activities by registering with the party.

The welcome mat is out for progressives. A not-too-subtle appeal is being made to those who lean NDP or normally vote for it.

As the Liberals see it, in the digital age, many, many computerized contacts is better than a much smaller number of dues-paying members.

Building on their success enlisting 300,000 people as party supporters able to vote in the last leadership race -- many of whom volunteered in the election -- the Liberals have decided to open up the party.

A new Liberal constitution will be approved at its May convention.

The NDP leadership needs to respond to the same new political age challenges as the Liberal party. 

The party leadership also has to face a dramatic reversal in NDP fortunes.

Finding an answer as to why so many fine NDP MPs were defeated and why the party lost so badly in places such as downtown Toronto -- where the NDP vote fell to 13 per cent -- is the first step in preparing the future.

The NDP Election Review points to major failures in internal communication.

In 2016, campaign headquarters was unable or unwilling to adjust its campaign messages to insights gathered at the door in local ridings.

The party misread the economic situation. The oil price collapse was a major external shock to jobs, incomes and government finances.

Canada went into recession in the first half of 2015; revenues had to fall and expenditures grow. Instead of responding, the NDP platform remained tailored to meet National Post, Globe and Mail and CBC ideas that balanced budgets were the measure of fiscal policy.

An excellent idea -- universal child care -- was promoted at $15 a day when it was already available in Quebec at $7 a day. Quebec was the electoral base the party had to hold. What were Quebec voters supposed to think when the main NDP platform plank asked them to pay more for something that was already available?

The overall tone and appearance of the campaign was dull and uninspiring. The air game of TV and radio spots was undistinguished. The Election Review makes these points and others about the ineptitude of the campaign effort.

Unusually, the NDP did not have a working Election Planning Committee overseeing the campaign. After months of Tom Mulcair speaking about introducing good public administration into government, his campaign was poorly run.

The party was right to focus on the damage to Canada wrought by Stephen Harper. But calling on voters to elect Tom Mulcair as prime minister failed to attract support.

Harper was his own worst enemy. His decision to double the length of the electoral campaign, stretching it to nearly three months, gave Justin Trudeau a gift of badly needed time for him to build momentum and demonstrate his superior campaign skills.

The practice of prime ministerial government, which has overwhelmed traditional parliamentary democracy, has its counterpart in a leader-directed NDP.

In 2016, as in 1988, the free trade election, the party was way out of step with its supporters.

The need for change is evident to the party membership, which tires of being considered primarily as donors.

Leaving party business to Federal Council and the party director is not going to mobilize people.

The NDP structure based on provincial party memberships is antiquated. Party practices have to be updated, riding associations rejuvenated.

The NDP needs to reconnect to activism.

As the CCF, the party was born out of farm, labour and social justice movements.

The history of struggles such as that by women for the vote shows that democracy needs to create space for citizen action in order to flourish.

A stage-managed convention will lead to anger and growing discontent, or worse, apathy and indifference.

In Edmonton, the NDP leadership has to make democratic space for the 1,500 expected delegates.

Duncan Cameron is the former president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Devyn Caldwell/flickr

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