NDP convention: The groundwork to govern in 2015

The recent NDP convention in Vancouver has generated significant discussion and debate. I attended the 2009 convention in Halifax and, similar to that experience, there were the expected festivities and business of political conventions: panels, policy debates, networking, and speeches from the party pantheon and, on this unique occasion, delegates doing their part during many late night celebrations to restore Vancouver's reputation as a safe and vibrant city. However, there was something decidedly different about this convention.

Amidst the celebratory mood of a 50th Anniversary Convention, there was a very palpable message that, over the next four years, the NDP must lay the groundwork to govern in 2015. Given the historic breakthrough the party experienced in the federal election on May 2, which launched 103 MPs into the role of Canada's Official Opposition, this is not entirely surprising as a logical next step for an opposition party. What is noteworthy, however, is the vigourous discussion and debate that surrounded the shift in the party's outlook. There was no occasion where this was more evident than over a resolution that sought to change the term Socialism to Social Democracy in the preamble to the party's constitution. As expected, this resolution inspired heated debate between conflicting views of the party's past, and the course the party should chart in the future.

I see the tension between conflicting ideas and approaches in general, and the aforementioned debate that took place on the last day of the convention in particular, as indispensible to the healthy functioning of the New Democratic Party. While this debate reflects a lively democratic tradition within the party, it may not be the most critical issue New Democrats will have to grapple with in the coming months and years. Rather, the challenges that lie ahead reside not in differences between New Democrats themselves, but in how to come to terms with diverse positions so that we can constructively work towards presenting Canadians with a distinct progressive alternative to the Conservative agenda that they can trust and embrace.

Respected party elder and former leader Ed Broadbent, who launched a left wing institute at the convention to examine social justice in Canada, conveyed a similar message in his speech. Without clearly tipping his hand, Mr. Broadbent suggested that whether Social Democrat or Democratic Socialist, Canadians are looking for new ideas and solutions that are grounded in social justice and human dignity.

The first clue to how we might undertake this important challenge came to me on the Friday evening of the convention, when delegates were treated to a retrospective of the party's development from its CCF roots to official opposition. Featured prominently was Tommy Douglas, who made a cameo appearance through an actor double. A packed convention centre sat spellbound listening to excerpts from his many inspiring speeches that continue to resonate to this day. One statement was particularly poignant for me. During his times, Tommy Douglas implored New Democrats to create an epic vision and program for Canada.

Sadly, I fear that what is lost by the way this debate over Socialist/Social Democratic has been configured is how prophetic his words are for the tumultuous and troubled 21st century. Unprecedented environmental challenges; economic upheaval resulting from failed Neo-Liberal ideologies and policies; diminution of the public commons and the redistributive capacity of government; growing income disparities and continued attacks on workers rights; increased corporatization and the erosion of Democratic ideals and institutions; a grossly inflated oligarchy that has siphoned off unprecedented wealth; political and economic disenfranchisement of large sectors of the population; growing threats to Canadian sovereignty and the expansion of militarism in both domestic and foreign affairs, are some of the fault lines the NDP must navigate when presenting a progressive alternative to Canadians.

Perhaps, even more pressing then Tommy Douglas's times, ours calls for New Democrats, Socialist and Social Democrat alike, to present nothing short of an epic vision and program for Canada in the 21st century.

To begin this task, New Democrats must reclaim lost ground and shift the political discourse away from a parochial, mean spirited and fundamentally flawed Neo Conservative model towards a more just, sustainable and humane progressive alternative. Rather then fear a public backlash against the term Socialism/Socialist, New Democrats must own these aspects of its body politic. Engaging the Canadian public and demystifying these terms is a far more effective strategy for building an alternative vision and program then trying to appease the public by pulling out all the deep philosophical, intellectual and ethical roots that have contributed to defining the NDP, and much of what we value as Canadians. Lest we forget, 60 per cent of Canadians did not vote for the Neo-Conservatism of Stephen Harper.

For instance, core values and institutions such as Universal health care, public education, pensions, workers rights, and significant components of the post World War Two social contract, together have delivered an enviable quality of life for Canadians. Directly and indirectly, these elements of Canadian life have Socialist roots. Additionally, social movements for environmental sustainability, peace and disarmament, gender, race and class equality, to name just a few, are indebted to Socialist impulses for their life blood.

To accomplish the task of building an epic vision and program for Canada will be no easy feat. History is replete with examples of how threatening visionaries and their programs can be, particularly during reactionary times. Tommy Douglas understood as much when he was routinely demonized for daring to introduce universal health care. A few years earlier, Mahatma Gandhi and his supporters met continually with ferocious attacks as they pursued their epic vision and program for Indian independence.

What Mahatma Gandhi, Tommy Douglas and countless others in social and political parties and movements have realized is that to meet the call for an epic vision and program, one has to hold difficult tensions. For the NDP, it will be equally problematic to discard ideals and core values in the pursuit of political power and expediency, as it will be to resist thoughtful political compromises to realize higher aims.

In terms of the latter, outmoded Socialist principles such as a model of class struggle geared towards 19th rather then 21st century realities; nationalization of all major economic institutions, and the repudiation of all forms of profit making needs to be abandoned in favour of more nuanced Social Democratic policies and struggles that stress fairness and the public good.

Predictably, over the past two weeks, political pundits and media commentators have been quick to seize on hot button policy resolutions. Many have weighed in on the Socialism/Social Democracy resolution, one that in some quarters represents an unbridgeable divide in the party that will drag its momentum moving towards 2015. In fact, one commentator took particular glee in ringing the alarm bells of the NDP not shedding the term Socialism at its convention, thereby alienating 'mainstream' Canadians and providing a gift-wrapped opportunity for a future Conservative Party attack ad. One can see it now -- Joseph Stalin's moustache and eyebrows on Jack Layton's face. Yikes!

Following the convention, Heritage Minister James Moore, the official Conservative observer to the convention, concluded: 

"This is a party that is deeply divided and has a good healthy identity crisis on its hands as to whether or not they should continue to exist as an independent party and whether or not they should continue to call themselves socialists."

In response to Moore's statements, Jack Layton sharply retorted,

"Ridiculous. I think our position on the issues is crystal clear. It's very much opposed to the Conservative agenda. They know where we're headed and we know where we're headed. Canadians are going to have a crystal-clear choice in four years time." 

One week after the convention in a Toronto Star article entitled, Hazards Lurk within NDP's magic moment, journalist Angelo Persichilli warned, "if Layton decides to keep the word Socialism, he can forget any merger with the Liberals. On the other hand, if Socialism is not part of its ideology, the NDP is a de facto new Liberal party fighting for the same electorate."

Ultimately, this issue was not resolved during the convention, and has been sent back tom committee for further review. Over time, it may be better to get out ahead of the issue, thereby preventing right wing opponents that seek to delegitimize the party through fear mongering from controlling the discourse. While the resolution under consideration originated as a policy debate within the party, it has already been placed into rigid silos by a covetous media whose constant infantilizing of the NDP since its electoral success has become downright repugnant. Consequently, New Democrats must resist attempts to reconcile this issue from within a context created by others that seeks to polarize, and cast this debate in a more expansive and generative framework.

Words and language themselves reflect, among other things, our capacity to understand and speak the times in which we live. The debate over Socialism vs. Social Democracy should not be dismissed as unproductive bickering that threatens the NDP's future. On the contrary, Socialism removed from its rigid ideological casing can inspire great vision, while thoughtful Social Democratic policies are essential for redefining the core values the NDP, ones that can deliver a progressive program of hope and change Canadians deserve in the 21st century.

If we build the epic vision and program, Canadians shall come.

Atul Bahl is the NDP riding president for the constituency of Trinity-Spadina in Toronto.

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