What's next for the NDP?

| September 7, 2011
Detail from Nathan Phillips Square, August 27, 2011 Photo: K. Elliott

Pour la version française cliquez ici.

Jack Layton has had a profound impact on us all and on politics in Canada -- across the political spectrum. Anyone unwilling to acknowledge that could not have been paying attention to the response of Canadians across the country, from every walk of life.

Like many people, I've been thinking about what has taken place these past few weeks, and its significance, even in the midst of news cycles that march on, caught up in leadership issues, talk of mergers, and the like.

I don't want to march on so fast that we lose sight of what has happened and how it has changed us. A letter in The Globe and Mail recently asked the question: how come we love Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton, but we elect Stephen Harper? A good question that pokes at our view of politics, as Canadians, and the contradictions we live by.

Some will argue that while Jack Layton's life and death and his personal courage had an emotional impact, and touched many people in a real way, in the end (political) life will continue as usual. I don't subscribe to that view. But I do think that unless we are pro-active in taking up Jack's challenge, we will slip into our usual grooves.

This is especially true for those of us involved in or connected to the NDP, as we get caught up in a necessary and important leadership race. Like it or not it is competitive, and that can bring out our best and worst elements.

I was part of the 2002-2003 leadership process that resulted in Jack's decisive election as leader. He was portrayed as an outsider with only two caucus members supporting him. But he demonstrated his ability to build a team, draw people in, and go beyond the usual parameters of membership. Even then he contributed bold ideas and fresh thinking.

Jack also successfully embodied the vision of the New Politics Initiative (NPI), a grassroots approach developed by key activists both within and outside the party, who wanted to see a new way of doing progressive politics within the party and broader social movements. His great strength and agility in building a strong caucus, and opening up progressive dialogue within Quebec are key elements of his political legacy.

The question now is, will that legacy live on? Will the big ideas he had, the vision for a better Canada, so beautifully expressed in his letter to us all, manage to survive in our cutthroat political system and even within the NDP? I believe that many Canadians genuinely want his vision to live on, and want it to become as real as possible. Real in the everyday sense of how we treat each other. Real in a global sense of how we can work for a better world.

The enigma of his vision is that as the person who made it seem possible, he's not here to make it go further. He had to leave that to us.

So we are faced with a choice: begin to put into practice what has made us respond so deeply these past few weeks, or rest on his laurels and slowly see it dissipate as old arguments and practices take hold again.

If we choose to take up Jack's challenge and hope, I believe there are three immediate elements we need to pay attention to:

1. For those of us in the NDP, we have a leadership race underway. How we conduct it and ourselves is critical to the future of the NDP. I don't mean so much who wins and who loses, although of course that is important. What is critical now is how we engage the leadership question. We need to put aside false narratives (for example that it will be about a battle for Quebec or against Quebec), and speak to a broader body politic that seeks to build unity and common progressive values. Too often on the left, we have had "moments" or opportunities for change or growth that presented themselves, that we blew or let go.

The first such "moment" for us now is the leadership race. We all have a responsibility to not blow it or squander it. Let's aim for a leadership race that is open, respectful, and invigorating. Let it be about ideas, about our future, and about new thinking as Canadians, what we stand for and our place in the world. Let it be about the way we do our politics and the relationships we build. Let it be about diverse opinions, diverse experiences, and about listening to people, especially those who are too often not heard.

2. While the leadership race will garner a lot of attention and space, let's not forget that we are the Official Opposition. I'm as aware as anyone that the stakes are high here. We have a national media scrutinizing us as never before (I learned this lesson well with motion 141 just recently). We have a majority Conservative government who see three opposition parties without permanent leaders, and easy pickings ahead. For those of us in the NDP caucus, we will need to be fully engaged and active in Parliament as never before.

I think back to Jack's plea, at the beginning of this 41st Parliament, to restore decorum and respect to the House. I remember Bob Rae as he ridiculed us, and Jack, on this principled stand. What happened, however, was that we did listen to Jack, and the tone of Parliament did change and, amazingly, you could actually hear what people were saying. And we listened better. This was a small but important step. We need to make sure it continues.

You can be tough and you can be respectful. You can be strong, and be principled. They are not mutually exclusive, and we need not reduce ourselves to the lowest common denominator of heckling. As Parliament begins September 19th, we have an opportunity to aspire to be a credible and good Official Opposition. Let us fight for what's right, and let us hold the Government to account, as the Official Opposition must.

3. The third element requiring immediate attention is for me the most important. It encompasses what I most understood Jack to stand for. There is no question that Jack wanted a different kind of politics. He worked all his life to make good ideas happen in a real way. He had a vision for Canada that was about inclusivity and fairness, and he was willing to work with others to make this happen.

However, talking mergers (as they do in the corporate world) is not a way to realize this vision -- and is not something I'm in favour of. What I believe can bring this vision to fruition is doing the hard work of reaching out and engaging Canadians in a more participatory democratic political process. Let's stand down the elites and move up the grassroots. Let's acknowledge that we do live in a classed, racialized, and gendered society, and that our political work should open up and embrace bold change that transforms power towards a society that is more equalized, sharing, and compassionate.

This means understanding the structural changes that are required -- such as electoral reform and fairer taxation. It also means emboldening our principles and actions: to defend public services, to stand for a principled position against war and oppression, and uphold basic human dignity and social and environmental justice. It means realizing that those at the top don't have a monopoly on deciding what needs to be done. Let's look to real life experience, the energy of youth, and the collective wisdom manifested in strong local communities, where many amazing changes are taking place that must be supported and sustained.

It has been quite something to see various initiatives already underway over the last few weeks, such as Leadnow.ca's Turning Point, a pan-Canadian effort to go beyond Parliament, and to turn people on to achievable political transformation.

These past few weeks, for so many people, have been a time of sadness and grief. But it has also been a time of inspiration, and of determination to do justice to a legacy and to the hopes we all share for this country.

I really hope that we don't let the moment go, that we work harder, as parliamentarians, as activists, as Quebecers, as new and old Canadians, to put words into action and ideas into practice.

No one is perfect and no one has all the answers but, when we try together, we do have a shot at changing the world and this country for the better.




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