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The future of the New Democratic Party and Canada: The real West wants in

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Former B.C. premier and MP Dave Barrett

If the New Democratic Party had chosen Dave Barrett as federal leader in 1989, they'd be the Official Opposition in Ottawa today.

More important, it is said here that if the NDP had selected Barrett over Audrey McLaughlin, Stephen Harper would have never been prime minister and the Reconstituted Reform Party of Canada or whatever it's called would not be on the verge of forming a majority government.

Indeed, given the history of the Liberal Party of Canada during the period after 1989, we could well have had a national NDP government by now, or at least have been looking forward to the strong possibility of that happening soon, instead of the current potentially catastrophic situation.

Indeed, Barrett as Opposition leader could have heralded a reverse takeover of the Liberals by the NDP, just as in fact was engineered by the far-right Reform Party of Canada to subsume the much more inclusive Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. This could have led to a long period of progressive and positive government in our country instead of the neocon nightmare we now face.

Alas, these are all what-ifs, bordering on Technicolor pipedreams.

But the harsh reality is that, no matter what, the dynamic Barrett would have been a far more effective leader than the well-meaning McLaughlin had the political talent to be.

More important, Barrett had the right instincts about what would appeal to Western Canadian voters and would be good for Canada. That is why he opposed the Meech Lake Accord and could give only half-hearted support, which he later concluded had been an error, to the Charlottetown Accord.

In the event, the NDP opted to pursue the improbable if not impossible dream of forming a pan-Canadian social democratic alliance centred in Ontario and Quebec instead of the region where it had its start and enjoyed its greatest potential support. Alas, support in Ontario was half-hearted. In Quebec it was virtually non-existent, since other, nationalist parties occupied the social democratic territory.

Inevitably, this meant support for constitutional policies that were not in the interests of Western Canadians, and which alienated the West from the party to which it had given birth.

What happened next is well known, and tragic. It was Preston Manning and the Reform Party that took advantage of the legitimate constitutional concerns of Westerners. Many voters who personally supported far more progressive economic and social policies than the divisive hard-right Reform Party stood for, held their noses and voted Reform as if it were a course of chemotherapy to cure the country's potentially fatal constitutional ills.

Why do you think so many Western Canadian New Democrats voted "counter-intuitively" for the Reform Party?

This is what gave Harper his beachhead, after which came the millions in corporate dollars that aim to make it a permanent occupation despite the well-known progressive proclivities of voters across this land. This is true even here in Alberta where, mainly as a result of their recent voting history, electors are often portrayed as restive hillbillies.

Today, on the cusp of generational change in Ottawa and our fourth federal election in less than seven years, we can read the right-wing media celebrating the careers of Reform politicians like Stockwell Day, the embarrassing religious fundamentalist and social conservative who unlike the vast majority of his fellow Westerners believes men and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time.

Day, for a time himself the Reform leader under one of the party's many guises, has decided to retire from politics. In the face of his departure and those of other Western Reform MPs who rode on Manning's constitutional coattails, "the Conservative Party, which was born out of the Western-dominated Reform and Canadian Alliance, becomes increasingly Ontario-centric," the Globe and Mail accurately concluded recently.

At the same time, the NDP's Ontario-based leader, Jack Layton, now 60 and being treated for cancer and other ailments as well as facing a difficult electoral prognosis, may be nearing the end of his political career.

So it is time for the New Democratic Party too to be thinking about generational change, and for Canadians from the region that still offers the party its greatest hope to assert themselves.

As is well-known, single-member plurality systems favour the strongest national party, now the so-called Conservatives, and strong regional parties -- as proved by both the Bloc Quebecois and the pre-Conservative Reformers.

With the Reconstituted Reform Party -- that is, Harper's Conservatives -- turning into an Ontario party, this presents a significant second chance for the NDP.

To be blunt, the NDP needs to give up its pan-Canadian pipedream, which will never amount to a hill of beans at least until the NDP can become the Opposition, and to recognize the harsh truth about the first-past-the-post system that was so effectively exploited by Manning.

The NDP needs a strong leader from Western Canada, and a social democratic platform written with Western Canada's needs and dreams in mind.

If the NDP cannot or will not recognize that the West is its only hope, Western progressives and social democrats can be forgiven if they look elsewhere for political answers. It is profoundly hoped that this time it will be somewhere more in tune with their fundamental progressive beliefs than the reactionary Conservative-Reform Party under the likes of Manning and Harper.

This time, the real West wants in!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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