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The NDP: On the eve of the campaign

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Jack Layton could be forgiven for thinking that leading a federal political party is all about fighting election campaigns and recovering from them. He is about to lead the NDP into its fourth election in just over five years. Over this difficult half decade, Layton has shown himself to be a formidable political leader, improving the standing of his party in each election, and growing in stature with Canadians.

The former Toronto city councilor inherited a party with only 13 seats in the House of Commons and took the NDP to 19, 29 and 37 seats in the three campaigns he has fought. When Layton became leader, the NDP was widely dismissed as a party that didn't matter any more, with little political clout and with ideas that were stuck in the past.

Now no one dismisses the NDP as a force in national politics. The Conservatives heap abuse on it as a socialist rabble with which no respectable party would associate, all the while hoping it takes enough votes from the Liberals to keep Stephen Harper in power. The Liberals fear the NDP as an alternative to which voters could migrate, as they did so massively in Nova Scotia's recent provincial election. While Michael Ignatieff assures business that he is safe, he has to keep a wary eye over his left shoulder to make sure that voters don't start thinking that it's time for a progressive like Jack to be prime minister.

What does the NDP aspire to in the upcoming campaign? More votes and more seats, naturally. The NDP has always been as assiduous in its pursuit of votes as any party. And the federal party prizes each seat it wins as a jewel in the crown. For the last couple of decades, the party has been run by pros who read polls, earn their living working for the party, in its offices or on the Hill. Not surprisingly, they can't stand people they perceive as windbag ideologues who are always harping about socialism. These hard-boiled potatoes (hard-asses is a term I would not use although my dictionary says it's a perfectly respectable label for people who narrow mindedly and meticulously adhere to their agenda) want social democrats to support the party and lay off the verbiage. I agree with one side of that equation. Every social democrat who is able should contribute money, put a sign on the lawn or in the window and canvass a poll in the election this fall.

But let's not forget the other side. Socialism and social democracy did not spring forth from the mouths of ideologues. The reason tens of thousands of Canadians have worked for fundamental changes for the past three quarters of a century is because capitalism is a system that rewards the rich at the expense everyone else.

As we mark the first anniversary of the Great Crash of 2008, that ought to be more clear than ever. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. The neo-liberal socio-economic model on which both the Conservatives and the Liberals have staked their fortunes, has failed.

Social democrats should not be talking about putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. They should be promoting a vision of a new economy, constructed around the needs and aspirations of people, a vision that respects the environment. That's not an ideological need. It's a human requirement. It's why the CCF and later the NDP were founded in the first place.

We got a very good reminder last week about why Canadian social democrats should not remake themselves as American Democrats. Barack Obama is as good a liberal as you will find. But in his speech to Congress, he dismissed the Canadian health care option and tied his vision of reform to the promotion of competition among health care providers. Without a powerful social democratic movement and party, Canadians would never have moved beyond that gully into which American liberals repeatedly fall.

The hard-boiled ones might be surprised to discover that a very large number of Canadians now are ready to consider a fundamental alternative to a failed system.

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