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The NDP stumbles over the 'S' word: Strategy

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This weekend the NDP is meeting in Montréal. The party’s intentions are clear: they want to show Canadians that they’re ready to govern. This, despite the fact that most Canadians have lived under a social democratic government at some point and know that the NDP can govern.

Unfortunately, they failed the first test: offering proof that they are interested in debating issues of governance. Instead, the big controversy of the convention has been a carryover issue from the last convention, two years ago: to or to not remove the word “socialism” from the NDP’s constitution.

While this question was probably not at the front of most delegates’ minds, it’s clearly on the minds of most journalists at the convention. The party brass had to know that it would be (it was last time) so why has the proposal been brought back?

Rather than attacking the Conservatives to demonstrate their political might, the NDP has chosen to attack Socialists. They’ve framed this discussion by arguing that the current language is outdated, as if socialism is a relic of the past best suited for TV docudramas of Tommy Douglas and history classes. To do this, socialism has been posited in such a way that reinforces the lie that it isn’t democratic unless the adjective “democratic” modifies it.

I’d be shocked if the average Canadian cares about what the NDP constitution says. It’s not as if the presence of the word “socialism” is the thing that stands between the NDP forming government. Surely, the party’s inner circle doesn’t believe this either.

As such, I can’t make sense of this strategy. With the Liberals poised to elect a leader who is easy to attack on substance, it seems like they’re ignoring the lowest hanging fruit to settle a score from a previous convention.

For some reason, rather than embracing the term or ignoring the preamble of the constitution, the NDP has offered socialism up as a sacrificial lamb to the more than 200 journalists covering the convention. I wonder how that strategic decision went: hey guys, rather than debating capitalism, let’s go after socialism to prove we’re ready to govern. Great show of solidarity.

For the only progressive political party in every province but Québec, this approach is terrible. Not only is socialism not a relic of the past, it’s the only way to meaningfully confront the destructiveness of capitalism.

The NDP will not benefit from this strategy. Instead, it makes the party look as if it’s a populist horde doing whatever it takes to get elected. Somewhere, someone forgot that it’s this thinking that has lead to the demise of the Liberals.

Surely, the NDP knows that they’ll never be as good at being Liberals than actual Liberals are.

I sympathize with New Democrats who consider themselves to be socialists, which I’m sure a sizable chunk still do. Unfortunately, the pull toward party discipline is a necessary but sometimes destructive aspect of party membership. While many MPs told CPAC that really, the name change doesn’t matter as it won’t change the true orientation of the party, I’m left wondering what then is the point of this debate?

Instead of taking a page from the Liberal playbook, New Democrats should be taking a page from the Conservative playbook: unite the left on the terms of the left. Organize the base and convince them that the party’s socialist roots offer the only solution to improving our collective lives.

Harper didn’t ride in by uniting the right around the mushy, nebulous centre. He used the more moderate parts of the party to shield his ascension to power but has maintained his party along the lines of a strict, right wing ideology. It would work for the Left too.

There’s nothing that people hate more than something that’s been watered down: it’s true for fruit punch, it’s true for wine and it’s certainly true for politics.

If there’s been any time since the founding of the NDP where referencing socialism is critical, it’s now. With the undeniable lack of democracy in Canada, a new political system that places power into the hands of Canadians is more relevant now than ever before.

And, while I respect and adore many people who are active within the NDP, I can’t help but feel a hopeless sense that not only is this strategy bad because it attacks the left, but it is also going to lead to failure.

If the Left could be successful and progressive as a populist, ideologically vacant political party, it would have formed government already. The NDP needs to remember that people actually believe in the progressive vision it espouses.

Attacking socialism to demonstrate how “reasonable” a party it is will not only not help the NDP, it will further alienate many of the party’s most important and valuable allies and members.

For their sake, I hope they realize this before its too late.

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