Out with the 'New'

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How about calling ourselves the "Democratic Party" instead of the New Democratic Party? That is one of the questions the NDP will address at its upcoming Halifax convention, Aug. 14 to 16.

Though as of Aug. 11, 504 Facebook party activists want to keep "New" (who wants to be the branch plant of an American party?) it is a good idea for the New Democratic Party to debate changing its name. "NDP for me" was a catchy slogan, but the party never caught fire at the federal level. In addition to the name, there is more than one good reason for that, of course.

The name is definitely part of the problem though, because it certainly does not work in French, where NPD resonates as "pd," a short form for an anti-gay slur "pédéraste," (meaning an adult male with a sexual appetite for boys).

The best argument for rejecting the Democratic Party as a new name for the NDP is that the French Version "Parti Démocratique" would feature pd/pédéraste even more prominently.

A main reason for the failure of the NDP to break through federally is its inability to compete in Quebec. Finding a name that works in French is a necessary step forward for the party in that province, traditionally the key to electoral success federally. Which is more important ? For the party to be appealing to people in both official languages? Or to keep the old name?

Names matter. Words are magic. Finding a name that resonates in the ésprit Francophone as well as in the Anglophone mind and imagination is not easy, but it has to happen for the party to succeed electorally.

One very Canadian solution would be for the party to become "Rassemblement Démocratique" in French and Democratic Party in English. The translation is not exact but then the words to "Oh Canada" are not the same in English or French either.

In a strict translation Rassemblement Démocratique becomes Democratic Assembly in English which has no popular appeal, and an unclear meaning. Democratic Rally, another rendering, is no better.

Adopting the "two name" solution to the linguistic question would leave the party with a better name in French than in English, which is not the ideal solution.

The Progressive Party, the Peoples' Party (or my own personal favourite) the Citizens' Party all have something to recommend them. If the party changes its name it must have a clear reason for doing so: the new name has to signal a new orientation, a fresh perspective on the world, a distinct appeal to the Canadian public, as MP Paul Dewar argued on a CBC panel that included rabble.ca founder Judy Rebick.

The Halifax convention takes place 40 years after the Waffle Manifesto was drafted and presented to the convention as resolution 133. Its opening words say it all:

"Our aim as democratic socialists is to build an independent socialist Canada. Our aim as supporters of the New Democratic Party is to make it a truly socialist party." The NDP as the party of social transformation seeking the democratic takeover of the corporate economy, and the end of American imperial control of Canada lost that day, but two years later in Ottawa its leadership candidate James Laxer won 36.9 per cent of the vote, and his race against eventual winner David Lewis went four ballots.

Waffle leader Mel Watkins will be in Halifax, and the ideas he and others articulated in 1969 have not gone away. Neither have their opponents.

Traditionally, social democratic parties have not embraced participatory democracy. In Canada the NDP is parliamentary centred, and electorally focused. Donors, not active members are the priority.

In Canada, a strong social unionism has kept the federal party from losing contact with its activist roots.

The great public relations successes of neo-liberalism include discrediting government, and disparaging the democratic process itself. Bringing Canadians back into electoral politics will take more than a name change by the NDP, but it is a way of signalling a new departure.

Claude Béland former head of the giant Quebec credit union Le Mouvement Desjardins will be addressing the convention. He has a new book talking about the role of the social economy and his speech should be seen as an occasion for the party to open a national dialogue on building an economy based on solidarity. Without an economic message the NDP has no future role other than as a potential influence on an eventual minority Liberal government, which in itself is a role worth playing, except that it does leave the party future in the fumbling hands of its opponents.

Former MP, CAW senior staffer, and longtime social activist Peggy Nash is running for party president. She is an ideal candidate, and might even be able to bring the CAW back into the party.

Out with the "New," or not, the future of Canada depends on having a strong left-wing party. Being able to appeal with success to Canadians losing hope is a big part of what is needed. The party name should help, not hinder, the major work to come.

The Halifax convention should establish a process for re-mandating, and re-naming the party. It should be a member-based, participatory process. The outcome should be to strengthen the party by going back to the activist roots of its founders in the CCF, and then reaching out to a new generation of Canadians looking for a way to contribute to social transformation.

Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.

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