Can the NDP reinvent itself -- and save the country?

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Canadians who maintain the dream of a more equal, democratic and civilized society may no longer be reeling from the death of Jack Layton. But they are surely stuck in a kind of political limbo, trying not to think of the damage Stephen Harper can do whenever he wants, at the same time as they try to imagine how this catastrophic situation can be turned around.

The vicissitudes of the last election which brought Harper a majority with 40 per cent of the vote (but just 26 per cent of those actually eligible to vote) were devastating enough. The death of Layton (and the shocking nature of that death), the one political leader with any chance of reversing the dismal situation may have had a disproportionate impact on Canadians precisely because he stood for what so many Canadians stand for: civility, decency, honesty and just plain kindness.

In the face of a mean-spirited prime minister, Layton stood as a symbol of what we know we really are. Having him snatched away so brutally was almost like a denial that our values had any legitimacy or that struggling for them any point. Harper was suddenly the Borg -- we will be assimilated, resistance is futile.

But, of course, what it really says is that much of history is just accidental -- happenstance -- but always in a context that either makes it mundane or shattering. This time it has huge implications for the future of the country.

Few leaders these days put their personal mark on their parties as Layton did. We have been in an era of managers, not leaders, for almost 20 years: think of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin and even Gilles Duceppe. In an era when transnational corporations tell democracies they need to run governments like businesses, it turns out they do. Layton was both the consummate politician and the anti-politician. Managers do not connect with people -- witness Harper -- they, well, manage them. Layton didn't do that.

He actually liked people which made him virtually unique at the federal level. His decency and thoughtfulness were enormously attractive in a world where they were in such short supply. My limited experience revealed that even when I was very critical of him we could talk and he didn't take it personally. He seemed to actually come from that better world that so many Canadians yearn for.

Yet the party during Layton's leadership saw trends which together present big challenges for both the NDP and left social democracy more broadly defined. First, the party moved much closer to the centre. Support for Harper's crime agenda (with some exceptions), and huge increases to the defence budget, support -- though critical -- of the war in Afghanistan and more recently the extension of NATO's regime change in Libya all put the party very close to the Liberals who they seek to replace.

At a time when neo-liberal economics was exposed as a destructive, failed ideology the party was unable, or unwilling, to come up with a critique that could have taken advantage of the global crisis and provided people with a hopeful alternative economic vision. And on fighting the deficit -- a crisis manufactured by Harper's tax cuts to justify the slashing of social spending -- the party had little (partially reverse corporate tax cuts) to say on the need to tax the wealthy and corporations fairly. Such a position places the party implicitly in support of the deficit-cutting mantra that is at the heart of the Harper agenda.

The NDP, understandably, gave into the temptation to capitalize on Jack Layton's extraordinary appeal as a leader. Breaking -- though obviously not completely -- from the comprehensive policy approach, the party came to depend on Jack Layton the leader and not Jack Layton the voice of a party of vision.

Having based its extraordinary success in the election on this strategy, the NDP is now facing a crisis of how to slot in a new, popular leader in place of its most popular leader ever. They know it can't be done -- Jack cannot be "replaced." So what is the new formula for maintaining their momentum?

A number of observations about the next four years, regardless of who gets chosen, seem clear. And whoever is chosen, they will have to address them.

The so-called developed nations will be mired in a prolonged and possibly catastrophic economic decline, possibly worse and longer-lasting than the Great Depression. The NDP absolutely must find a way to overcome its fear of dealing boldly with economic issues because these issues will dominate the political landscape for years to come -- certainly the next four. They will need to aggressively expose the bankruptcy of current government policies as well as the life-threatening excesses of unregulated capitalism. If they don't, the Harper Conservatives will continue to get high marks in what will be the only subject that counts.

The party and its new leader will have to figure out a way to engage more Canadians and convince them that voting actually matters. The NDP's great campaign shifted large numbers of voters to a party that stands for social democracy -- but in terms of voter turn-out, the result was barely better than the previous election. The Conservatives cannot be beaten unless, somehow, opposition parties can add five percentage points to the 60 per cent who voted in May. The party that can do that will reap huge benefits.

Related to that -- and in large part the solution to that challenge -- the NDP must change the way it does politics as a party. It needs to double and then triple its membership. But this will not happen based on the current model of the party -- which for at least three decades has been simply an electoral machine. Asking people to overcome their cynicism about politics by offering them the opportunity to write checks to the party and knock on doors every four years isn't going to do it. The NDP holds the promise of a better Canada and that makes it different from the Liberals and Conservatives.

The NDP has two choices. It can dilute the differences that make it the party of social justice, to compete on the same field with the Liberals and Conservatives. But if it wants to highlight its differences and actually offer people an alternative, it can't try to defeat these business parties playing by rules they made to work for them.

Especially when it comes to young people -- such a big portion of non-voters -- politics has to become meaningful at a level not yet contemplated by any political party. As I said in a previous column, the NDP has to reinvent itself as a movement-party, an organization rooted daily in the community and challenging the isolation of people that the current consumerist society has created and depends on for its survival. And it has to defend against Harper's plan to make Canada "unrecognizable." The power that could be unleashed in the younger generations if the NDP spoke to them with hope about challenging climate change, alienation and economic inequality would be breathtaking. They must be enlisted to play the key role in defining the new politics so it belongs to them.

It is worth noting that this approach would also honour Jack Layton. When I was part of the New Politics Initiative (NPI), Jack was running for the leadership. We were encouraged by his openness and his genuine understanding of the importance of social movements and non-NDP activists in the fight for social justice. He came from the world of Toronto civic politics where he was constantly involved in supporting the causes of dozens of movements. Social activism was in his blood. When he became NDP leader he did his best to engage the extra-parliamentary left in a conversation about how to advance progressive politics. Unfortunately, the social movement side did not respond -- it failed to imagine the potential of what Layton was offering.

Who is out there in the constellation of potential candidates who could offer this vision of the party, and the country? Neither of the two major contenders, Thomas Mulcair, whose arrogance in a recent interview created a wave of ridicule amongst the twitter crowd, nor Brian Topp, who aided Roy Romanow's Blair-ite government in Saskatchewan, fit the bill.

But Vancouver MP Libby Davies would be just such a candidate. One of the earliest members of the NPI, Davies has always recognized the importance of both extra-parliamentary movements and activists -- who return the favour with huge respect and support -- and the necessity of keeping the party engaged in her riding's issues year round. I hope she runs -- her lack of French notwithstanding -- or at least uses her considerable influence to ensure the election of someone who shares her, and Jack's, vision of truly democratic politics.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee.

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