The left has surged back elsewhere. Why not the NDP?

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A certain lassitude seems to have gripped the NDP for this weekend's leadership review in Edmonton. Donald Trump might call them low energy, like Jeb! Hey, they could try changing their name to NDP!

Too many party people say they're "on the fence" about Thomas Mulcair, don't know who'd replace him, so maybe he should get another two years; they can dump him then if they feel peppier. Besides, they're not sure who they are, maybe they should focus on that. These aren't good omens, politically. Tory leadership aspirants were already clawing to get over each other, days after the last election. The "left" has managed to resuscitate elsewhere, with Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. or Bernie. Why not the NDP?

I'd say its problem is cultural. It's still stuck in a political culture 20 or 30 years back. The Soviet version of socialism had imploded, capitalism crowed over its corpse, and putative leftists like Tony Blair in the U.K. and Bill Clinton in the U.S. hailed a "third way" which was really Thatcher or Reaganism plus some niceness. When NDP lifers like Brad Lavigne and Janice MacKinnon demand "pragmatic" approaches, they mean this pasty imitation; it's a way of dissing dreamers who'd rather not continue all the way down the neo-con road with them.

Jack Layton embodied this third-way culture; Mulcair even more so. He's an overt Thatcherite ("Up until Thatcher's time ... the government stuck its nose everywhere."). The trouble with the third way though, is it ran out of ramp.

Take the Panama Papers. The noble pursuit of wealth is revealed as mere passion to avoid taxes and social obligation. Those "inevitable" free trade deals destroyed not just whole economic sectors but ways of life. Bailing out banks only encouraged them to recreate the messes that led to 2008. It took decades for these lessons to sink in but people now want more than an imitative leftism. Bernie Sanders has seized on these lessons in the U.S. to press his case.

Poor Mulcair can't adjust to the change of culture, you can see him flail. He insists Justin Trudeau call Trump a fascist, for all the good that'd do, or attacks the Ghomeshi verdict. Then he reverses course by saying the NDP shouldn't be a mere conscience, it must contend credibly for power. It's sad and irritating.

So what's the answer? I confess I'm not very good at positive thinking, but could the solution be the Leap Manifesto, put together by NDPish leftists? Maybe it will get discussed in Edmonton and chart a new course for the party.

My problem with the LM, though, aside from its turgid, soul-wearying prose ("As an alternative to the profit-gouging of private companies and the remote bureaucracy of some centralized state ones…"), is that it basically reproduces an old NDP pose. This was, long before Third Wayism, that we NDPers are evolved, we know what everyone else and the country needs, so we'll tell you, you vote for us and we'll give it to you. Listen to former MP Megan Leslie, reflecting on the election: "I think maybe Canadians weren't ready for us, didn't understand some of the differences between the NDP and the Liberals."

Content aside, which is a big aside -- since the Leap Manifesto is a serious updating of the laundry list -- the talking down remains. Bernie's genius is that he's voicing what vast numbers have come to already feel themselves. There's a happy coincidence between what they now think and what he's long advocated so they respond heartily, as if they knew it in advance. The NDP, including the Leap Manifesto, is still telling people what they should feel versus reflecting back to them what they've come to know.

The trouble with manifestos is that they manifest or reveal something from on high; it's a kindred word to revelation. The alternative is to simply state a view and see what others make of it. The NDP, whose historical roots are in the Christian social gospel, has been prone to revelations. In fact, much of 20th-century politics had a proto-religious, revealed quality. Today it would be comforting to think all that is reverting to the arena of religion proper. What I think we should hope for in 21st-century politics, is not people saying, Thank you for giving us the truth; but something closer to: That's what I was thinking!

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: kimkim/flickr

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