The way ahead for the NDP

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The NDP convention in Edmonton ended with an unexpected decision. The party will hold another convention within two years to choose a new leader.

Candidates to replace Tom Mulcair need to be judged according to their ability to renew the party, and position it as the vehicle for a new direction for Canada.

For NDP activists, the task was identified by CLC President Hassan Yussuff. In addressing the nearly 1,800 Edmonton delegates, he called on the NDP leadership to replace trickle-down politics -- which works no better than trickle-down economics.

The alternative is democratic party politics.

Three specific challenges await the party membership: animating riding associations, renewing party policy, and restructuring the party.

Regardless of how well they perform at election time, the riding level is where party democracy starts. Each riding association needs to be a place where issues that matter to Canadians get debated, not just where campaigns are fought.

With the adoption of the Leap resolution in Edmonton, ridings are being tasked with debating some of the great issues of our times.

Making the NDP riding association a place for practicing open democracy, encouraging wide debate and discussion on a non-partisan basis among neighbours, face-to-face and online, should be the basis of party renewal.

With Stephen Harper gone from centre stage, the menace to what New Democrats hold dear about Canada no longer seems so acute.

What remains is the threat to Canadians from corporate-driven politics.

Reports of Liberals opening the door to corporate lobby groups suggest this threat is very much alive.

In a standout presentation in Edmonton, Stephen Lewis laid out what was wrong with the Liberal party in power. He pointed to shortcomings in funding health care; contradictions between affirmations of feminism and a refusal to fund child care; commitments to horrific trade deals; and blindness to arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

These and other flaws are bound to harm Liberal prospects, despite its leader's popularity.

The Liberals made policy for the last election by reaching out to received opinion. On the economy, it was recommended that Justin Trudeau respond to the fall in the price of oil with government investment spending. An infrastructure program was proposed to offset the external shock of the oil price collapse.

The NDP has no mechanism for consulting widely on policy. No one understands how the party ended up with a balanced-budget pledge. With the economy recording a technical recession in the middle of the election campaign, the leadership was unable to deliver a plan to combat it, leaving the field open to the Liberals and Justin Trudeau to become the agents of change.

Tom Mulcair was removed from the leadership because of how the party lost, not because it lost.

The party has relied on focus groups to set out the limits to its ambitions. Instead, it should be building policy based on what is needed, and figuring out how to explain it to Canadians.

There needs to be an open approach to policy. Candidates for the leadership need answers to how they intend the policy process to work, above and beyond adopting resolutions at convention.

The Liberal party is adjusting to the digital age. They have decided to abandon their dues-paying membership. Instead of putting resources into hunting up members, keeping them and servicing them, the party is simply going to ask people to register as Liberals.

A registered Liberal gets to nominate candidates, vote for them, attend conventions, and vote in leadership contests. Some 300,000 people registered as Liberals prior to the leadership race that selected Justin Trudeau.

Online experience suggests the more emails you collect, the better your response to fundraising appeals.

The new Liberal model looks to have overtaken the old Reform Party model designed to build a solid base of true believers.

Except in Quebec, the federal NDP membership is based on joining a provincial NDP party. Which entity is entitled to collect tax credits for party membership? Who keeps the membership list? What happens when federal and provincial elections overlap?

There are no satisfactory answers to these questions. A separate federal party is an idea that is ready for adoption.

The NDP has underperformed in enlisting members from labour. The CLC is co-founder of the party; it has some 3 million members; a small fraction is part of the NDP.

The NDP has to be a mass party; it must reinvent what it looks like. A citizens' party open to all without membership requirements? A membership party with proud roots, recruiting through labour and other social movements?

In Edmonton, delegates got to hear what it's like to form an NDP government after years being nowhere. In her speech, Rachel Notley offered as good a profile of what it means to be a New Democrat as the party has ever had.

Leadership candidates can take heart from her example, when they speak to the way ahead for the party.

Duncan Cameron is the former president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: United Steelworkers/flickr

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