It’s Friday and I’m sitting in the media centre at the NDP federal leadership convention. It’s just a curtained-off space in the large hangar that is the NDP’s convention space, but the coffee here is free. It’s where the press reporters are holed up, staring intently at their computer screens. At key moments when Jack Layton or Bill Blaikie are speaking from the TV set, they glance up at the screen and hurriedly lay tape recorders in front of it. Occasionally, they dash out for a half hour to talk to people and take notes. Mostly, though, they keep staring intently at their computer screens.

I wonder what they can be doing with all that time. Maybe that’s how, desperate for a story to tell about a sedate convention, they cooked up an “anybody but Layton” plot that no one I’m talking to is buying.

True, earlier this week Nystrom was stiffed by his campaign co-chair, MP Peter Stoffer, who said that the campaign hadn’t gathered momentum and his second ballot vote was going to Bill Blaikie. This unkindest cut to Nystrom, though, is only evidence of Nystrom’s imploding campaign and of Stoffer’s need to get on board with someone else while it still counts. He knows he can’t affect the balloting much: 42,000 votes have already been cast by Internet or mail (likely most of the votes that will be cast except for labour’s), and Nystrom never had any real labour support.

I look long and hard for a Nystrom sign on the convention floor. They are scarce, as is Nystrom’s campaign manager, Joe McDonald. When I finally find a lonely Nystrom sign, I see that Lorne Nystrom is sitting in front of it. Nystrom has a few young supporters handing out flyers, but, on the whole, “third time’s a charm” proves a treacherous maxim for the thirty-three-year MP. Nystrom’s numbers are holding up at a solid third in internal campaign polls, and he’s sure to take the rural Saskatchewan vote that’s been mailed in already. But indications are that the voting rate in Saskatchewan and neighbouring Manitoba have been low. It’s Ontario that’s had the highest voter turnout, especially in Toronto and Windsor, the key areas of support for Jack Layton and Joe Comartin.

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The reporters are looking for a story, because there really isn’t one. Most of the day has passed without tension. The party has massaged away most of the conflict in advance. A potentially divisive vote for the party presidency pitting young Toronto incumbent Adam Giambrone against seasoned New Brunswick party leader Elizabeth Weir was avoided by deciding on an ad-hoc and apparently unconstitutional “co-presidency” arrangement. A resolution on campaign finance reform that some saw as anti-union is amended by the Canadian Labour Congress and sent to committee in hopes that it won’t make it to the floor again on Sunday.

The only ugly moment on Friday comes when a resolution from the Participation of Women (POW) Committee hits the floor. The resolution proposes temporarily allowing the national executive to appoint women to the executive to achieve gender parity, until next convention, when a more permanent solution can be found. The resolution is torpedoed out of the blue by Dawn Black, a member of POW who argues that the interim proposal is undemocratic. Speculation is that her move is revenge from the Elizabeth Weir campaign for Giambrone’s early refusal of the “co-presidency” compromise. Other POW members are furious, but there’s little they can do for the time being as Black’s rhetoric sends the motion to defeat.

With scarcely a murmur of opposition, three resolutions pass that will open up the party’s policy-making process to a more participatory, consensus-building approach. Between this and the ubiquitous talk from Comartin, Layton, and outgoing leader Alexa McDonough on the importance of working with the social movements, it’s clear that the New Politics Initiative has had an impact on the party’s language and politics.

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The line that leftist politics are limiting the NDP’s potential for growth doesn’t seem to wash with the fact that Layton and Comartin, both running on a leftist message of working with the social movements including strong positions on issues like the war, have succeeded in signing up the greatest numbers of people, more than 12,000 between them. Comartin has signed up roughly 4000 people, thousands more than anyone expected. He has run a shrewd campaign. Entering late, and with little money or resources, he’s played from his strengths on issues and with an eye to Layton’s vulnerabilities, forcing Layton to cover his left flank. So far, it’s worked. Comartin has put Iraq and the Middle East at the centre of the debate, making the other candidates and the party much less reticent about taking strong stands on these issues.

One of the powerful moments on Friday comes during outgoing leader Alexa McDonough’s farewell speech, when she leads the convention in a chant of “No War on Iraq!” Sitting in convention, it’s easy to forget how remarkable it is to see this on national television in a North America where a timid and uncritical press now lies far to the right of public opinion on this issue. The war represents an opportunity for the NDP to stake out political territory forfeited by all the other parties, by supporting the growing popular movement against the war and fighting hard on the issue in Parliament.

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A sea of “Jack” signs on tables covers almost half the convention floor. Jack posters cover the walls. Jack’s team is handing out Jack bandanas. Layton has clearly out-organized the competition. He’s also outspent them, raising $500,000, more money than all the other candidates combined. Commenting on the difference between the tightly-run Layton campaign and some of the other campaigns, one party insider says, “There’s not much organization in this organization.”

The game is looking good for Layton. Bruce Cox, his campaign manager, exudes confidence: “We’ve done whatever we had to and, barring a last-minute catastrophe, we just have to wait for the vote to unfold.”

Layton’s support comes mostly from Ontario. He’s signed up a lot of new members, but he also has a strong contingent of labour support in key unions in the party, including the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers. The Steelworkers, by far the biggest chunk of the labour vote and known as the traditional knee-cappers and kingmakers in the party, have a split contingent. District 6, which covers English Canada east of Manitoba, is going with Layton, but all their unfilled delegate seats have reverted to the national office, which is supporting Blaikie and has stuffed the spots with Blaikie voters. The western district of Steel is going with Blaikie. The two men will likely split the Steel vote evenly.

I rib Michael Lewis, Political Action Coordinator for Steelworkers District 6 and NDP convention fixer, about his inability to pull the Steel vote. “I’m proud of the differences in our union on this vote,” he replies. “Sometimes you crack the whip, but this is one of those times when difference is good. It’ll make for a more interesting convention. And if you look at the party’s history, the idea of Steel as a monolithic kingmaker is a myth.”

Layton’s support is broadly split into two segments — some of it coming from the activist left of the party, some coming from established players on the right of the party, like Lewis and Cox. I ask Lewis if he finds this alliance odd. He doesn’t. He wants Layton to do what the activists want him to do: criss-cross the country building the party in communities, attracting media attention, building an activist party. “He’ll run circles around Blaikie,” Lewis says. I ask him if he thinks union resources should be used to support campaigns Layton might build outside the party, as well as inside it. He says, “Yes, though most of my personal time and resources will continue to go to the party. But I do support other social justice groups working outside the party. Jack is saying he’ll go to those groups. Blaikie is saying they should come to us, which hasn’t worked so far.”

Going into the interview, my angle was that managing the conflicting interests among his supporters would be Layton’s biggest challenge after becoming leader. Now I’m less sure. Michael Lewis seems less sure about things, too: “As I get older, I’m getting less patient. I’m moving to the left,” he says, struggling to get the last word out.

What will be a challenge for Layton, many party insiders say, is managing opposition in caucus if he is elected. Lewis is confident that the caucus is mature enough to heal the rift. On the other hand, if Blaikie wins, Lewis will stand behind him. But, he says, many of the party members that Layton appealed to may simply leave the party. CAW President Buzz Hargrove is even clearer: “If Blaikie wins, the CAW will have hard choices to make.”

Hargrove is supporting Joe Comartin, but like most people, expects Layton will win. The only drama in the election will come from Joe Comartin’s dark horse candidacy, and the chance that he may place a strong third. If that happens, Comartin says he’ll stay on the ballot. CAW members are voting freely on the first ballot, but Hargrove says that if Blaikie and Layton are very close on the first ballot, the CAW may whip its vote to support Layton on the second.

I ask Hargrove about the challenges that will face Layton: he says Layton will have to establish a clear identity as a politician of the left, and then get out into the community to build on it. The problem, Hargrove says, is that the party has too often acted out of fear, stifling internal divisions and scurrying away from negative media attention. “Our union gets into the media because we’re always available to the media, and we never hide our problems.” He believes the new leader must be bolder — bolder about the party’s politics and respectful of internal differences. If Layton proves himself, I ask, will the CAW work to build the party? Hargrove says yes. With rival unions Steel and CAW both calling for a more activist party, for a tantalizing moment I think Layton may succeed in healing the internal divisions in the NDP and building the kind of party that needs to be built.