Back to the convention — one more time

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On so many individual issues, from climate change to crime prevention to democratic reform, the NDP's instincts are directly in line with majority opinion, the opinion of academics, or both.

In an episode of The West Wing, President Bartlet's chief of staff tells us in reverent tones that his boss “loves the podium, he sees it as a genuine opportunity to change minds.” Is it so idealistic, so naïve, so much the product of my youth and inexperience, that I wish Jack Layton felt the same way? It shouldn't be crazy to imagine that the leader of Parliament's smallest party, who now says he wants to win the next election, take seriously the need to engage in persuasion. And yetâe¦

On September 10, during a one-hour speech, Jack closed the NDP's largest policy convention since 1987 by failing to refer a single time to the decisions of the party's grassroots. He boasted about policies that he would be unrolling in the coming months, while saying nothing about the policies unrolled that weekend by delegates in the very hall where he now addressed them.

Not that this bothered anyone. Delegates showered him with over a dozen standing ovations during his speech after handing him a 92 per cent approval vote.

The hour-long speech itself was a brazen attack on the art of politics. Jack's sentences were short and vacuous, like a row of empty shot glasses. Seeing him talk like this wasn't just offensive, it was saddening; it reminded me of King Kong chained to the stage on Broadway.

In fairness, when after scolding the Tories he turned his attention to the Liberal leadership race, he seemed a man transformed. The suffocating sanctimony — surely a symptom of boredom — vanished instantly and a mischievous, then beaming smile crept onto his face. He shredded Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae before complimenting Stéphane Dion's integrity and intelligence, “and therefore almost certain not to be elected leader of the Liberal Party.”

Moments later, the weight of his chains dragged him down again. If the delegates hadn't been so busy standing, sitting and standing again, all the while clapping furiously, they might have noticed and called the Humane Society.

Instead, we got a Harper-esque 5-point plan. Afghanistan, the green economy, looking after seniors, making life cheaper for working Canadians and all things children. This will be achieved, Jack tells us, “Carefully. Prudently. And one practical step at a time.” Never mind the meekness, how will he and his 10 per cent of MPs get it done?

Let's play the Venn Diagram game. What's the democratic reform that would automatically produce a dramatic jump in the NDP's national presence, simply by virtue of fairer math? What has been, on and off, one of the NDP's principal policy planks over the past several years? What has Jack called a top priority of NDP negotiations with other parties in a minority Parliament? And what did Jack not mention a single time in his speech, never mind making it one of the NDP's five priorities for the next election?

Proportional representation. It was a strange omission on the very weekend that a citizens' assembly in Ontario was being inaugurated, an assembly whose sole purpose is to figure out whether we need to fix the province's electoral system, and if so, how.

It was a strange omission at a convention where the message was broadcast loud and clear that the NDP has decided once and for all that it wants to be more than an opposition party and is ready to play for all the marbles. I can imagine three possibilities. First, the party leadership thinks it can win Canada like Bob Rae won Ontario, by sneaking up the middle in an unprecedented number of three-way races. This would only take a little over 30 per cent of the vote and a dump-truck-load of luck. Slightly stranger things have happened. Second, they don't think they can win, and are only pretending to be serious about taking power. Third, what are these guys thinking?

This is the same brain trust that's decided not to talk about economics, despite recent studies showing that salaries for Canadian workers have barely budged in 25 years. That's a long time and it's a big problem. It even sounds vaguely related to “Putting Working People First.”

On a whole host of issues, the NDP is taking bizarre positions. The party will likely vote with the Conservatives on raising the age of consent from 14 to 16 (changing a 25-year-old law). They campaigned in favour of minimum sentences against the expert opinion of criminologists and the views of the party's own base. And despite the Conservative win in the last election, they still seem intellectually and emotionally fixated on fighting the Liberals.

The NDP is giving up one of its biggest advantages. As a party based on strong beliefs about Canada and the world, it has the opportunity to speak the truth, or at least what it believes to be true. Unlike the Liberals, NDP positions haven't been so extensively focus-grouped and lobbied that no one even remembers where they come from. On so many individual issues, from climate change to crime prevention to democratic reform, the NDP's instincts are directly in line with majority opinion, the opinion of academics, or both.

Watching NDP MP Olivia Chow organize to keep a vote on the criminalization of youth sexuality from hitting the convention floor was shocking. Not the fact that she was playing the game, but that she was putting her energy — and political capital — into defeating a motion she probably agreed with. She's my leftist MP, in a downtown Toronto riding. If she won't stand up to Conservatives legislating the thin end of the wedge of their monstrous social agenda, who will?

On his blog, York University political scientist James Laxer identified the NDP's “strategic dilemma.” How do you go after the Tories when this means voters, choosing the lesser evil, will flee to the Liberals? Hence their current strategy of going easy on Harper, weakly accusing him of being “wrong on the issues” and focusing their attack on who they believe to be their real enemy, the Liberals.

Since Laxer thinks — and he's surely correct — that Harper is the most reactionary Prime Minister in Canadian history, it follows that the NDP's current obligation is to show Canadians how reactionary and out of touch with their values Harper is, even if this wins them fewer seats than nibbling away at the Liberals. He argues that “the NDP must earn the trust of Canadians over time that they will never shy away from speaking out on behalf of working people and the nation. That is the road to electing the first people's government in Canadian history.”

Is Laxer right? It's impossible to say. What I do know with certainty is that Jack, at least two years ago, agreed with him.

When he came to McGill University one cold winter day to speak to an auditorium overflowing with students, he delivered a long speech without notes. I was in the audience and sceptical. But did he ever win me — and the rest of us — over. Smart, funny, genuine: exactly what you want from a politician but are afraid you're never going to get. He said that when Tommy Douglas stood up against the War Measures Act in 1970, he thought, “this is a guy who doesn't want to win the next election.” But he was so impressed with Douglas' eloquence and principled stance he that he joined the NDP.

Adam Radwanski articulated recently, in the National Post, what a lot of people on the left are thinking right now. He wrote, “I know first-hand that [Layton] has an active and vigorous mind for policy, that he usually does his homework before opening his mouth, and that he's capable of understanding the nuances of complicated and controversial policy issues. [âe¦] But unless voters begin to see a little more of the Layton I saw over dinner, and less of the snake-oil salesman who preens for the cameras, it's doubtful he'll be able to take them much further.”

In Quebec City, though, it wasn't the salesman but a strangely hollow man. Closing a policy convention by pretending it wasn't a policy convention. Speaking in a lifeless, imitative language designed neither to offend nor interrupt the applause. Critics on the right accuse Jack of wanting to move Canada in the wrong direction — too far left, too anti-American, too downtown Toronto. On the left, it's a distorted mirror: on too many issues, he's too moderate. But both imply that Jack wants to move the party somewhere.

I'm pretty sure now that such attacks miss the point. The NDP leadership doesn't have a clue what it wants. Jack's admirable opposition to the Afghanistan mission — driven in fact by the party's grassroots — only obscures this deeper problem. The NDP can't be bold, specific or intellectually challenging if it's got nothing to say. Taking Jack out of his message box would help, but it can't be the solution because the message box is the symptom, not the sickness.

Superficially, the history of the American and Canadian neo-cons over the past quarter-century is the history of brilliant campaigning. (The classic example is the transformation of the obviously progressive “estate tax” into the cringe-inducing “death tax.”) But at a deeper level it's a story of intellectual daring, the formation of a semi-coherent, semi-revolutionary idea of what society should be, and developing a strategy to make the radical changes necessary to make it happen.

The federal NDP, meanwhile, has found itself playing a progressively duller, more defensive game that reminds you of 14-year-olds glumly trying — and failing — to master the neutral zone trap. Their political ambition has been reduced to keeping the last crumbs of social democracy from being swept off the table. The federal NDP is Canada's most conservative political party — their rhetoric the most timid, their ideas the most inoffensive, their proposed policies the most backward-looking.

The party's base, judging by its massive resolutions binder, is bursting with ideas, good and bad. At the very least, the role of the leadership is to chisel and compliment the ideas, then give them shape, cohesion, and a magic gloss. The kind of architectural vision that takes just isn't there.

The New Democratic Party is 45 years old and completely adrift. The name used to be a useful one because it could mean anything: it reflected just the kind of forward-looking openness that the NDP then represented. Today, it's useful to the party's leadership for the opposite reason. It works because it conceals — if only barely — that in 2006, the label New Democrat means nothing at all.

I met a bunch of brilliant, inspiring young people at the convention. Keith Sweeney, a 25-year-old running for Toronto city council in Ward 12, is one of them, a reason to believe in the future of this party. But most of the smart, young, dedicated Canadian activists I know didn't go to Quebec City. It's too bad — they missed a great speech by the United Nations' Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis. And one hell of a bender.

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