The convention: Jack Layton's NDP

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Pulling back from the military engagement in Afghanistan, finding a new role for Canada independent of U.S. foreign policy — these are important issues around which party faithful are in step with their leader.

At the successful three-day convention in Quebec City that ended yesterday, there was no mistaking it: Jack Layton has put his mark on the NDP. From a giant poster of Jack that greeted the delegates, to an agenda that included talks from an Afghan legislator and an Australian expert on climate change, the leadership he won at the last convention was on display at this one.

This convention was slick, well-managed, and better planned than usual. It also had less controversy. Past gatherings featured confrontation between local activists and major party officials, including caucus and the leader. This one discussed approvingly leader Layton's call for a withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan, and then united behind him in approving a resolution calling for troops to be withdrawn.

Labour affiliated delegates took up a sizable space on the convention floor. If there were any doubts about future links between labour and the party, the rousing speech by CLC president Ken Georgetti put them to rest.

In Quebec City, the party got several chances to get into a tribal spirit. A homage to Tommy Douglas, led by his daughter Shirley (whose voice is reminiscent of her father) trumpeted the contribution of medicare to Canada, and ended with a film clip of Tommy warning delegates at the 1983 convention — 50 years after the Regina Manifesto — to never give up the good fight.

A speech by a Stephen Lewis at his best, appealed to the courage of the party members in the face of obvious adversity, and pointed to a new breakthrough in the way AIDS was being treated, and a new UN agency for women, as examples of how the world could make positive changes.

An NDP convention is a place where delegates decide on the direction of the party. In Quebec City, a subsidiary aim was to inform and engage the delegates in open discussion on a range of subjects. A civil society forum had speakers from social movements addressing a range of subjects from NAFTA and deep integration (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Council of Canadians) to mobilizing for political change (Centre for Social Justice).

Prominent social activists are highly visible New Democrats. Social justice advocate Lorraine Michael is taking over from Jack Harris as leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador party; CAW anti-free trade activist Peggy Nash is the federal Member from Parkdale; Saskatchewan farm activist, and former NFU President Nettie Wiebe is contemplating another run for a federal seat.

Delegates could attend training sessions in all aspects of politics from organizing a riding association, to dealing with the media, to running an election-day campaign.

Changes were made to the way delegates went about their main business. Resolutions from riding associations were discussed in six thematic break-out sessions the afternoon of Friday, the first day of the convention. Delegates discussed the order of priority assigned to each by the backroom resolutions committee, and then debated individual measures. On day two, and morning three, the resolutions so approved were brought forward to the floor of the main convention.

In plenary, generally more delegates rose in support than in opposition, with debate revolving around modifications to positions that enjoyed wide support.

The Sherbrooke resolution setting out a comprehensive position for the party on Quebec was an example of how, using this new process borrowed from Saskatchewan, the NDP is supposed to carry on its business. With more resolutions reading like short chapters in a policy book, and regularly updated at convention, the party wants to add precision and clarity to its stands.

Overall, the party position would be known to all, and party members could measure the performance of caucus, and the leader, in the house and on the election trail, with respect to how far they stray, or not, from party policy.

Making sure the party belongs to its members is why it meets in convention. With an election expected sometime following the federal budget in late February or early March, the party was also sizing up its chances.

The fear of a Harper majority is the main obstacle to growing the NDP seat count. With the Conservatives off-side in Quebec and in the main urban areas on important issues such as the war in Afghanistan, child care, and re-opening gay marriage, concerns over a Harper majority may well fall away, allowing Ontarians especially to vote positively for the NDP, instead of voting Liberal to stop Harper.

Pulling back from the military engagement in Afghanistan, finding a new role for Canada independent of U.S. foreign policy — these are important issues around which party faithful are in step with their leader. Layton and the NDP can be the anti-war party with the Liberals afraid to jettison their pro-war position, and Harper digging his party and the country deeper into the military quagmire.

Not far from the convention centre is the monument to the war dead of the Quebec City regiment — the legendary 22nd (the Van Doos). There are three headstones, two of them full. The third has not a lot of space left on it. The 22nd regiment is scheduled to take over in the new year. The best chance we have of not seeing a fourth headstone is the NDP anti-war campaign.

Coming out of convention, for all to see, it is Jack Layton's NDP.

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