Revisiting the convention: A retrospective

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Some of the resolutions, and the strength of support for them, remind us of what the NDP's spin-doctors make it easy to forget: at its base, the party is for the most part a clearly left-wing formation.

Like a jovial, latter-day Lenin, a giant Jack Layton stares at me from a banner hanging over the front doors of the Quebec City Convention Centre, where NDP activists are gathering for their convention. Layton's image and name are ubiquitous here, at the first biennial party convention in nearly four years. The cover of the convention guide features five photos: four of Layton, and one of a woman holding a “Jack Layton” sign. Above the registration desk, Layton's name dwarfs the party's.

The passing of so much time has thrown into relief how much Layton has changed the tone and style of the party's politics. On the convention floor, the delegates are militant, passionate, and in many cases, quite articulate. The convention's organization, however, is a triumph of appearance over substance. The objective of party managers seems to be a display of peppy unity that effaces all sense of political life inside the party.

Media access is subtly more restricted at this convention. Media are no longer allowed to wander the convention floor, but are restricted to an area at the back of the room, where they watch the proceedings on monitors. Although the supply of coffee is erratic, the party's media handlers are very efficient in distributing media backgrounders, press releases and speech texts.

The media, for their part, show little interest in uncovering a story beyond the self-evident. Some openly express contempt for what they hear. Most dutifully stare at their laptop screens and pore over resolutions, happy to offer facile interpretations based on shop-worn stereotypes. One nationally respected columnist, known to assume a tone of high dudgeon and supreme conviction when writing about the NDP, has his nose buried in a thick historical tome when he is not actually absent from the convention entirely. Mostly, it seems, the media interview each other to find out what the story is.

Law and Order: Father Knows Best

Perhaps it is understandable, then, that the party management is desperate to hide away the conflicts simmering within the party. The potential embarrassment of convention issuing a strong declaration on the war in Afghanistan before Layton himself had done so has been forestalled by Layton's call for troop withdrawal the previous week. But other potential embarrassments loom, and the party's control freaks are busy biting their nails.

The new resolution prioritization process, based on the Saskatchewan NDP's model, solves the problem of members not having any say in which resolutions actually get debated on the floor. The process involves panels organized by theme, open to all delegates, where members can set priorities and debate which resolutions will reach convention floor. The process is more democratic and accountable from a delegate's point of view. But the panels are closed, hiding most of the heated conflict at convention from media eyes. The panels are also smaller than convention, meaning it is easier to manipulate the process.

On the Friday, in the panel to prioritize resolutions on equity issues, Joe Comartin, MP for Windsor - Tecumseh and Bob Gallagher, Layton's chief of staff, can be seen frantically trying to stifle resolutions that criticize the NDP caucus' support of Stephen Harper's law and order agenda. Particularly contentious is a resolution on the age of consent. The day before, at the youth convention, keynote speaker Jane Doe fired the young people up by calling the NDP's support of Harper's age of consent law “bullshit,” to huge cheers.

The youth and LGBT caucuses are pushing a resolution that will oppose the Conservative legislation. But Gallagher and Comartin don't want it to hit the convention floor and the eyes of the media. The party will support Harper in Parliament, and they want to avoid the “embarrassment” of a policy driven by the party members who will be most affected by the new law: youth and queers. The resolution has been put 60th on the list by the party management's own pre-convention committee, meaning it will never be heard.

After the youth succeed in prioritizing the resolution to go to the convention floor, Gallagher and Comartin organize against them. Gallagher furiously works his Blackberry to stuff the panel with caucus staff and union friendlies. Caucus members glower at the youth delegates who are arguing for their resolution. At the last minute, MP Jean Crowder moves that it be tabled. Gallagher's people are filing in even after the doors are supposed to have been “tiled.”

With most of caucus and the rent-a-crowd voting for it, the motion to table carries, keeping the resolution off convention floor — to the anger and disgust of youth and LGBT delegates. “There was a lack of fairness in the outcome and the process. It engenders hard feelings when that happens,” says Tannis Bujaczek, outgoing co-chair of New Democratic Youth of Canada.

When I ask Comartin about why the party stuffed the meeting to shut down this resolution, he bristles. At first, he replies that “We're always concerned about any resolutions that would embarrass the party or the leader, and I don't think there's anything improper about that from a democratic standpoint.” But then he disputes the charge that he and Gallagher stacked the vote. The reality, he says, is “just the opposite — there was a concerted effort to keep my resolution from going to a vote. The room initially was stacked by the gay, lesbian, transgendered group and the youth, organized by their leadership to come in and take over that panel for that particular [resolution]. ”

Bujaczek counters that “A lot of interested youth, and a lot of members of the LGBT community who were interested in the issue came to the panel and stayed the entire time, whereas we did see at the end an influx of people coming specifically for that motion [to table the resolution], and I don't think they were there to vote for the Trinity-Spadina resolution [against Harper's age of consent law].”

Comartin expresses “dismay at the level of lack of knowledge” shown by many of the youth and queer speakers. Comartin says he consulted widely with prosecutors and defence attorneys before taking his position on the law. I ask if he also consulted with youth and youth advocates, the people the law is supposed to help. He says yes, and that their opinions were split — for example, he says, Catholic youth groups support the law.

Bujaczek's answer is blunt: this law will have a silencing effect on youth, especially young gay men, that will harm far more people than it can possibly help. “This is not a complex issue — it's a dangerous legislation that is going to hurt people. It's not going to do anything to stop pedophiles. It's only going to criminalize sexual activity of young people, and most severely, young gay men in isolated communities. We need to talk about what it is going to mean for young women seeking sexual services, young gay men in rural communities, people who have older partners in non-exploitative relationships. Young people are going to be afraid to talk to health providers.”

Likewise, on mandatory minimum sentences, the party also wants to avoid attention after Layton and his wife Olivia Chow improvised policy without consultation during the last election, in a panicked response to Toronto's Boxing Day shootings: Bujaczek says the youth caucus has opposed mandatory minimums because they aren't going to reduce crime, but are going to be used to target and punish marginalized communities, particularly young Aboriginal men and men of colour.

Convention doesn't get to hear these debates. The newly elected co-chairs of NDYC voice a mild protest on the last day, saying that all their issues were shut out of convention. But Comartin and Gallagher have got what they wanted: as for the age of consent law, “the issue will now be decided by caucus,” Comartin says.

Anne McGrath, newly elected party president, says she plans to make fixing the disconnect between different levels of the party, but particularly between caucus and the membership, a priority in her presidency. But she acknowledges the challenges: a lack of resources, and a need for a change in party culture that will support this goal. If the experience around the age of consent legislation is any guide, she will have her work cut out for her.

NDP foreign policy: pruning the ifs, ands, and buts

Three definitive resolutions do make the convention floor. The first is the Afghanistan resolution, calling for the “safe and immediate withdrawal” of Canadian troops from Afghanistan. For months, pressure has been building on Layton at all levels of the party to take a clear position against Canadian participation in the war. Party officials quoted in The Globe and Mail said they feared more extreme legislation would pass at convention, embarrassing the party; they describe delegates at convention as on the far left of the party.

That explanation is self-serving. Before Layton's announcement, polls showed 55 per cent of decided Canadians opposing the deployment: not just the far left, but the vast majority of the NDP's base, would be among them. Gerard Kennedy, running for the Liberal leadership, had already called for a withdrawal from Kandahar, and the Green Party, newly newsworthy with Elizabeth May as its leader, had opposed the extension of the mission on principle, not process. Layton's non-committal calls for debate and more debate had become increasingly untenable in relation to his constituency.

Layton needs this resolution to build legitimacy for his position, but also to revive the morale of the base, which has shown signs of flagging recently, even in staunchly loyal quarters. Convention planners have handled this process with skill: the resolution, submitted by Layton's own riding, is carefully crafted. It is the first resolution that convention debates.

Despite intense dissent by a group of Halifax delegates led by caucus right-winger Peter Stoffer, the vast majority of delegates supports the resolution. While less than some party activists might have liked, the resolution breaks the consensus of political élites, putting the NDP clearly on one side of the issue and differentiating it from all other parties in Parliament, including the nominally progressive Bloc Québécois.

The last day of convention sees another foreign policy resolution hotly debated: this one on the situation in Israel and Lebanon. It calls Israel's catastrophic response to Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers “dramatically disproportionate,” and implicitly calls for talks with Hezbollah. This prompts fierce dissent from Winnipeg MP Judy Wasylycia-Leys, who is booed when she suggests the resolution should clearly label Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

But the resolution passes handily. It is a much stronger position than Layton has had the stomach to take in the national media. These resolutions, and the strength of support for them, remind us of what the NDP's spin-doctors make it easy to forget: at its base, the party is for the most part a clearly left-wing formation.

Mon parti, ce n'est pas un parti, c'est l'hiver

The convention's location in Quebec is a transparent attempt to raise the party's profile there. There is a lot of work to do. A writer for Le Soleil acidly summed it up in his column, saying that when he came to register for the convention, someone behind the counter loudly shouted, “Does anyone here speak French?” A day before convention began, Carl Hétu and Pierre Laliberté, two high-profile Quebec New Democrats, publicly left the party, criticizing Layton and his advisors for ignoring Québec and being deaf to the party's activist base in that province. Laliberté also said the public was put off by Layton's hyperscripted language.

When the resolutions on the relations between Canada and the provinces come up, the party adopts the “Sherbrooke Declaration” put forward by the Quebec section. It is a long, five page document revisiting much of the ground covered in a party paper on Canada and Quebec in 1999. The resolution recognizes Quebec's status as a nation, its right to self-determination, and the legitimacy of a 50 per cent + 1 vote for independence. At the same time, it asserts the legitimacy of the Supreme Court's framework for a negotiated secession.

Quebec delegates argue passionately for the declaration. It passes handily, sending the Quebec section into an ecstatic frenzy. But there is little sense that the vast majority of delegates have read through and digested the policy. Layton's spin on it is that the party wants to “create the winning conditions for Canada in Quebec.” It is easy to agree with Chantal Hebert, who would write in the Toronto Star that the party wants to square the circle of appealing to Quebec nationalists while appeasing the hard-line federalist Prairie base.

Amir Khadr, one of the spokespeople for the fledgling leftist formation Québec Solidaire, says the resolution is a good start, but it is only the first step; the party can't leave this on the convention floor. He wonders whether the party leadership has the political will to engage Canadians in this debate. “Political leadership means sometimes you have to pay a cost — it will be very difficult to bring this policy to the Prairies,” he says. “There will be a cost.”

He is not sure that Layton is ready to pay the cost to advance a broader political goal. If that doesn't happen, though, Khadr says that forces defending and promoting the social state in Quebec and Canada will continue to be weak.

I ask if he really thinks the party is interested in the political goal of increasing progressive power in Canada and Quebec, or if they are simply greedy for electoral gains in Quebec. He says “they should realize these two are not mutually exclusive. But they cannot make gains unless they really engage in this debate.”

When I point out the irony that the logo for convention is a passel of maple leaves descending on Quebec, he laughs. “Oh, I thought it was fleurs-de-lys!”

It's the economy, stupid

One of the most remarkable things about convention goes largely unremarked: how little class politics there is in it. Organized labour's presence is muted. This is the first convention since the Canadian Auto Workers left the party. Some see the departure of the CAW as primarily a story about personality and revenge. But it is doubtful that Buzz Hargrove would have been politically able to split from the NDP had the underlying relationship not already been weakened. In turn, the absence of the CAW, a founding affiliate of the party (when it was the United Auto Workers), seems to have dampened the spirits of their long-time rivals, the Steelworkers.

The lack of class politics is all the more remarkable when other more co-optable policies are being taken up by Greens and left Liberals, threatening the distinctiveness of the NDP's position in electoral politics. In fact, there is very little talk about the economy at all, except when Layton rebuffs party turncoat Paul Summerville's attack on “the anti-market rhetoric” of the party base. Layton says the NDP is not anti-market, but merely wants “the economy to be fair.”

At a time when even the financial press and economic policymakers like Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, are preoccupied by labour's declining share of GDP and globalization's exacerbation of income inequality, the NDP doesn't have a compelling story to tell about this, let alone any policy solutions or political strategy to address it. There is near total silence on the issue from Layton and the party leadership.

Layton has accomplished the neo-liberalization of the party's politics simply by failing to discuss economics at all, leaving the framing of economic policy debates to other political actors. The experience of ordinary people working harder for less, and having less time for themselves, finds no articulate voice here.

It's up to the members to try to bring these politics to the party. But with only a day and a half for resolutions after three and a half years, the scope for doing so is limited, all the more so with the changes in how convention is run.

There are civil society forums where invited third-sector groups talk about their issues, and training workshops to teach delegates some of the technical competencies of running an election campaign.

Invited speakers addressing convention include Stephen Lewis; Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers, and Malalai Joya, a young woman parliamentarian from Afghanistan. All of these changes are aimed at making convention a richer experience for delegates, one less focused on the confrontational resolution process. But they also diffuse the energy of convention. Something deeper seems to be at work, as well: a middle-class, liberal aversion to conflictual politics, and a preference for polite discussion and a façade of unity. It's a subtle but important shift in party culture.

Layton fatigue

Convention winds up with a long speech by Layton. The speech is introduced by a slick video of various party activists showering praise on Layton, and Layton's long, sound-tracked procession to the stage. (At the last minute, after a protest by the youth caucus, it is decided not to invite youth to stand behind Layton as props on stage.)

The attempt to create a personality cult around Layton is faintly creepy and exhausting. Not least because Layton's substance and style can't support the hype. One delegate describes Layton appearing at a meeting of farmers in Saskatchewan wearing a plaid shirt and wranglers. Layton seems to want to fit in and be liked wherever he goes — a dangerous flaw in a politician. What's missing in Layton is a clear sense of where his bedrock is.

Speaking beside Stephen Lewis at a press conference, Layton is outclassed. Lewis communicates clarity, conviction and a sense of moral purpose. He has a firm grasp on policy and conveys a sense of the big picture. He is in full possession of himself. Layton, by contrast, skips and rambles from one thing to the next, with solar-powered doorbells and a thousand little ideas and clichés that don't add up to a coherent vision that makes sense of the world.

Three blocks away, at the Liberal leadership debate that takes place shortly after the NDP convention closes, Bob Rae also looks impressive with his command of both official languages, of policy, and of politics. He is sure of himself, and articulate.

Despite the bravado, the NDP must be worried. A Liberal party with Rae or Stéphane Dion at the helm would take away much of the apparent edge the NDP enjoys in speaking for mainstream progressives outside Quebec.

And Elizabeth May, newly elected Green Party leader, could come at the party like a sidewinder: stronger and clearer on enough core NDP issues to seriously damage them, and answering to a desire for something new. The risks for the NDP in this political climate are great. The question is whether the party has the self knowledge to see these risks, and the political courage to address them.

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