It’s a good thing that at least Jack Layton’s NDP is bringing the sweet smell of success to a distraught Vancouver. But the excited delegates at the weekend’s convention may want to remember that not all such party gatherings have been joyous celebrations. Nor have they all been harmonious models of solidarity forever, as this one will surely will be.

As it happens, I was a delegate at the founding convention of the party in 1961, which wasn’t really the founding convention at all. The NDP was simply the old socialist CCF under a new name. (Big prize to anyone who knows what CCF stands for.) Simply re-branding the CCF wasn’t the intention, by any means. The CCF was deep-sixed because it was doing so badly. Begun nearly 80 years ago at the height of the Depression, expectations that hard times would drive the new party/movement to success soon proved naive; Canadians were too insecure to try an unproved and vaguely dangerous new left-wing ideology. Even under its revered leader, Rev. J.S. Woodsworth, the CCF failed to get as much as 9 per cent of the vote and eight seats.

Wholly unpredicted, it was the prosperity and growing confidence brought on by imminent victory in the Second World War that gave the CCF its first success. In 1944, Tommy Douglas made North American history by winning government in Saskatchewan, producing “an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism.” But after a titillating blip in the polls, the federal party continued under M.J. Coldwell on the long road to perennial third party status. Mr. Coldwell, a dignified principled man whose very existence seems to have been obliterated by the tricks of history, led the party in five elections, never getting more than 15 per cent of the vote, sinking in his final two campaigns (and my first two) to 10 per cent and 9 per cent. Nor did the party form a single other provincial government in those lean years, although it was the perennial bridesmaid in British Columbia.

That’s when the party brains reckoned they needed a better formula, and the New Party, as it was originally called, was launched. Democratic socialism would largely be replaced by a softer social democracy, for the few who grasped the difference. The hope was to add to the CCF’s narrow base both more “progressively-minded” Canadians who weren’t socialists and far more trade unionists, the idealized working class beloved of left-wing theorists. In those ancient days, there were enough trade-union members in Canada to matter. In the end, alas, the liberals largely remained with the Liberals while most rank-and-file unionists refused to follow their leaders beyond the factory floor.

I represented the University of Toronto CCF Club at the founding convention in 1961 when Tommy Douglas was elected leader. (There’s a photo of me joining a standing ovation for something or other, maybe the resolution calling for Canada to quit NATO, with a cigarette jutting out of the corner of my mouth and smoke encircling my entire head; I pay the price for that youthful folly even now.) Once again dreams and fantasies flourished beyond reason. Tommy may have been Saskatchewan, but he wasn’t Canada. There’s only one truly iron law in Canadian politics: No provincial premier has ever been elected prime minister. Whatever makes these men — yes, all men, of course, so far — popular at home makes them imperfect fits for other parts of the country. Under Mr. Douglas, the party did no better than 18 per cent of the vote, far from expectations, good enough only to remain the third or even fourth party.

Still, in the decades to come until May 2, 2011, the 18 per cent neighbourhood was a pretty welcome federal result for the NDP; on a number of occasions it got far less. Happily, provincial governments were eventually formed in B.C., Manitoba repeatedly, Saskatchewan again, Nova Scotia, the Yukon, and, yes, once even in Ontario (or was that one just a dream?). But the federal party realized its true role was not as a government-in-waiting but as the conscience of the country and its influence on governments.

Tommy’s last great crusade, working side-by-side in the House of Commons with his eventual successor David Lewis, was to stand in 1970 against the draconian War Measures Act introduced by prime minister Pierre Trudeau to meet the non-existent threat of an insurrection in Quebec. Public opinion was wildly pro-Trudeau, but Tommy and David, the most eloquent duo in this country’s history, gave the party its proudest moment, standing foursquare for principle even in the face of plummeting support. It was the NDP’s finest hour, and Mr. Trudeau’s most shameful.

I was also at the NDP’s 25th anniversary celebration in Regina in 1983, in fact this time running the show as the party’s federal secretary (or in today’s parlance, its national director). Although Ed Broadbent, then leader, was personally popular and respected and would soon be embraced as an elder statesman, the party was once again at a low ebb. Being the NDP, it rarely fails to kick itself when it’s down.

A mini left-wing rebellion erupted, giving the convention its main claim to notoriety. First, to run against Mr. Broadbent for leader, the rebels drafted a little-known and rather shy young man who had to be chased into a washroom by the media to get a statement. He lost. Second, the rebels forced a bizarre negotiation on a resolution to decide how many Canadian banks an NDP government was going to place under public ownership. Since a 10 per cent party was a universe away from forming government and since not a soul around had the slightest clue how banks actually operated, a delusional compromise was soon arranged. A mythical NDP government would first nationalize only one bank, not all of them. The innocent delegates approved the resolution, I prayed my own bank didn’t find out and shut my account, and little more was ever heard of the NDP’s Great Bank Caper.

For the Saturday night “banquet,” we brought Tommy back to address the delegates, many demoralized by the low estate in which the party once again found itself. Now almost 80, Tommy gave one of the greatest speeches of his career, both hilarious and passionate, reminding us all why a social democratic movement promoting social justice, equality and peace was still critical to Canada and the world. The large room, many in tears, went nuts. The ensuing standing ovation lasting well over 15 minutes. To this day I’ve still never seen anything like it.

Nothing was more natural at the end than for the audience to break into choruses of Solidarity Forever, to be led by the three main head-table figures: Tommy, Saskatchewan NDP premier Allan Blakeney — and me. Big problem: I alone knew any of the verses beyond the familiar chorus, and I have somewhere a wonderful photo of the three of us singing our hearts out on a hot summer night in Regina, Tommy and Allan totally faking the words and me, off-key as ever, trying to sustain the whole effort alone. A party in despair could not have had a more uplifting evening.

I pity the delegates in Vancouver this weekend — no Tommy or David, no left-wing revolts, no challengers running against le bon Jack, no nutty resolutions, no moral victories to celebrate. Just joy unrestrained. Just a remarkable new generation of MPs. Just the entire future to grab. It seems so unlike the NDP somehow. But some things of course never change, as Tommy and David and Ed always reminded us: the fight for social justice, equality and peace never ends.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...