The outcome of the upcoming vote in parliament on the long gun registry matters to the NDP because the party has been suffering from a “What do you stand for” problem.

People with long memories know what the NDP has contributed to Canadian life. Medicare tops the list, followed by public auto insurance in a number of provinces, the championing of social programs, including decent pensions, and access for everyone who qualifies to post-secondary education. Once upon a time, the NDP fought for Canadian control of the Canadian economy, pushed for the creation of a publicly owned national petroleum company, Petrocan, opposed NAFTA, and even discussed the idea that wage and salary earners should someday own and control the enterprises for which they worked.

The CCF-NDP was established during the Great Depression to provide a sweeping program for the re-construction of Canadian society and the economy to replace capitalism with a broadly egalitarian alternative. Some called it the cooperative commonwealth, others social democracy and still others socialism.

The premise that drove the party and movement for decades was clear: by its very nature capitalism is an exploitative system that can never deliver true equality. The vision of a new kind of society motivated tens of thousands of Canadians to devote their lives to building the party.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the ideas and values alluded to above have very little to do with today’s NDP. If I were to tell a class of my students that the NDP currently stands for the transformation of Canadian society, they’d look at me with the smiles one reserves for those who ought to hang up their skates and give others a little ice time.

For the past quarter century, those who run the federal NDP have been dedicated to the proposition that the party should position itself close to the centre of the political spectrum, and should advance proposals that are pragmatic and practical. If fully implemented, the current NDP platform might slow the widening of the wealth and income gaps in Canada. That’s not a bad thing. But the party has trashed the vision thing. For those who believe that capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system, that Canada is unwise to put all its eggs in the basket of the American Empire, or who think that we have little time to halt the onset of irreversible environmental catastrophe, the NDP offers very little. Today’s New Democrats are liberals who are not even in much of a hurry.

That’s why the long gun registry vote matters so much to the federal NDP.

Once upon a time, the CCF did have a genuine base in rural Canada. When Tommy Douglas led the Saskatchewan CCF to office in 1944, the central plank in his platform was to protect a farmer’s home quarter section of land from foreclosure by the banks. Since then, the farm base of the NDP has steadily eroded as family farms have disappeared to be replaced by agribiz. Today, the NDP’s rural base is centred in regions where mining and forest products are the dominant sectors. Plenty of people in those regions own long guns and hunt.

For years, the gun lobby in Canada has propagated the idea among rural gun owners that there’s a basic difference between registering a car and a gun. Unlike the case of a car, registering a gun, the lobbyists say, is about freedom. The state ought not to know how many guns you have in your possession. Even if you make the registration free, and reduce the penalty for failure to register a fine of one dollar, they will object. For them, this is an issue of principle.

The principle, of course, has nothing to do with the Canadian experience. It is an outgrowth of the American Revolution and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court interprets as giving individual Americans the right to bear arms.

Pushing the Second Amendment north into Canada is exactly what the gun lobby wants. This is a game for Tea Party wannabes, such as the Harperites. It makes no sense for New Democrats to be sucked into this maelstrom. Even if some members of the NDP are prepared to play games about the validity of registering long guns, the party cannot win a battle about who is prepared to serve up the biggest Tea Party.

Let the Harperites occupy that ground. As the facts come out, it becomes ever more clear that the long gun registry is a worthwhile and quite inexpensive law enforcement tool that saves lives. Plenty of people, it turns out, use long guns to assault other people and to take their own lives. Weapons need to be registered.

The flip side in urban Canada is also clear for the NDP.

If NDP votes in the House of Commons make the difference in killing the long gun registry, the Liberals will never let urban voters forget it. It will be their rallying cry in the cities in the next election. They will say that a vote for the NDP is a vote for Harper.

The last time that tactic worked big time for the Liberals was in 1993. I canvassed in Spadina in Toronto for the NDP during that election. At the door, I met people who were quite well disposed to the NDP but who were desperate to boot out the Conservatives. They planned to vote Liberal to get the job done. The fear of Harper’s dictatorial and irrational policies has been growing all summer. The desire to boot out Harper and to use whatever instrument is available to get the job done is on the rise.

The NDP, a party that doesn’t seem to have stood for much for a long time, is in danger of watching its votes slip away to the Liberals. And the clincher could well be the gun registry, an issue that is both substance and symbol. If the NDP can credibly be blamed for the demise of the registry, plenty of people in the cities will use that as their rationale for voting Liberal.

Watch out Jack.