The NDP Won’t Stop Preaching to the Converted

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

QUEBEC CITY — The explicit aspiration of the New Democratic Party for this weekend’s convention was to make the party appear “ready to govern” or at least to become the “real opposition.”

The convention looks set to fail on both counts, not because the convention lacked effective organization, but because the NDP is intellectually stuck.

The NDP has its world — 15 to 18 per cent of the Canadian electorate — but, apparently, it cannot look beyond that world to a bigger, broader coalition.

The departure this week of Paul Summerville illustrates one reason why, a reason reinforced in spades at the convention. A banker, Mr. Summerville decided to run in Toronto for the party in the last election. He was held aloft like a political trophy by the NDP by way of illustrating that the party accepted the market economy.

Mr. Summerville has now left, attracted instead by Bob Rae, a Liberal leadership candidate. Mr. Summerville, therefore, follows former New Democrat politicians and activists such as Ujjal Dosanjh, Chris Axworthy, Janice MacKinnon and, of course, Mr. Rae, himself, all of whom formally or quietly moved away from the party because they could not abide its ideological rigidities.

It’s revealing, if somewhat unfair, to judge a party by resolutions that riding associations submit to a convention. Every party has wacko elements. Drafting resolutions to change the world at some sparsely attended mid-winter constituency meeting of two dozen activists is the ultimate in unchecked political fantasy.

Nonetheless, looking through hundreds of resolutions gives a broad reflection of where party members want to go, how they see the world and what their priorities are. No wonder Mr. Summerville left.

Nowhere in the resolutions do party members appear to believe that a market economy is other than something to be suspected. The overwhelming view is that the market remains inherently unfair, capricious, rapacious and untrustworthy. Globalization is bad. So are big corporations.

The NDP remains wedded to modest redistribution of wealth and an expansion of the public sector, without apparently any interest in, or aptitude for, actually creating new wealth. Which is where the party has been for decades, intellectually, and which is among the reasons why the NDP remains politically stuck. It simply has nothing to say to millions of voters who are not already part of the little NDP world.

To its credit, the NDP under Jack Layton has taken more aggressive positions on environmental protection. The party is a good deal less divided between environmentalists and unionists than 10 or 20 years ago.

This greening, however, has not been enough to forestall the emergence of the Green Party as a contender for hard-core environmentalist votes. And in Quebec, of course, the NDP can make only painfully slow progress because the Bloc Québécois has subsumed part of the NDP’s natural ideological constituency, including the Quebec trade union movement. (It didn’t help that three prominent Quebec New Democrats quit the party just before the convention, grousing that Mr. Layton hadn’t paid enough attention to the province.)

Squeezed in Quebec and threatened at the margin by the Greens, the NDP has been taking aim at the Liberals. The reasoning was simple, if flawed: The Liberals were in disarray and without a leader. So why not feast on their carcass? A kind of implicit arrangement between Conservatives and New Democrats saw them both trying to weaken the Liberals, so that Canadian politics could become a two-party, left-right, Conservative-NDP affair.

Except that the NDP made two mistakes. The first was to forget that the Conservatives were the government and that the NDP should have set itself up as the de facto official opposition instead of spending so much time whacking the actual Official Opposition. The second was to modify its own ideological nostrums so as to make the NDP more attractive to Liberal voters, something this convention manifestly will not do.

To take foreign policy, for example, it’s hard to imagine the NDP reaching beyond its little world with resolutions praising Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, heaping abuse on Israel, opposing NAFTA, berating not just U.S. President George Bush but everything about U.S. society and policies, while of course insisting that Canada spend heaps more on foreign aid.

The party’s call to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan is presumably designed to be a “wedge issue” outside Quebec, pitting the NDP against the Conservatives and most Liberals, especially if the party is eventually led by Michael Ignatieff.

In Jack Layton’s book, published not long before his first election campaign and written entirely by himself, not a single positive reference appeared regarding private enterprise or the free market — which is where the majority of Canadians earn their living. Nothing has apparently evolved since.

A party that cannot speak to people about improving the lot of their companies and industries, except by protection and subsidies, is a party that will remain stuck, intellectually and politically.