Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reflections on the NDP convention

By Brian Topp
June 21, 2011

The New Democratic Party met in convention this weekend. What happened and what did it mean?

A good place to start is that just shy of 98 per cent of delegates gave Jack Layton a vote of confidence. A not-inconsiderable thank you to the most successful leader in the NDP's 50-year (in its current form) history.

Then, there was quite a celebration. One hundred and three members of Parliament on stage, being rapturously received. A strong Quebec delegation right in front, setting the tone for much of the debate (the NDP has become the national political institution where French and English-speaking Canadians talk about this country and work together to get results). And a national team that looked at itself, gave itself a shout-out, and committed itself to do more.

There is an interesting issue embedded in this. We are in an age of Internet voting, which reduces political engagement to sitting alone at home in front of a screen. Conventions are the antithesis to this. They are tribal moments, bonding moments, when the core of a political party looks itself in the eye and re-commits to its work. I had a conversation recently with a member of the performing company at the Stratford Festival who put his finger on this matter. We were discussing the complexities of filming a Shakespeare play and broadcasting it on television and the Internet. "This stuff is interesting, but you know, nothing really is ever going to replace being there," he said. Those of us lucky enough to attend the NDP's convention in Vancouver this weekend will know what he means. One of the challenges facing all political parties is finding ways to broaden out the experience without losing it.

So then, to the convention's business.

Re-write the preamble to the NDP's constitution?

Delegates spent much of the weekend asking themselves if they wanted to do this. There was a lot to like in a draft amendment they found in their books. It talked about the party in more accessible terms; spoke about its key strategic partnerships; and put the theme of equality front and centre, where it belongs.

But they voted, near-unanimously, to refer the matter back to the party's officers for more work. Because, I think, they wanted words that inspire as well as modernize. Because they wanted to think about it carefully and without haste. Because some elements were missing. And because they wanted foundational issues to be discussed in a way that is, well, foundational -- back to the theme of "being there" that my colleague the actor at Stratford was talking about.

Rule out merging with the Liberal party?

There was a very important discussion about this matter at this convention, and one that needs to be listened to carefully by the NDP's leadership. I think delegates could not have been more clear in their minds about some elements of this issue and were open-minded but prudent on others.

Points of clarity: New Democrats are not Liberals, and are not going to allow their party to be converted or merged into an orange Liberal Party. Canadian voters have overwhelmingly rejected the Liberal Party in its current form. New Democrats aren't going to become what Canadians have so massively, and possibly definitively (although the Grits are never to be underestimated), turned the page on.

On the other hand, I would say, delegates know the power in Jack Layton's open-handed willingness to work with others to get things done. The power of his Quebec campaign slogan, which was "Travaillons ensemble" (let's work together). Progressive-minded Canadians make up more than 60 per cent of the electorate in Canada. As the Official Opposition and mainstream alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government, Mr. Layton and his party owe Canadians more of what they like -- which is an open-minded determination to get the job done, including the task of replacing this government with something better. So delegates to this convention voted to keep an open mind about the future, mindful of the point of clarity above, to which they hold and will continue to hold with granite determination.

The last thing I'll offer about this convention was that the New Democrats are overrun, nay infested, by a tidal wave of smart, bright, eager and determined young people -- francophones and anglophones, new Canadians and members of First Nations -- a not inconsiderable number of whom are members of Parliament. I've been attending NDP conventions since the mid-1980s. I've never seen anything like it. Winning 103 seats is a fine contribution. But recruiting and inspiring this new reinforcement of young leaders and activists is a gift to the New Democrats from Jack Layton that the party will benefit from long into this century.

Brian Topp is executive director of ACTRA Toronto. He also serves as chair of the board of Creative Arts Savings and Credit Union, and is a member of the board of directors of ROI Fund, a labour-sponsored venture capital fund. He previously served as a senior vice-president at Credit Union Central of Canada, the national office of Canada's credit union system outside of Quebec. He served as deputy chief of staff to Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow. He co-ordinated the federal NDP's campaign war room during the 1997 and 2004 federal elections, and served as that party's national campaign director during the 2006 and 2008 elections. This blog is cross-posted from The Globe & Mail's Second Reading.

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