Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Which way is the NDP heading?

By Thomas Walkom 
The Toronto Star
June 15, 2011

Incrementalism is the watchword. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives avoided making any waves at their convention last weekend in Ottawa. Look for Jack Layton’s New Democrats to do the same when they convene in Vancouver Friday.

Both parties smell blood. The Liberals, who held the centre ground of Canadian politics for so long, are in disarray. Harper and Layton are moving in to pick off their voters.

Yet there is a difference. The Harper Conservatives know where they want to take the country. I’m less sure about the NDP.

At their convention, the Conservatives deliberately stayed away from controversy. Abortion? Forget it. Deep social spending cuts? Not on your life.

They even eased off slightly on gay marriage.

But this doesn’t mean that Harper and his crew are moderating their views. Rather, it shows that they have a long game in mind — one aimed at gradually changing the role of government in areas ranging from defence to immigration to medicare.

Indeed, the Harper strategy is reminiscent of Jacques Parizeau’s famous remark during the 1995 Quebec referendum on separation, in which he likened voters to lobsters.

The secret to success, the sovereignist leader told a group of European ambassadors, is to lure the unwary victim into a pot of hot water.

Once he’s in and once the lid has been slammed shut, all that needs to be done is turn up the heat. Before he knows it, the lobster is cooked.

Some think Layton’s New Democrats have something similar in mind.

By way of evidence, they point to the NDP’s bizarre reluctance to publicly post the full range of policies that technically guide its elected MPs.

Before the last election, the NDP even tried to hide from public view its constitution. In its preamble, that document makes the startling claim that economies should focus on social need rather than profit.

But to suggest that this means New Democrats are Bolsheviks in disguise is to miss the point. The party hides its core documents not because it believes in them but because, by and large, it doesn’t.

Until 2009, the NDP had a resolution on its books committing the party to pull Canada out of NATO. But for decades, no one with any authority in the party ever tried to act on that resolution. Most simply ignored it.

I don’t know if the party is still committed to nationalizing anything. But I’m confident that Layton and those around him are not and that, if a resolution calling on Ottawa to take over the CIBC makes it to the convention floor next weekend, it will be soundly defeated .

The leadership even hopes to expunge the dread phrase “democratic socialism” from the party constitution.

What does it mean to be a New Democrat these days? In the 1930s, the NDP’s predecessor — the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — talked of building a planned economy.

In the 1960s, the focus shifted to organized labour. In the ’70s and ’80s, social democrats spoke of marrying the market economy to a state willing to redistribute the fruits of enterprise more fairly. In the ’90s, identity politics and group rights were the rage.

And now? We know New Democrats, like the Conservatives, want to appeal to the broad stratum of centrist voters the Liberals used to own. We have a pretty good idea of what the Conservatives would do over time with that support.

But the NDP? Certainly, we know what it is not. It is not, according to its leadership, a democratic socialist party. What it is, however, remains hard to say.

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