NDP agonizes again over what it stands for
TheStar.com – news/Canada – Does the NDP still believe in putting people ahead of profits? Or does it believe in winning power? Stay tuned.
Apr 05 2013. By: Thomas Walkom
Opposition politics in Canada is a tricky business. The Liberals are trying to decide who will lead their federal party. The New Democrats are trying to decide who they are.
Both quests are due to come to a head next weekend.
In Ottawa, the Liberals will finish voting on whether Justin Trudeau should be crowned their new chief.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, New Democrats will be wrestling with the thorny question of what they stand for.
Specifically, they will be debating — again — the preamble to their party’s constitution.
Two years ago, the NDP was at daggers drawn over whether to call itself social democratic or democratically socialist (the latest suggestion is to use both terms).
But now battle lines are being drawn over another clause in this strangely controversial preamble.
Should New Democrats devote themselves to creating a society in which “the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people . . . and not to the making of profit,” as the party’s current constitution states?
Or, as a party committee has suggested, should New Democrats content themselves with fighting for “a rules based economy . . . in which governments have the power to address the limitations of the market?”
To outsiders, such a debate might seem bizarrely irrelevant. In practice, the NDP is hardly a party of fire-breathing socialists. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper tacitly acknowledged that when he picked Manitoba’s former NDP premier, Gary Doer, as Canada’s ambassador to free-enterprise America.
Outsiders might ask: Why don’t New Democrats face reality and admit that their once anti-capitalist party has made its peace with the bosses?
In one form or another, these are the arguments that those around NDP Leader Tom Mulcair are expected to make in Montreal.
In effect, they will be saying to delegates at the party’s convention: Face facts; we are not radicals; at best we are incremental reformers; let’s admit it and get on with the job of winning government.
It is a powerful argument.
The other side is harder to explain. New Democrats are a funny breed. Many were attracted to the party not because they necessarily expected to win power but because they believed in the idea of a democratic alternative to liberal capitalism.
My guess is that many of these New Democrats — at heart — still believe that an economic system based on private greed is fundamentally corrupt and that somehow, through hard work, a better one can be created.
Tommy Douglas, the party’s iconic former leader, referred to this as working toward a New Jerusalem. And within the NDP, the idea retains great potency.
Indeed, the most successful NDP politicians have been realistic idealists, people like Douglas and former Saskatchewan premier Allen Blakeney who, while eminently practical, never forgot the ultimate goal.
But for the federal party, idealism has often proved a weakness.
In spite of the solid record of their provincial cousins, federal New Democrats still face the charge that they are woolly-headed gadabouts.
In choosing Mulcair as leader, the party solved part of that problem. Mulcair’s very body language screams solidity. When he pronounces on issues, he does so with some subtlety.
Yes he would oppose the proposed pipeline from Alberta’s oilsands to the British Columbia coast. But he does not oppose all pipelines. Nor does he oppose development of the tarsands (although he argues it could be done more rationally).
Free trade with Europe? Mulcair says he’s open to the idea. All depends on the details.
Thanks to his performance, many Canadians would be hard-pressed to say whether Mulcair is Liberal or New Democrat. This is another way of saying that the NDP has the leader it needs to get a shot at winning.
Now the leader wants a party that can deliver him victory. That party, it seems, is not the NDP as it is currently constituted. We shall see how the rank and file react to being re-engineered.
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