Monday, June 20, 2011

Quiet Riot (or when the NDP came to Vancouver)

We have seen a lot in the media in recent days on the hordes who descended on downtown Vancouver - young, energetic people caught on film as they came together and for a short while took over a city.

Yes, the NDP convention came to town this past weekend to do what convention attendees do. They celebrated successes, debated policy resolutions, attended hospitality suites and (after a morning gatorade and greasy breakfast) promised to all who would listen that the future was theirs.

The two topics over which the most ink was spilled (is ink still used - perhaps we should characters typed?) were the debate over the use of the word "socialism" and the debate over a future merger with the Liberals. It tells you a lot about the NDP and its strong affinity to its roots that the former generated as much interest as the latter.

Some good observations on the socialism issue can be found here, via Kathryn Blaze Carlson at the National Post:

For me, the issue over whether to drop the inclusion of the word in the party constitution preamble exposes the dilemma that the NDP now faces. As I mentioned in my recent "Canada's conscience or government in waiting" post, the NDP faces a choice. Does it want to be more of a beacon or conscience, advocating on select policy issues as it recognizes that it will never gain power? Or does it want to become a government in waiting, which means that it must start to appeal to a wider base?

If the conclusion is that the latter is a realistic goal, then the party has an obligation to consider all means necessary to get there. The word socialism carries with it a lot of baggage, and some members of the party have therefore concluded that it can be an obstacle to power.

In many respects you cannot blame them. The Conservative rhetoric since late 2008 has branded them socialists. Having seen how repeated branding by your opponent contributed to the Liberal demise, it makes sense that the party should look to limit their opponent's opportunities to attack in this fashion.

However, it will be in the area of policy and the credible options they can present the electorate that will ultimately make the difference. Once you cut away the words, the party needs to present an alternative that appeals to voters.

This leads to the second item of debate - a merger with the Liberals.

On the one hand you have those who question whether there is any merit in allying the NDP with a party which has been rejected by the electorate. We'll call this the "hell no" side.

On the other hand, you have those who say we have an electorate which continues to be more progressive. They argue that until we either eliminate splits or change the electoral system (not going to happen) the Conservatives will form the government. We'll call them the "let's think about it" side.

The former think that they can wait the Liberals out - that the end of the public subsidy and the two year wait for a new Liberal leader will further marginalize the Liberals and make them seem less and less like a viable option. The thinking is that there is no need to merge because in time the progressive space will be occupied only by the NDP as the Liberals fall away.

The latter feel that the NDP cannot simply hope to attract the progressive vote by default. The view is that in the same way the right needed to come together, the left will need to do the same. For them, this is the perfect time for the NDP to consider such discussions - they are in a position of strength. The terms of a merger can be more easily dictated when you are in the ascendancy. Despite their troubles, the Liberals can offer some street credibility as a party which has successfully tackled issues such as the deficit and offered credible economic management.


For me, the discussion on the word socialism and the debate on a merger with the Liberals are the same issue. They are both about how the NDP can move from being the opposition to being the government. It is about what steps they need to take to move from away being seen as a modern day CCF, and towards being seen as Canada's equivalent of New Labour; as a government in waiting.

Getting to an answer will not be easy for the NDP. The party will go through their own "quiet riot" as they struggle with striking the right balance between the principles of their past and their aspirations for the future.

Are they up for the challenge?

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