New Democratic Party rooted firmly in the past

Layton has failed to move NDP to the centre of the political spectrum

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Sunday, September 17, 2006

It's 45 years since the founding of the New Democratic Party in this country, and there's nothing new about this party any more.

The party that was in Quebec City for a policy convention last weekend has significant ideological, demographic and linguistic challenges.

It's not that the NDP hasn't yet built what Bill Clinton once called "a bridge to the 21st century." It isn't even looking for one. It is proud to be stuck in the past, and defines itself by its rigid orthodoxy.

The delegates on the convention floor were mostly of two colours - white and grey, an aging middle-class crowd. The multicultural nature of the country was not very apparent in the hall.

Neither was its bilingual character, in spite of the venue. Jack Layton's French is much improved, and the plenary chairpersons were usually bilingual. But the two convention key-notes, by Stephen Lewis and Shirley Douglas, each ran on for more than an hour without so much as a bonsoir in French. And this, in the most French-speaking city in North America, in a province where the NDP has been trying for two generations to make a breakthrough. In that sense, the meeting was a Potemkin village, a false front.

Lewis is one of the great extemporaneous speakers in the English-speaking world. Normally his job as the opening keynoter would have been to fire up the troops. O, Jerusalem! Instead, he focused on his role as UN emissary on HIV-AIDS and the Toronto conference last month. Instead of an inspirational speech, delegates heard an angry one.

Then Douglas presented for more than an hour about her father, the sainted Tommy Douglas, who apparently invented health care in Saskatchewan only. It seems two other sons of Saskatchewan, Emmett Hall and John Diefenbaker, had nothing to do with it, even though Dief's appointment of Judge Hall led to his recommendation for national health care implemented by the next prime minister, Lester B. Pearson. Never heard of them.

On the face of it, the NDP had a good convention in the sense that the crazies were kept under the bed, the floor management was tight, and the convention ran on time. Layton began his closing address last Sunday precisely on schedule, an unheard of occurrence in that party.

But the plenaries were marked by a lack of spirited debate, and the resolutions, especially on the Middle East, abandoned any pretence of balance.

For example, an emergency resolution on Lebanon condemned not just the "disproportionate" Israeli response to Hezbollah provocation, but its "drastically disproportionate" response. Stephen Harper "shamelessly refused" to call for an immediate ceasefire.

Hezbollah was described as "a recognized political party with democratically elected members in Lebanon's cabinet and parliament," without any reference to its terrorist militia in southern Lebanon.

Just as Harper clearly chose one side in this conflict, the NDP has chosen another. The party of David Lewis, a staunch supporter of Israel, turned its back on Israel.

The motion also called on the government "to offer Canadian troops to the UN mission in South Lebanon," presumably after bringing them home from Afghanistan.

It's difficult to conceive of a more dangerous mission than Afghanistan, except being in a no-man's land between Israeli tanks and Hezbollah rockets. It is madness to propose Canadian troops as peacekeepers in a war in which our government clearly took sides.

Finally, on Afghanistan, the NDP called for the immediate withdrawal of all Canadian troops. Layton said he would support the troops "by bringing them home." It was the applause line of the convention, certainly the cleanest sound bite out of his speech.

There's no doubt it was a strategic move to squeeze the Liberals on the left, just as the Conservatives are squeezing them from the right. It's also an appeal to a deeper pool of voters than normally supports the NDP.

The problem for Layton is that it's a cut-and-run position, both in terms of the Afghan government and our NATO allies. Editorial cartoonists across the land have mercilessly lampooned Layton for suggesting the Taliban be included in non-existent peace talks.

When Layton assumed the NDP leadership three years ago, he might have become Canada's Tony Blair, the guy to force a party of the hard left to the more pragmatic centre left.

It's clear now that this party wouldn't have followed him there. And perhaps, he didn't want to take them there. What a pity.

 
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