Politics

THE NDP AT THE CROSSROADS

The Jan. 25 vote will determine not only the party’s leader, but its future

JULIAN BELTRAME January 20 2003
Politics

THE NDP AT THE CROSSROADS

The Jan. 25 vote will determine not only the party’s leader, but its future

JULIAN BELTRAME January 20 2003

THE NDP AT THE CROSSROADS

Politics

The Jan. 25 vote will determine not only the party’s leader, but its future

JULIAN BELTRAME

LEADERSHIP CONTESTS are often gory, internecine battles that nevertheless manage, somehow, to make the family stronger by generating new ideas and garnering attention. That hasn’t been the case for the federal NDP race, however, which concludes on Jan. 25. With the vote to choose a successor to Alexa McDonough looming, the party has managed to spill some of its own blood, given birth to a few intriguing notions—but has attracted little media or public interest. The lone exception came last week, when Winnipeg MP Bill Blaikie’s musing that George W. Bush spends “every minute of his life” planning “to kill as many Iraqi children as he can” landed him on the front page of one of Canada’s national newspapers. Blaikie, who later withdrew the statement, says it was the one time he would have welcomed being neglected. “I meant Bush is obsessed with a war that will result in killing children,” he told Maclean’s.

But thanks to the media’s virtual blackout, Canadians have missed quite a race. Unlike the Tories, who are having difficulty attracting candidates, and the Liberals, who appear to have settled the question before it is officially asked, the NDP is actually embroiled in a lively debate over the future of the country and party. Six candidates are running, including House of Commons veterans Blaikie and Lome Nystrom, freshman Windsor MP Joe Comartin, Quebec party organizer Pierre Ducasse, pro-choice advocate Bev Meslo, and the surprisingly compelling Jack Layton, a bilingual Toronto councillor who has infused the race with a dash of style and energy that reminds some observers of a young Pierre Trudeau.

And after a decade of tilting at windmills in the midst of an ascendant neo-conservative tide, Canada’s party of conscience sees a historic opening to once again become a player in federal politics. Despite winning only 13 seats in 2000—it has since added a by-election victory—recent polls show the NDP competitive with the Alliance and Tories in the lowto mid-teens. “In the 1990s, everything seemed to be about downsizing

A House veteran of 23 years respected by colleagues and opponents alike,

Blaikie represents the safe and steady route back to electoral respectability

Party stalwart Nystrom has criticized newcomer Layton’s ‘gimmicks,’ comparing him to former Alliance leader Stockwell Day

and market forces,” says Alan Whitehorn, a political scientist at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., who has written two books on the NDP. But in recent years, he adds, the pendulum began swinging back. Canadians have started to worry that the social programs they had come to take for granted are unravelling. Couple that with the stock market’s tumble and public disgust with business scandals and greedy CEOs who lined their pockets with extravagant stock options, and the opportunity should be there for a party of the left to make gains, says Whitehorn.

But what must the NDP do to seize the moment? That’s the question the leadership candidates are posing to the more than 80,000 party members who will have a chance to vote, either by mail, the Internet, or in person at the Jan. 24-26 convention in Toronto. Guess wrong this time, the candidates implicitly warn, and it may be another decade before the party has another chance to recover.

By most accounts, the race is down to two main contenders—Layton and Blaikie—and they couldn’t be more different. The trim Layton, 52, is all flash and speed. He dresses in hipster dark turtlenecks, snug-fitting jackets, loud ties. He walks and talks like a man in a hurry to get to the next location or the next point. Befitting his 17 years as city councillor and five years on the executive of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, his sensibilities are urban. Layton wants to remake the party born on the Prairies, and still boasting of its role in creating medicare four decades ago, into a modem movement that champions city concerns, from lowincome housing and urban transit to the environment. You could easily picture Layton taking to the streets, megaphone in hand, railing against globalization and the plight of the homeless.

The burly and bearded Blaikie, 51, might participate in such demonstrations, but it’s hard to imagine him egging the protestors on. There’s no questioning the gravitas of the United Church minister from Winnipeg,

however. He has 23 years of experience in Parliament and, at one time or other, has been a critic of most portfolios. Regarded as a centrist, within the narrow range of the social democratic party, he’s respected by colleagues and opponents alike as a knowledgeable and strong performer in the House. To the party, he offers the safe and steady course, the closest link to the kind of leadership the NDP once enjoyed under Ed Broadbent, who after all was able to win 43 seats in 1988. His trump card, Blaikie frequently tells party members, is that he’s experienced and his chief rival is not. Choosing two flavour-of-the-moment leaders after Broadbent—Audrey McLaughlin and McDonough—didn’t work out so well, he reminds them. “Yes, I’m a known quantity, but most people who know me, support me,” he notes. “I don’t see why being solid and electable should be a disadvantage in politics.”

Layton, a Toronto city councillor who has infused the race with a dash of style and energy, is the biggest gamble-he wants to remake the party

Layton represents the biggest gamble for the party. But he also offers the NDP’s best opportunity, adds Broadbent, who despite stepping down as leader in 1989 still pulls a lot of weight. In November, he surprised many by endorsing Layton, even though he admits he didn’t know him well. Broadbent says he was won over by Layton’s energy, how quickly he’s been able to build a national profile, and his ability to both excite party old-timers and sign up new members. “We

know it’s been a bad decade and we need new ways to move forward,” Broadbent explains. “I’d be very comfortable with Bill, but Jack’s more likely to bring in innovative ways of doing things and new approaches.”

Layton’s new ways can only be considered novel to the NDP, a party that sometimes appears to take too much pleasure in its sobriety and claims to moral superiority. Layton has gone out of his way to show he’s having a ball in the campaign—eschewing dank church basements for glitzy venues. He held one fundraiser with the rock group Barenaked Ladies; at another, held at a hot Ottawa nightspot, he danced and drank martinis. “Why not have a fundraiser in a place where young, enthusiastic people go?” he asks. “Should we have them all in the dingiest halls we can find? Does that make us somehow less pure?”

Good questions. But his style has drawn the ire of some of his rivals, particularly Nystrom, 56, who compared some of Layton’s “gimmicks” to former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, mostly remembered for showing up at a news conference wearing a wetsuit. But Broadbent says the difference is that Layton also has substance, a Ph.D. in political science, and a proven record as a bridge-builder in municipal politics. “The same thing was said of Trudeau, but it was silly of him and it’s silly of Layton,” Broadbent adds.

In the end, what kind of leader the NDP chooses will say a lot about how members interpret the party’s failures in the past three elections. If they view the disappointments as inevitable, and a consequence of the rightward shift in society that few social democratic parties have been able to stem, the prudent course is Blaikie. Few would argue he hasn’t earned his shot at returning the NDP to respectability. A Layton victory requires a more radical view—that the NDP has allowed itself to be defined by the issues of the past, and offered little to excite Canadians who profess to care about social justice, the environment and the plight of the cities.

The closeness of the race suggests the party is evenly split both in its assessment of its current predicament and on the best way back to political relevance. As Blaikie jokes, not even the Broadbents agree. “Obviously I would prefer to have Ed’s support as well, but his wife, Lucille, is supporting me,” he says. It’s arguable whether the NDP can afford to guess wrong again. Iffl