The 2009 Federal Convention of the New Democratic Party of Canada was held in Halifax recently. Normally, the party uses federal conventions to showcase its strengths. At the 2006 Convention in Quebec City, the party took a stand against the war in Afghanistan and passed its “troops out” policy. The right-wing corporate press wailed about a “left-wing shift” in the party at that convention but, in reality, it was the strong stand the party took on this and other issues that led to the NDP’s improved showing in the last election, including electing its first MP in Quebec in a general election (primarily on the anti-war ticket).

However, the convention in Halifax was markedly different in both form and content. There was not even the remotest mention of any policy that could be considered a new plank for the party’s platform. Though there were several left-wing resolutions that were proposed to the convention, the party leaders made a conscious decision to sterilize the policy book, removing almost every resolution that could be considered controversial or important.

Commenting on the proposed policies the National Post had this to say:

“In fact, many of the ideas are decidedly mainstream. In the section on ‘progressive and fair taxation,’ the party proposes targeted tax reductions for the middle class, working families and the poor. There is talk of defending territorial waters, especially in the Arctic. Meanwhile, there is no mention of previous hobby-horses, such as an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“[A] resolutions committee was struck with the apparent intention of weeding out the real zingers. Judging by the list of resolutions that will likely make it to the floor next Saturday, the committee has done its job.”

The policy committee, behind closed doors, unceremoniously dropped the vast majority of controversial resolutions. What remained was a list of fairly banal polices, the majority of which passed nearly unanimously without any meaningful debate. What is the point of a convention if all the major decisions are made beforehand by a small clique of party insiders?

The pre-convention discussion was entirely dominated by the idea of renaming the party the “Democratic Party,” which was a proposal thought up by a handful of MPs and party bureaucrats. This controversial, yet in the last analysis pointless, proposal helped to distract the rank-and-file of the party away from the utter lack of real ideas and policies on the display. In the end, the resolution was embarrassingly dropped by the wayside after it became obvious that there was next to no support for it amongst the delegates. However its purpose was served; it prevented a meaningful debate around any genuinely new policy from emerging.

The party bureaucracy made a concerted effort to crack down on left-wing elements in the party and present a “clean” and “mainstream” image of the party. The day before the opening of convention, Ian Capstick, the party leader’s press secretary had a particularly virile op-ed piece published in the Globe and Mail. He laments:

“[A] handful of old-school 1960s-era activists are in a fit of pique about the name change, riling up the left-wing base of the party that respects them, buys their books and tends to echo their cause-du-jour. This reveals them to be simply agent provocateurs.

“The New Democrats will always have critics on the left. I just wish they would stop trying to call themselves New Democrats while they lash out at those of us still willing to door knock, mail drop and actually fight elections to win.”

Accusing left-wingers in the party of being agent provocateurs and inferring that they are not really New Democrats is appalling, especially when you consider Capstick’s own history. In his own biography on his personal website, he admits that he was the former chief-of-staff for Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps. He later defected to the NDP when he was offered a job as a media consultant and spokesperson.

This careerist, who makes his living off the dues of the membership and accuses rank-and-file members (who have never been Liberals and who must pay to attend convention) of being agent provocateurs, is a prime example of the type of individual that is really calling the shots in our party. At this convention, it was blatantly obvious that people like Capstick, who publicly attack the left-wing of the party in the corporate press, are at the same time using undemocratic manoeuvres to silence the voice of genuine party members.

This convention marks a low point for rank-and-file democracy in the NDP. However, this will not last for long. The pressures of the economic crisis and the leftward mood amongst the working-class is already having some expressions in the party, especially within the trade unions. Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, responding to pressure from his membership, gave a fairly left-wing speech in which he blasted the bosses and the rich for the crisis and suggested there was a need to re-learn the lessons of the Regina Manifesto. Leo Gerard, the International President of the Steelworkers, gave a fiery speech where he talked about the need for greater militancy on the part of labour, as well as labelling federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as the “Prince of Darkness”, no doubt to the chagrin of some of the NDP brass.

The bureaucracy is by no means homogeneous. The current clique in charge of the party, characterized by people like Capstick, is largely drawn from younger careerists from a “consulting” and “non-profit organization” background. As such, they are largely disconnected from the labour movement and are less inclined to view politics as a fight for the daily needs of workers. They are more likely to view the party as an electoral machine that needs to be tightly controlled and “stay on message.”

This is totally in opposition to the traditions of the labour movement, whose leading layers recognize that the immediate needs of their membership must be reflected in the message they present. A mood of discontent is just below the surface, evidenced by the 10.75% of convention that voted to recall Jack Layton as leader. Considering the extremely managed nature of this convention, this is a significant number as he received nearly unanimous approval from the members at the 2006 Convention.

Having a formalistic approach to politics has led the current leadership to reason that since the majority of middle-class voters vote Liberal, the NDP must be the left-wing of the Liberal party. Leaving too much space between the Liberals and the NDP would repel voters who are turned off by “radicals.” We have long said that, in contravention to the standard thinking of these bureaucrats, radical policies that offer fundamental change are what will bring the NDP electoral and political success. Nearly half of Canadians do not vote. Overwhelmingly, these are the working poor, the unemployed, women, immigrants, youth, and other marginalized groups who would benefit most from a genuine socialist NDP. Appealing to them is the best way the NDP can break through the Liberals and Conservatives and sweep to power. By using undemocratic measures to achieve the opposite, moving the NDP to the right, the bureaucracy is preparing us for an electoral defeat. Such a defeat would almost certainly cause some demoralization at first, but would, with time, cause a backlash against the party establishment and lead to a shift to the left. Under such circumstances, wider layers of rank-and-file workers, both unionized and non-unionized, would turn towards the NDP.

There are no answers under capitalism; in order to gain a mass base amongst working Canadians the NDP must adopt socialist policies. Though the bureaucracy has used undemocratic methods to silence the left voices of the party’s members, we believe this will (unfortunately, at the expense of the party in an election) cause a backlash against the party establishment and the Layton leadership and could begin a shift to the left and an expansion of the party’s base.

If our perspective proves correct, and the party does suffer electoral defeat, it will be entirely the fault of the party bureaucracy. In such an event, we will expect the resignation of Mr. Layton, Mr. Capstick, and their ilk forthwith.