The unfettered confidence of the NDP

Nick Taylor-Vaisey on party faithful and the work ahead

Paul Chiasson/CP

It used to be that New Democrats couldn’t win enough seats to govern the country. That might still be the case. But they’re bent on achieving the ultimate victory the next time around, and aren’t afraid to say it over and over and over. Their open hatred of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, expressed without a whiff of hyperbole, energizes them. Their dismissal of the Liberals as any kind of alternative to the ruling conservatives, nothing new but certainly sweeter from the perch of official opposition, energizes them. Their kinship, embodied by those frequent utterances of “brother” and “sister,” energizes them. If these people are living in a dream world, no one’s told them—and they’d never listen, anyway.

These are the New Democrats who gathered in Montreal’s Palais des congrès for a policy conference in April 2013. They reaffirmed their faith in Tom Mulcair, their leader, by giving him approval numbers—92.3 per cent—on par with Jack Layton. They’ve turned the words of Layton, their fallen leader, into gospel: “Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done” fuels the party faithful, two years out from a federal election and two years removed from the next.

Barry Weisleder wishes it weren’t so, but his voice is but a whisper among a hollering crowd of power-hungry do-gooders. Weisleder, a member of the NDP for 44 years, opposes fiercely the party’s apparent moves to the centre, and has for some time. The NDP’s decision to play down its socialist roots in the preamble to its constitution, a resolution that passed with overwhelming enthusiasm on the convention’s final morning, was a case in point. Weisleder stood at microphones all weekend long. He flexed all the procedural muscle he could muster, with increasing desperation, when he disagreed with a policy debated on the floor. Each time, he was voted down.

The thing about Weisleder, though, is he’s not going anywhere. No way, no how. The NDP is his party as much as it’s anyone else’s, and he’s happy to be a stick in the mud as long as it takes for his side to prevail. “We have plans to continue the struggle within the NDP because it’s the only labour-based party in North America,” he said. “It would be insane to abandon this party to those who want to embrace capitalism in crisis. We offer a better, more hopeful, more positive alternative.”

Weisleder’s gang of socialists nattered at the convention’s edges. They surrounded the escalator to the convention, handing out literature meant to reinforce their principled opposition. They unfurled an anti-drone banner in protest of a planned speech by Jeremy Bird, U.S. President Barack Obama’s former national field director.

They found lots of reporters willing to listen, but the militant socialists, perhaps more than ever, are on the fringe. Privately, delegates dismissed the socialists’ jeers. Publicly, they respectfully disagreed. Erin Weir, an economist with the United Steelworkers who ran to lead the Saskatchewan NDP earlier this year, was about as diplomatic as possible when I asked him about Weisleder’s tact. “[Debate] is tremendously important, because the convention needs to be about debating ideas. It’s good for people to be vigorously engaged in that debate, and putting forward different points of view,” he said. “I think it’s actually very healthy for the party to have some different perspectives, and to have some people challenging the consensus on matters.”

A policy convention certainly isn’t a place where people are going to openly say debate is a bad thing. But the floor’s collective voice, which continually voted down hardcore dissent—opposing all pipelines, nationalizing industry—did all the talking.

Meanwhile, the party’s broadened tent milled about outside the convention hall.

I spoke with Patrick Allard, a long-time Montreal civil servant who fell in love with Layton’s energy during the 2011 election. Allard, who sported a Montreal Impact windbreaker, passionately spoke about the need for strong services and social programs for Canadians. In an age of austerity, he says, the NDP is the only party worth his time.

I also spoke with Jenn Prosser, a 26-year-old staffer in MP Niki Ashton’s office. Prosser got her start in the NDP during Alberta’s most recent election campaign. She helped a candidate in Lethbridge-West, Shannon Phillips, rack up 29 per cent of the riding’s vote—good enough for second place. Prosser hasn’t looked back.

I also spoke with Manveer Sihota, a 20-year-old Sikh from Surrey, B.C. Sihota is young enough that Layton played no part in his pursuit of the NDP. Sihota said his mom, a single parent, had her rights violated by her employer (he didn’t elaborate further). Her union stepped in, he said, and got results. Naturally, as Sihota looked for a political home in the wake of all that distress, he found friends in the NDP.

Just before I left the convention, I spoke with a delegate who was lured to the party by Nathan Cullen during his leadership run last year. She didn’t want to be named or quoted, but suffice to say she’s got a keen interest in the environment and not so keen an interest in partisanship. She’s dabbling in the NDP, just the same as she’s dabbled in other parties over the past few years. Her presence in Montreal is important. The convention hall might have been mostly full of true believers, but the party’s tent is now big enough that she still has a home—even if it’s not forever.

The NDP has no intention of losing in 2015. Its polling numbers are shaky, but not terrible. Its tent is bigger than ever. Whatever its actual chances against a Conservative machine that knows how to win and a Liberal gang that’s rallying behind a new leader, only a small group led by Barry Weisleder is willing to play devil’s advocate. And that group lost a lot of ground this weekend.

Whipped up by his frenzied team of social democrats, Mulcair marches forth.

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