with just over a month before the new NDP leader is chosen, there are already a number of startling surprises as commitments are firmed up and numbers frantically counted. The most intriguing is the way membership in the Ontario party increased by 14,000, nearly double what it was. A lot of this is certainly due to presumed front-runner Jack Layton, who signed up more than 8,000 across the country. But there's also the Howard Hampton factor and his campaign against the privatization of Hydro, which has sent the provincial party surging to 22 per cent in the polls.
Will all this new interest in the provincial party help Layton? Not if Hampton can help it, it turns out. The Ontario leader turned down caucus colleagues who'd been pressuring him for a Layton endorsement and instead joined northern NDP MPPs to support Manitoba MP Bill Blaikie.
Caucus member Marilyn Churley, (Layton's co-chair), says, "There's real disappointment that Howard is not supporting the Ontario candidate who's bringing in all these members." But, she adds, "Blaikie and Hampton are next-door neighbours (the Ontario leader's riding is just over the border from Manitoba) and they're very good friends. It's unfortunate, but I don't think it will hurt Jack.'
Is this because Hampton doesn't carry much influence in the federal party -- or because he intends not to put much energy into Blaikie's campaign? Indeed, Hampton announced his leadership choice in the most low-key way, a quaint letter "From the desk of Howard Hampton, Fort Frances, Ontario,' with no mention that he's the provincial chief.
"This was essentially for people in my own constituency,' Hampton says. "People kept asking me, "What's your sense of the federal leadership?' I said, "At a certain time I'll let you know, and otherwise I'll stay out of it.' But more and more people kept on asking me."
Like Blaikie, Hampton has long expressed skepticism about talk of dramatic changes in the party, a debate he's dismissed as "navel-gazing." Hampton sees himself as someone who's more in touch with voters outside Toronto than some NDPers.
That's another button the Blaikie campaign has been pushing, notably in an open letter from present and former MPs published in the Globe and Mail last week extolling Blaikie as "the leader (who) will help our party regain support among working families in cities and towns, the north and rural Canada." The letter -- and the pressure on Hampton to make an announcement -- resulted from the Blaikie camp's efforts to lessen the effects of former leader Ed Broadbent's endorsement of Layton.
Broadbent, the most successful leader the federal party ever had, is definitely not a grassroots radical. But he tells NOW that he does not share the school of thought that if the NDP just keeps doing what it's been doing, the ever-swinging pendulum of political opinion will shift back. The group Broadbent thinks about the most is not the "working families' the Blaikie backers focus on, but younger Canadians who don't give politics -- of any stripe -- a second thought.
"The important task that's often forgotten by people in the party is not just to activate themselves but to get people outside the NDP to pay attention to politics in general, to take the public good as something they should be concerned about. And I think Jack has a greater capacity for doing that.'
But the vote next month will be determined by those who have already decided that politics is important. The biggest surprise in the membership sign-ups is Joe Comartin's 4,000, which probably puts him third before Lorne Nystrom. (After all, if the fading Saskatchewan contender had signed 4,000 new members, we'd know about it.) Comartin's campaign chair, Peter Leibovitch, says they have a focus on Muslim communities, where the candidate's been talking about the need for Canada to oppose the Iraq war. In fact, Comartin flew to Iraq's capital and posed with an Iraqi official in front of a giant portrait of Saddam Hussein.
Last week he got ink by taking exception to the fed's decision to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations. Layton has said only that the question should be referred to the foreign affairs committee. That's also the federal party's position. Meanwhile, outgoing leader Alexa McDonough is off to the Middle East next month on a fact-finding mission, meeting with peace and civil-society groups on Hezbollah and other issues. A spokesperson says McDonough's not satisfied with the info she's been getting from foreign affairs.
The other source of Comartin support is the CAW, which at its national council meeting earlier this month decided it would not be taking a position in favour of one candidate. That has left locals free to make their own decisions, and Windsor locals -- including the mighty 444 -- have opted for the rookie hometown MP who, before politics, was a CAW staffer.
President Ken Lewenza says 444 will support Comartin as long as he's on the ballot. "Local 444 has been directed that if Joe does drop off for whatever reason, then we'll go to Jack. We'll stay with Jack or Joe right to the end.'
Now, with only a month to go, much of the focus will be on Saskatchewan, which has only about a twelfth of the population of Ontario but 18,000 signed-up members."It's a treasure trove of NDPers,' says Blaikie campaign spokesperson Greg Hamara, which is why his guy will be back in the Prairie province right after Christmas.
Layton was out there last week, where he picked up the support of the deputy premier and four more members of the legislature, giving him the most support from MLAs of any of the leadership candidates.