Although the Jack Layton fundraiser last week took place in the spiffy Liberty Grand Ballroom at the CNE instead of a church basement or Chinese restaurant, all the other hallowed hallmarks of the NDP we've grown to forget were there. The bar was only open for half an hour, the traditional post-dinner auction saw a photograph of Ed Broadbent and Tommy Douglas go for $700, while a hockey stick signed by the great Paul Henderson only fetched $400, and the evening ended abruptly at 11 pm, snore time for a good percentage of the audience.Despite these time-worn social democratic rituals, Layton's campaign represents a sharp break with many traditional NDP assumptions. What makes his bid distinct is that he has rejuvenated the leftish coalitions that come from civil society, not typical NDP turf.
Ever since the formation of the party in 1961, the left has always been big on government. That wasn't the orthodoxy with the NDP's predecessor, the CCF, which, as the name spelled out, was a "Federation" (not party) of those who believed in a "Commonwealth" based on "Cooperatives."
That heritage, once as strong among old-time unionists as among prairie farmers, is not too far from what the chattering classes of today call civil society, the critical communal space between governments and individuals where societies often find their creativity and edge.
It's no accident, then, that it was Debbie Field of FoodShare who chaired Layton's fundraising banquet, a no-no of no-no's for apparatchiks who think first of party, not community or civil society.
For the first time, we have a candidate poised to bring to the NDP, and perhaps to the entire political process, all that's been learned about this critical public space that's still treated as vacant space in mainstream politics.
Non-profit and charitable organizations filling this space account for about 10 per cent of Canada's GNP, about the same as health care and more than any heavy industry, yet they barely exist in the debating halls of legislatures.
Beyond this, Layton's the first NDP leader (I'm assuming here that even the NDP's legendary capacity for self-sabotage won't lead to the squandering of this opportunity) to come from, love and appreciate the challenges of big cities.
Socialists may have a cosmopolitan and urbane reputation, but the left's strongholds have long been the Windsors, Hamiltons, Oshawas, Sudburys, Winnipegs, Reginas, Moose Jaws, Nanaimos, Whitehorses and Sidneys of Canada.
Indeed, it may be that rapid urbanization over the past 20 years is one of the unseen trends that has pushed the NDP to the margins of relevance. We may finally have the potential for a long-overdue corrective to the Shawinigan-scale vision that dominates this country.
Although NDP stalwarts fret that Layton has no experience in federal politics, it's municipal affairs that provides the best training. This is where individual councillors make up their own minds about how to vote; shifting partnerships and coalitions around issues, rather than party loyalties, are the order of the day; and consensus and back channels are what keep things going. Solving the nation's problems, like the city's, requires cooperation, not just desk-thumping, conflict and "Yay for our side."
But his biggest deviation from traditional left politics is his "from opposition to proposition" stance. In a milieu based on counterculture and anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-free trade, anti- cutback (heaven forbid we should ever say "pro status-quo') and anti-corporate campaigns, and in a mainstream culture based on blaming someone else for problems, a politics that looks for opportunities where many different groups can contribute to and benefit from changes cuts against the grain.
In his after-dinner speech at the funder, Layton, a passionate environmentalist, gave all his time to a listing of what Canadians are doing -- be they Calgarians running their streetcars on wind-generated electricity or Ontario farmers donating hay to western farmers facing drought. Only briefly and stiltedly did he resort to that staple of Canadian politics, attacking the political enemy.
For me personally, the best surprise at the banquet was sharing warm hugs and handshakes with people I'd sworn to spit in the eye of the next time I saw them.
There's a lot of Sleepy Time Tea and Preparation H under the bridge since I squared off at conventions with some of these people, heavies of the party mainstream, on issues like an independent socialist Canada.
No doubt it helps that many of the old warriors now agree on such issues as sore backs and knocked-out knees. But it helps even more that we've all had an equal share of hard knocks to erstwhile dreams and fantasies over the last three decades. There must be a reason why lost tribes have to do hard time in the desert before they can appreciate home. A lot has changed over the years, and a lot of people are getting ready to come home again.