All in all, things haven't exactly gone smashingly for the federal NDP in its campaign to choose a new face for the top spot. At the start of the leadership race a few months back, party heavies were hoping for a major surge in sign-ups. Some were even talking about doubling the party membership from its current 62,000. But here it is barely a month before the cut-off date for new recruits eligible to vote for the next leader in January, and the actual number of new members is -- wait for it -- 5,000.
Some in the party will say there's just too much other stuff going on on the federal scene. After all, it's hard to compete with the annihilation of a prime minister who's been invincible for 40 years. Maybe. Or perhaps the malaise is a consequence of NDP leadership candidates agreeing with each other too much: lack of media buzz equals lacklustre membership numbers. "We're not sure why the numbers have been lower than expected," says party president Adam Giambrone, though he's hoping for a flurry in the next month.
Interestingly, about half the new members are from Ontario, maybe because we're the biggest province or because there are two candidates from here. Or it could be that Jack Layton's people have been signing up as many people as they say they have -- close to 3,000 across the country. Joe Comartin's people say they've enrolled 300 in the Windsor area, and they're on a membership blitz in the Toronto area for the next month.
Certainly, Layton has been enjoying the most media play, partly because he's a fresh face on the federal scene, unlike main competitors Bill Blaikie and Lorne Nystrom. But he's also building up high expectations that were very much in the air when the travelling NDP beauty contest rolled through town a couple of weeks ago.
The meeting of 600 in a cavernous room in the basement of the Metro Convention Centre is the first chance most locals have had to see the six candidates up close. Bill Blaikie may not have become bilingual during his 20 years in Ottawa, but those endless question periods have taught him how to give a barnburner to a standing-room-only crowd. Same with Lorne Nystrom. But live action -- where politics mostly doesn't happen anyway -- isn't Layton's forte. His more earnest, slightly righteous tones probably work better on the small screen.
Though experience has taught Blaikie and Nystrom how to get an easy laugh from a partisan crowd, longevity is not necessarily a virtue in a party whose membership is fed up with the way it's been run into the ground since the days of Ed Broadbent, the last leader remembered with much affection.
Unwisely, Blaikie has been acting as an apologist for the dud leadership of the past decade. Tonight, he turns to his right to register his thoughts on the Toronto councillor's suggestion that the party has to reach out to politically active, non-NDP Canadians. "Not everyone is a member of a social movement, Jack," Blaikie says derisively. "I've been to those meetings and you see a lot of the same people at all of them. They're the serial meeting crowd."
Nystrom has created his own obstacle by casting himself as the candidate who will bring the party economic credibility, without which, he says, Canadians will not vote for it. But in the four months since he entered the race, he's only posted a two-page digest of conventional wisdom on his Web site, stuff about "creating jobs and opportunity for all" and providing "fiscally responsible government based on fair taxes."
Nystrom campaign manager Joe MacDonald promises there's better stuff on the way. "There was a 99-page policy document written from an economist's perspective, and we've been trying to trim it down and turn it into prose." But Nystrom has been finance critic for most of the last 20 years, I point out to MacDonald, so if the party has no credibility in that area it might be because of Nystrom himself.
Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada, which supported Nystrom in his last leadership bid, has opted for Layton this time. The local councillor has also been scoring most of the other national union support -- notably the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Union of Canada (CEP) and the District 6 director of the Steelworkers Union. Also, Judy Darcy, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees this week announced her personal support for Layton.
More significant than the numbers of votes that will accrue from those endorsements is the fact that these are so-called "pink paper" unions that are seen to be more middle-of-the-road than some of the public-sector unions or the Canadian Auto Workers.
Interestingly, the CAW national office has opted not to support any of the candidates, because, a letter to members says, it has found that none of them has promised to be a "strong voice for the left." Therefore, CAW locals and staff can do whatever they want.
Great, the candidate teams are thinking. Now they'll be able get CAW support without being connected to the name of union leader Buzz Hargrove, whose constant sniping has made his endorsement the kiss of death for any leadership aspirant.