Ottawa -- if they were nearly able to convince the NDP to close shop and start afresh, you'd think it would be a cinch for the New Politics Initiative to become kingmakers in the party's current leadership campaign.But the group, which scored 40 per cent of the vote at the last federal NDP convention calling for the abolition of the party and the establishment of a more grassroots one, will not, it turns out, be exerting its influence in this most important of NDP moments.
At the NPI's conference in Ottawa last weekend, the upstart group revealed that it's bedevilled by the divide between electoral and movement politics that sparked its creation -- the very breach it wanted to help the rest of the left overcome.The weekend begins auspiciously enough with a Friday-night address by UK dynamo Hilary Wainwright, who looks a bit like John Lennon and is currently the editor of Red Pepper, a magazine that sends a stinger missile at the middle-of-the-road Blatcherite Labour government with every issue. The crowd packed into Room 200 of the West Block seems cheered to hear that Canada has no monopoly on the movement-electoral chasm. But alas, the good vibe of the night before will be replaced by gloom the morning after.
It's raining outside Saturday morning, and inside, one of the crystal chandeliers is on the blink. I notice that the young anti-globalization activists who perked up the NDP convention with their chants and songs aren't so much in evidence here. There are a few young'uns -- mostly from Ottawa -- but the majority are of old-lefty vintage.
On the platform, Judy Rebick -- the stalwart who's kept the NPI going -- asks the panelists, among them reps from the Council of Canadians and the Ontario Health Coalition, what kind of relationship between political party and social movement they would like. In other countries, she points out, social movements have no compunctions about getting into bed with political parties.
But though these panelists prefer the existence of a left-wing party to soften up the public for their point of view, neither wants their org tainted by an affiliation with it. In fact, just before the World Trade Organization meeting last year, the NDP tried to join the Council of Canadians and other member organizations of the anti-WTO coalition, but after a ferocious debate, the NDP was told no thanks.
COC member Murray Dobbin complains to the crowd here that the decision was made with little input from the group's members, but he's not a member of the NDP for pretty much the same reason the Council isn't -- he thinks he can do more by staying independent.
After lunch, the meeting breaks up into small groups, and I drop into one whose subject is the relationship of the NPI to the NDP. The group of about 30 includes a few members of the Waffle, that band of radicals who staged another ill-fated bid to radicalize the NDP in the 70s, along with other self-identified socialist NDP members and independent lefties. Someone wants an update on what's been going on in the party in the way of reform. I'm expecting moderator Don Mitchell to begin his narrative maybe two or three years ago, but instead he starts tediously with the Waffle. "I don't think there's the arrogance in the party that there was then," he says. Anxious faces consult watches.
It's clear that no long-term goal will be coming out of this group; people's positions are at all points of the compass, from working in the NDP to trying to get rid of it. With scarce minutes remaining, there's a sudden burst of anxiety about what the NPI is doing or not doing about the leadership race.
A few speakers express their unease that high-profile NPI founders Svend Robinson and Libby Davies have already announced themselves for Jack Layton. "You've orchestrated it to the point where we can't make a decision," says Ernie Tate of T.O., accusing the NPI coordinating committee of presenting a fait accompli. Certainly not, Mitchell says. It's just that many individuals have decided to support the Toronto councillor. How many? A show of hands indicates half the people in the room back Layton. The tension makes the new politics feel a lot like the old ones.
So what's the NPI going to do with itself? As regards the NDP, not much, we find out Sunday morning when Rebick takes the platform. The coordinating committee, after looking at the notes from the workshops, has concluded that "we don't agree on what our relationship should be to the NDP. There are those who believe the NDP has to be reformed and those who have written it off. If we try to resolve it, we'll blow up the group."
So they won't. Instead, they'll take the new-politics message of the need for a party "radically democratic in culture and practice" to NDP riding associations and social movements.
Perhaps the NPI still has a role to play as an alternative to the more sectarian leftist groups. Or, if Layton wins the NDP leadership and starts doing his own new-politics outreach to the social movements, the NPI may have no purpose. Last weekend in Ottawa was either the beginning of the NPI's next stage or the beginning of the end.