Old is New Again

NDP charts new course at winnipeg meet in spite of itself

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winnipeg — for all its verve and vision, the New Politics Initiative just didn’t have timing on its side last weekend — yet another political cost of September 11. At the same moment the veterans of Quebec’s street battle and their NPI were trying to get the NDP to dissolve itself into a new, more lefty party, the usually irrelevant NDP caucus was doing what no other party has had the guts to do — take a stand against militarism and revenge.What a difference a war makes. Alexa McDonough, never one who could give a decent speech, was actually moving at one point in her Saturday-morning speech. She told the story of a boy called Osama whose teacher had renamed him Sam. “Osama is a Canadian name,” McDonough testified to massive applause.

And Manitoba MP Bill Blaikie pulled at the same heart strings, reminding the party faithful of the political courage it takes to go against the jingoism of the moment and take a pass on the war in Afghanistan, the anti-terrorism bill or racial targeting of citizens. “I’m tired of hearing misrepresentations of the federal NDP as a mushy middle party,” he thundered.

But despite the party’s noble efforts these past two months, the NPI still managed to scoop up 40 per cent of the vote. And the pressure to bond with a new generation of activists led indirectly to the election of a new party president, Adam Giambrone — unbelievably for this party a 24-year-old — not to mention the election of two other senior execs under 35. The NPI may have lost the vote, but by proving the turned-off can be turned on to the possibilities of electoral politics, they may have saved the take-no-chances NDP from itself.

To appreciate how necessary change is, all you need to do is consider the way McDonough ices loyal party members for just adding their names to the list of NPI endorsees. While those dreaming of new beginnings wait for some gesture from her, some reassurance that there’s room in the party for everyone, she maintains a stony silence. The letters NPI do not once pass her lips. “That’s not the issue of this convention,” she says dismissively when I quiz her.

The convention rules are just as hostile to the NPI. Two crucial resolutions are to come up Saturday afternoon — the one-member-one-vote-for-party-leader issue and the NPI resolution. But strict Robert’s Rules of Order mean myriad points of order and other resolutions eat up the allotted 90 minutes for these two debates.

The NPI has little interest in the one-member-one-one-vote showdown, which party caucus members are trying to shuffle off the floor with attempts to water it down and make it acceptable to the unions. All the while, the clock is ticking and NPIers are lining up at the mike wondering if they’ll get a chance to speak. Young NPIers who’ve decorated themselves with Christmas garlands are making placards on the floor and wondering who Robert is and what his rules are. They’re more used to consensing than to lining up military-style in front of pro and con mikes.”This is why we need a new party!” delegate Dave Meslin shouts.

MP Blaikie presents an amendment that passes, guaranteeing labour 25 per cent of the votes in a leadership contest, but by now it’s 3:30 pm and the convention has to vacate by 5:30, a narrow window for the most contentious resolution in NDP history.

When the debate begins, the miscalculations of the NPI crew are clear. They’ve prided themselves on doing things non-hierarchically and spontaneously. In their meetings, just about everyone who wants a chance to speak gets one — a fine practice among friends, but it doesn’t work well here on the competitive convention floor.

They choose as their lead-off speaker MP Svend Robinson, the chronic critic of the party and a red flag for middle-of-the-road delegates. He begins by recalling that it was in this very hall in 1990 that the party elected Audrey McLaughlin, an unwise exercise in negative association considering that she lost the NDP its official party status in the 1993 election.

After Robinson comes Harry Kopyto from the party’s far left — not the best choice in this crowd. Socialist caucus co-chair and well-known microphone hog Barry Weisleder refuses to take a hint and yield the mike to a more credible spokesperson.

Judy Rebick, the most accomplished orator among NPI ranks, at the outset opted not to take out an NDP membership. Instead, she wanders the floor as a journalist for Web site rabble.ca. As good as it gets for the NPI side is Peggy Nash of the CAW (whose members vote overwhelmingly for the option). “We’re at a crisis in the party. Brothers and sisters, let’s not miss this chance.”

While awaiting the official tally, the younger New Politics Initiative types sit cross-legged on the floor and sing. Nearby International Association of Machinists delegates resist joining in on the chorus of “The media says we’re doing this for kicks — they’re pricks.” But when the balladeers launch into good-old Solidarity Forever, the old hands stand up and clap along in time.

Then, the voting totals: 684 opposed, 401 in favour.

I’m prepared for a mass walkout as I head downstairs after the chaos of the afternoon. But a strange thing happens. In the NPI caucus, Robinson starts reading from the official renewal resolution that had been passed with little comment earlier in the afternoon. It calls for “a renewed progressive political party with working- class roots.’ Actually a lot like the NPI.

“It’s not that bad, folks,’ he says. “I think we can be very proud. The party has in no way closed the door to a new party.’ Then, another bizarre moment in NDP terms. Giambrone wanders in to say hello. That impromptu event may be one of the most significant things to come out of this convention. Sectarian faction fighting is so last-century. There may even be a place for NPIers on the committee implementing the NDP’s renewal report, Giambrone tells me. “It’s essential that there are NPI people on this committee.’

Will you take Giambrone up on his offer? I ask Rebick. “In the NPI, we’re trying to do a new politics that is less factional and sectarian and more constructive, so I think it would behoove us to respond to such an initiative.”

Canada may get a new political party after all.

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