Paul Chiasson/ CP Photo
MONTREAL - It's always interesting to see how the NDP's grassroots express themselves in convention, all the more so this time around since this gathering, the largest federal policy confab in the party's history, had unique pressures on it.
The over 2,000 delegates seemed alive to the new weight of media scrutiny, a consequence of the fact that this was the party's first policy meet since it became the Official Opposition. Nonetheless, even with the watchfulness of the press, debate was lively, and the party base got to pass motions dear to its activist heart.
While Liberal conventions are mainly flashy shows, the NDP is policy-driven, so the hall was full most of the time of delegates eager to participate in deliberations that would help form the next election platform. They lined up for hours before sessions started or got a "Mic muffin" to hold their spot in the queue.
The meeting passed an incredible 39 motions on matters including a national housing strategy, reforming EI, a call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, support for Idle No More, repeal of Conservative measures gutting enviro protection and funding for Via Rail.
What didn't hit the floor were items on renewing diplomatic relations with Iran or those that seemed to date the party, like the one that spoke of the "hypocrisy of the capitalist system." It's not surprising that some motions never saw light of day; only a tiny fraction of resolutions ever get debated, and fewer still are adopted. This time around, 439 were submitted.
The system determining what ends up in debate is in the hands of a resolutions committee (appointed by the NDP federal council, which is composed of elected members from the provinces) in consultation with members elected from various caucuses like the youth, LGBT, aboriginal and others. And though there are always complaints about the power of this body to shape debate, the convention as a whole has the power to change any of the committee's decisions, and most of the time the floor upholds its priorities.
But in addition to the close media surveillance, this convention was different in other ways. While these gatherings have always been bilingual, with simultaneous translation, most delegates have been English-speaking. This time the ratio was 50-50 French and English, and for the first time there were complaints about the English translations, not the French. The influx of young progressive Quebecers changed the tone of debate in a radical direction.
The convention's one really contentious moment - besides the protest against drone policy that interrupted the speech by Barack Obama's election field director, Jeremy Bird - was the debate over changing the preamble to the NDP's constitution.
For the last decade, the party has talked about changing the preamble, because the party deemed that it spoke more to the zeitgeist of the 1960s, when it was written, than to today's. That debate, however, was put off in order to avoid division.
But at this convention, a committee of long-time members found a way to bridge the gap. Sections like the one calling for the production and distribution of goods and services to be directed to social needs and not profit were removed, as were references to "social ownership."
But the words "social democracy" and "democratic socialism" remained in the new version.
While the guiding aim of the NDP is "a just and fair society," it's evolving into a modern left-wing social democratic party, and 93 per cent of its membership agreed. Indeed, the debate was shorter than expected. Most delegates, it seemed, were more concerned with how to organize to win government.3
Adam Giambrone is co-chair of the candidate search committee and chair of the nominations committee for the Ontario NDP.