howard hampton sits behindhis desk, flipping through sheafs of newspaper clippings circulated to MPPs by Queen's Park staff. It's as if he's looking for NDP mentions to reassure himself that he and his party are still alive.Before the last election, the NDP leader had an office just a few doors down from the press gallery on the third floor of the main legislature building. It was spacious, well-appointed and fit for a premier.
Now he's in a political gulag on the other side of Queen's Park Crescent in the Whitney Block. There are unopened cardboard boxes in the anteroom and a feeling of gloom broken only by the fluorescents and the light making its way through a window that looks out on a concrete wall.
Perhaps having been a star hockey player in his younger days left him with the endurance the leader of a party of nine in a legislature of 103 needs at a time like this.
"We're out there every day being an effective opposition," he says, as an assistant hands out press releases on Mike Harris's self-serving $54,000 ad in The Economist and on the NDP's call for a fuel rebate for less well-off Ontarians. It's good enough to get the NDP some ink in the daily press.
But these are difficult times to be any of the NDP leaders in Canada, none more so than Hampton. While the party waits to see whether lame-duck federal chief Alexa McDonough will signal at next month's federal council in Ottawa whether she'll leave of her own accord or have to be pushed, there's nearly as much pressure on Hampton -- perhaps even more.
By his own calculations, he could be in the middle of another election campaign in little more than a year. He foresees a scenario in which Harris finalizes his divorce settlement and jumps to Bay Street in the next few months, thereby triggering a leadership campaign and a provincial vote in 2002.
It's in Hampton's interests to make that forecast, of course, since there are rumblings of discontent from those who feel someone else might make a better leader. But it's not a leadership challenge that HH has to most concern himself with; few think that's much of a possibility. His bigger worry should be the coalescing body of opinion among those whose progressive, public-interest orientation would make them obvious supporters of the NDP that the death of the party would be no big deal.
They are the environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, anti-poverty advocates, left-wing policy wonks, even some unionists who are of the view that they don't need the NDP to build successful campaigns. Furthermore, with the rise of corporate rule and the whittling away of the power of the state, the NDP couldn't even do much if it stumbled into power, as the Bob Rae experience illustrates.
Among the proponents of the new politics is Jesse Hirsh, an NDPer himself back in the day but now one of the new band of activists who do their agitating online, not by holding an NDP banner.
Last week on The National on CBC-TV, he was the foil for hapless McDonough, who sniffed that surfing the Web was no substitute for a political party.
"My mom is a peer of Alexa's, about the same age," Hirsh says. "Her response was, "She (McDonough) didn't get one word of what you were saying, did she?' It's not about getting information off the Internet. It's about organizing. It's about bodies in the street and how they got there, who they're with and what they're doing."
Hirsh is the brains behind tao.ca, a virtual gathering place for leftists across the city and around the world. It's part of the "political space" that the Internet provides, he says, adding that if the NDP is ever going to recover its credibility with the anti-globalization forces, it has to take on their decentralized, network-of-networks structure. Perhaps there would be affinity groups based on interest rather than geography, as they now are: anarchists, socialists, social democrats... whatever.
And if no one could agree on anything? I ask him.
"Creating the divisions internally would help address the divisions externally. It would be a lot more honest. It would give people a sense that they have a lot more say than during 35 days of a campaign. Grassroots politics is the most popular around North America. And the political parties that are the most able to appropriate (those methods) are successful."
There's bound to be lots of that kind of talk in Montreal in May if a proposed conference on the future of social democracy in Canada goes ahead. It seems only yesterday that the biggest debate in the NDP was over the "Third Way," bringing the NDP to the centre of the political spectrum a la Tony Blair in the UK as a way of sucking votes away from the Liberals. That appears to be a dead issue now. Something quite different, says former federal party leader and event helper Ed Broadbent, will provide the fireworks in Montreal -- a debate about whether the left even needs an electoral vehicle.
Broadbent says he believes the NDP -- or something like it -- is crucial. But he expects others to disagree. "I would expect there to be talk about putting the emphasis on organizing within civil society and not on a political party, that that's the way to go for progressive people."
Riffing on the same theme, Desmond Morton, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, under the auspices of which the event would be held, likens that current of opinion to a thirst for "immediate gratification" as opposed to the long-term strategy that comes with the political party system.
"(There's a view that) good special-interest campaigns are better than going into the compromises and the discipline of a political party system," Morton says.
"(Other) people (would) say you need an old-fashioned vehicle like the NDP because Parliament is an old-fashioned vehicle" whose pace, he says, is slow to those who would rather launch a lawsuit, "finding a judge and trying out the Charter of Rights."
Where does that kind of talk leave Hampton, who says he supports the idea of such a conference and looks forward to attending? On the other hand, Hampton claims to have little appetite for theoretical discourse. He figures his time is better spent talking to "the people out there" about proportional representation and about his new campaign surprise: outlawing both union and corporate contributions and making political parties reliant on individual donations alone.
"If people on the left have a problem, it's the desire to only talk internally and to engage in endless navel-gazing," he says.
That's why he didn't attend the Rebuilding The Left conference last fall, where anti-capitalists, York professors, old-time radicals and fuzzy-faced anti-globalization activists packed the OISE auditorium to re-imagine the future and diss the NDP as a waste of time.
Sid Ryan, Ontario director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, heard striking York TAs having the same heated discussions while they were trying to stay warm on the picket line. Everyone is having the debate, he says, except the NDP.
But Ryan, a failed NDP candidate in the last provincial election, thinks he knows why. It's the kind of thing that can get out of control, with unknowable and potentially unpleasant consequences.
"It's probably human nature and self-preservation, a recognition that if he enters into this discussion -- and it is open-ended and freewheeling -- he could be negotiating himself out of a job. That's one of the possible consequences down the road."
Furthermore, says Ryan, most of the caucus comes from Northern Ontario, where the NDP is not only more popular than it is down south, but is also more a part of the public fabric. In the north, the communitarian ethic of the NDP is second nature in towns and villages where they know what it is to rely on one's neighbours.
Howard Hampton is a good man, with a politician's acute sense of what's on the minds of real people (a different breed than those for whom the future of social democracy is more important than whether the Leafs won last night).
The question is, can he lead this new generation of leftists, and will they let him? firstname.lastname@example.org
Confab in Limbo
During the holiday news doldrums, that maybe conference on the future of social democracy made the front page.But, as so often with the NDP, disappointment may follow. Professor Desmond Morton says they won't know until next week if it will go ahead. Money is an issue, he says. He has to fund the normal activities of his Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal. Furthermore, are there enough interested people willing to shell out the registration fees to make the conference a success?
"As with all good ideas, it's easier to think about than to do," he says, adding that a decision will be made next week.
If it does go ahead, it will be an invitation-only affair, says the former federal NDP chief, who would help organize the affair. "If some person is a self-described neo-liberal member of the Alliance party, they wouldn't be invited. Similarly, if someone is a self-described Trotskyist, they would not be invited. It's a social democratic parameter, but a lot fits under that label."
Of course, there's nothing die-hard NDPers love more than to chew the fat about their party, so an invitation-only academic affair such as this will not satisfy their appetite. In Ottawa, party staff are putting their heads together to figure out how the party convention later this year can be less business-as-usual and respond to the crisis that many New Democrats feel has gripped the party.
For his part, MP Bill Blaikie says nothing less than something like the milestone convention 40 years ago where the CCF morphed into the NDP will suffice.
"One thing that should be on the table is whether we need some kind of refounding event that would decide if the NDP will proceed as the NDP or the electoral arm of the left should be reconfigured in some way."
In a seeming oxymoron, Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty will convene his party's long-awaited "thinkers' conference" in Niagara-on-the-Lake in March.
In an even more bizarre development, the keynote speaker there will be former U.S. labour secretary Robert Reich, the most left-wing and frustrated member of the Clinton cabinet. In fact, Reich did not seek a second term because he felt he was wasting his time in Bill's administration. Reich's funny and poignant memoir, Locked In The Cabinet, was NDP leader Howard Hampton's fave book when it came out. Ignored Udf:info box: Asked if the Reich invite presages some leftward tilt for the Grits, MPP Michael Bryant says not necessarily. "A lot of people have been considered, some well-known and some not, but we're trying to get the best speakers we can from the U.S., Canada and the UK."
McGuinty is off in jolly old England this week shopping for a political vision. His handlers are tight-lipped about who he's meeting, but it can't be anyone in the British Tory party, which is going nowhere under leader William Hague. It can only be the Blairite Labour types.
What does it all mean? Is the tax-cutting Tory wannabe Dalton from the last election about to do a costume change and play pin-up boy for the left wing? Scary.