I report with unalloyed joy that I am not attending the NDP convention in Halifax. I hope it's a good show and I doubly hope that the major new policy initiatives the NDP has been quietly preparing for many months get some media attention. But I greatly fear the irrelevant sideshow about changing the party's name will obscure all other important news. Give the media an excuse not to cover serious policy debates and they'll jump at it every time. Hasn't almost every single story related to the convention so far focused on the name change?
To tell the truth, at this advanced stage, my interest in conventions is the nostalgia they evoke in me. In the blessedly short time I was NDP federal secretary (in effect national director), I was responsible for only one convention, but it happened to be on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the CCF, the NDP's predecessor. I have a wonderful photo of me blasting out Solidarity Forever with Tommy Douglas and Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney, with them faking the words they didn't know beyond the chorus and me carrying two of my heroes with gusto and pleasure.
It's quite possible that was the only pleasant moment of the convention for me. The goony left was determined to run a candidate for leader against Ed Broadbent, but their hapless sacrificial lamb fled and hid in the washroom so the media and the rest of us couldn't find him. Ed won.
And there was also the usual distraction from the "real" left (who invariably considered all the rest of us bourgeois sell-outs) to inject Real Socialism into the party's platform. To celebrate the 50th birthday, they decided to push for the wholesale nationalization of the banking sector. All of Canada's banks would be put under public ownership on the magic day that a suddenly radicalized proletariat rose up and swept the party into power. Not a soul involved in this initiative had the vaguest grasp of how the banking system actually worked -almost no one does, as we've seen recently - but the debate wasn't about banks or finance or economics. It was a test of ideological purity.
The inevitable came to pass. A series of interminable behind-the-scenes negotiations were held to determine which compromise would be least unacceptable. Of course, no one involved in this delicate process knew anything about banks. In the end, it was resolved that an NDP government, having formed a majority government when the messiah appeared, would move to put only one of Canada's banks under public ownership. The Lucky One was not named, since even the self-styled radicals hoped it wouldn't be the bank holding their own mortgage. If memory serves, the motion passed easily and was never heard from again, as was its due.
Whether anything positive occurred at that convention I no longer recall. Vast time and energy, and much media coverage, naturally, were wasted on these two surrealistic capers. But still, it was fun belting out "and the union makes us strong" at the top of my lungs, even if for the NDP the opposite was true.
Looking back, those two years as federal secretary were not among those I remember most wistfully. But the position also automatically made me election campaign manager and I loved being in charge of the 1984 election. That was the famous campaign we devised for Broadbent identifying Liberals and Tories as being as interchangeable as Visa and Master Card, and won 19 per cent of the vote. Since we'd entered the campaign at about half that level, we were pretty pleased with the result, and in fact it was one of the best the party ever got.
Next election, Ed broke the party's record and hit 20 per cent, but that high has never been approached since, not even close. The ardent dream of replacing the Liberal Party was as unreachable then as it had been when the CCF mutated into the NDP in 1961 and as it remains today. In 2008, when the party spent vastly more money than ever before and faced the worst Liberal leader in a generation, we got 18 per cent of the vote, a little over the average of the last decade. These results have been obtained over the generations regardless of who our leader has been, who the opposing leaders were, what the prevailing economic circumstances were, how much was spent, or how clever our strategy has been (my terrific one was worth only 19 per cent, after all.).
Let me put it another way: After 76 years of the CCF/NDP and 48 years of the NDP and after fighting about 25 elections during that time, the message the Canadian public keeps giving is hardly ambiguous. Yes, the party has won governments in British Columbia, Yukon, Saskatchewan, Manitoba (still), Ontario (once!) and now Nova Scotia. But at the national level, most Canadians want us around to keep the other guys honest but not to govern. That's the evidence-based reality, as we say these days, and changing the name isn't going to change it one jot or tittle. Hell, how many people say "the NDP Party" - the New Democratic Party Party? Many haven't a clue what our precise name is, and don't care. They know who we are. And they know what our brand means to them.
We're the ones who fight for lost causes. We're the ones who stand for social justice and equality and civil liberties and peace when no one else does. We're the party that should consistently be advocating serious new policies that speak directly to the many economic and social woes that so many Canadians, and the country in general, face. And those policies, and the way we present them, should be so compelling that the other parties, the ones that actually form governments, will be forced to pay attention to them. That's what the NDP exists to do, whatever it's called. Or should. And when it works, it makes us all properly proud and justifies our existence.