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FirbyHistory has caught up with the federal New Democratic Party.

The third party emerged in the 1960s, at a time when there seemed to be little difference between the Liberals and then-Progressive Conservatives. The democratic socialist alternative stood for everything the two establishment parties did not: the little guy, organized labour, the environment, gender equality and a raft of other causes lumped loosely into the “left” agenda.

Sunday’s member vote to seek a replacement for leader Thomas Mulcair illustrates just how dramatically times have changed. As we all know, the federal NDP fared poorly in October’s election in part because Mulcair made the strategic error of trying to move the party to the right. The Liberals, cleverly, sensed a shift in the public mood and swooped to victory in part by capturing support that might have otherwise gone further left.

Then, Mulcair reversed course before this weekend’s national convention in Edmonton, saying that if members wanted it he would embrace the policies of the far-left Leap Manifesto, created by anti-corporate author Naomi Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis. Among its policies, the manifesto calls on Alberta to keep its oil in the ground.

Such bipolar policy manoeuvering exposes the fundamental flaw in the old school NDP belief that advocating for labour can always be squared with a radical green agenda. Killing the oil sands in the name of environmentalism would have devastating economic consequences for hundreds of thousands of “little guys” in this province, and put untold unionized workers on the dole. Not exactly in keeping with the NDP’s founding vision.

Not surprisingly, Alberta NDP supporters, in what is likely soon to be only province to have a New Democratic government, did not welcome a message that this oil province’s economy should be sacrificed on the altar of extreme environmentalism.

Instead, Alberta’s popular Premier Rachel Notley argued forcefully and persuasively that there is a responsible way to develop the province’s fossil fuel resources and improve the environmental performance. Notley is right, not just for the sake of Alberta but ultimately for the economic well-being of the country.

And so, the members must wrangle with existential questions that have been lingering for as long as the half-century the party has existed. Is it still the party of “all things left”? Is it a party for the little guy? For labour? For social equality? For the environment? Or is it a party that has seen many of its causes appropriated by the two big parties that have traded power back and forth since the country’s founding?

Mulcair has been shouldered with much of the blame for the party’s poor performance in the last federal election. Some of that criticism is deserved, but in truth he was in a tough spot – he was an honest, sincere and passionate guy who had the misfortune of following the-late Jack Layton, a leader who had achieved sainthood. Mulcair was also running against the fresh-faced Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who managed to cast himself as the voice for a new generation of voters. By comparison, Mulcair and Conservative leader Stephen Harper looked like angry old men.

Ultimately, though, this party’s fortunes rely on much more than the likeability of its leader. Notley’s style of governing is likely a roadmap to where the NDP must move if it is to regain relevance on the national stage. The Alberta government has bent over backwards to be business-friendly and unabashedly advocated for the construction of oil pipelines, while at the same time advancing some of the most progressive environmental policies in the country.

It is moving on its social agenda while at the same time acknowledging that without a healthy economy to sustain the tax base, the funding just won’t be there. This is the same sort of prairie pragmatism that has distinguished NDP governments in the three mid-western provinces from its counterparts in B.C., Ontario and on the national scene.

There is no easy way forward for the national party. Members must once again ask themselves what the party truly stands for, and more importantly what it does not. If it hopes to find the emotional vein that will lead one day to power, then the most radical branches may need to be pruned.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

© Troy Media


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