Layton nixes cutting NDP ties to labour unions as party goes mainstream

VANCOUVER – Jack Layton says broadening the appeal of the NDP won’t involve cutting its traditional ties to the labour movement.

The NDP leader dismissed suggestions Saturday that the tight relationship with labour unions is an impediment to the party’s growth.

Indeed, Layton credited the relationship for the historic gains made in the May 2 election, in which the NDP scored a record 103 seats and vaulted into official Opposition status.

“I think we’ve come to where we are because of those positive ties and working together for working families,” he told reporters during the second of a three-day NDP policy convention.

“That’s our priority and continues to be. It’s been there since our founding and we’ve now achieved the best success we’ve ever had electorally. So I think you want to continue with what’s working.”

The convention is being billed as the first step toward making the leap from opposition to government by the next election in four years.

In a bid to broaden its appeal, New Democrats are debating whether to jettison some of their ideological baggage, including excising the word “socialist” from the party’s lexicon.

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Delegates are being asked to approve a new preamble to the party’s constitution, which touts the “social democratic principles” of economic and social equality, individual freedom and responsibility and democratic rights. That would replace the current preamble’s reference to the principles of “democratic socialism,” which include “social ownership” and a pox on making a profit.

The proposal, which is to be voted on Sunday, is running into stiff opposition from delegates who believe the party is denying its own roots.

Conservative cabinet minister James Moore brushed aside the debate over the word “socialism” as window dressing, insisting the party’s policies speak for themselves.

“It’s obviously cosmetic and superficial – this is a party that’s proudly socialist,” Moore told reporters outside the NDP convention.

“What matters are policies, and the policies (adopted at the convention) clearly take the NDP even further to the left. Changing a preamble to a constitution that nobody reads as a token of moderation of the party is insulting to the intelligence of Canadians, but they’ll see through it.”

There is no debate, however, on the role of labour unions, which were key players in the founding of the NDP 50 years ago.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the relationship has ensured the NDP has always stood up for “ordinary Canadians.”

“It’s the reason why our party was founded 50 years ago by the CLC and the CCF,” Georgetti said.

“We had a shared vision, a vision of a prosperous and progressive country where everyone shared in the wealth that we all produced, a country with a political party that would stand up for the interests of ordinary working people, a political party that would fight for laws to give them fundamental rights at work.”

If anything, labour disputes at Canada Post and Air Canada seem to have strengthened the ties between labour and New Democrats, who routinely refer to one another as “brothers and sisters” at the convention.

Layton himself took a break from the convention Friday to deliver a message of solidarity with striking postal workers.

He blasted Prime Minister Stephen Harper again Saturday for introducing back-to-work legislation last week immediately after Canada Post locked out workers. Until then, postal workers had been conducting rotating strikes to minimize disruption to mail service.

“Why has he closed the door on Canada Post? Here’s a guy who says he was a terrific manager of the economy and all things economic yet he’s shut down our postal service,” Layton told reporters.

“It’s certainly the wrong thing to do and it sends a very bad signal out to the working people that tromp up and down our sidewalks and deliver our mail … that he doesn’t really respect the bargaining process.”

Layton vowed to use all “parliamentary tools that we have at our disposal” to try to head off the back-to-work legislation. And a top adviser, Brad Lavigne, said staging a filibuster is an option that hasn’t been ruled out.

However, with Harper’s Tories holding a comfortable majority, Layton acknowledged it will be a “tough row to hoe.”

The Harper government also served notice last week that it would legislate Air Canada back to work, less than a day after contract talks broke down. Air Canada reached a tentative settlement on Thursday.

Georgetti said the Harper government’s handling of the Canada Post and Air Canada disputes demonstrates “the reasons the New Democratic Party was created haven’t changed a bit.”

“Workers, union and non-union alike, need a political party in their corner.”

The party was also expected to vote on a resolution Sunday that would rule out the possibility of merging with the federal Liberals.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, who led his provincial New Democrats to victory in 2009, expressed reservations about the anti-merger resolution, suggesting Liberal voters may perceive it as an attack against them and their party.

“It goes back to something that I was talking about earlier, which is the whole question of who the new voters are that you want,” Dexter told reporters before addressing the convention.

“It’s a message, and I’m not sure it’s the one you want to be advancing at this point in time. In fact, I think we should be inviting Liberals into the New Democratic Party. … We don’t want to alienate those people by doing something that essentially insults them.”

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