NDP keep options open on socialism, merger with Liberals

VANCOUVER – New Democrats aren’t sure if they’re still socialists or if they might want to merge with the Liberals one day.

Following heated debates, they kept their options open on both matters Sunday as the NDP wrapped up a three-day convention that marked the party’s 50th anniversary.

A Conservative minister pounced on the apparent indecision, accusing the NDP of suffering an “identity crisis.”

But for many New Democrats, the failure to firmly define themselves was an indication the party is determined to broaden its appeal without alienating its oldtime base.

The roughly 1,500 delegates voted down a resolution which called on the party to reject any discussion of a merger with the Liberal party.

And they avoided a potential schism in their own ranks by deferring a vote on a controversial proposal to excise the word “socialist” from the preamble to the NDP constitution.

NDP Leader Jack Layton – whose leadership was endorsed by an overwhelming 97.9 per cent of delegates -played down the significance of both issues.

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He noted there’s “no proposition in front of us” to join with the Liberals. The refusal to rule out the idea, he added, was more a matter of not wanting to gratuitously insult Liberals, whom the NDP needs to woo if it is to make the leap from official Opposition to government in the next election.

“The idea of encouraging Liberals to come and join with us, we’re wide open to that and I think that was part of the sentiment that underlay the discussion and the vote,” Layton told a news conference moments after closing the convention.

As for punting on whether the NDP constitution should replace the term “democratic socialists” with the more anodyne “social democrats,” Layton effectively shrugged. He called the terms “two sides of the same coin.”

“These aren’t terms that I use. I don’t go around sticking labels on myself,” he said.

“I have found that it’s much more important to focus on the issues that matter to people.”

The proposal to delete references to socialism, put forward by the party, provoked heated debate among the delegates and seemed headed for defeat. Brian Topp, the newly elected party president and close adviser to Layton, moved that the matter be referred back to the party executive for further consultation.

Layton played down the schism that developed over the proposal.

“I think what you saw here was a feeling by the convention that they wanted to have some more discussion about how we describe, how we capture in a number of paragraphs in the preamble to the constitution, what those values are that motivate us and define us,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s disagreement about the values. There seems to be some disagreement about the label.”

Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, the Conservative observer at the convention, acknowledged that all parties have some divisions in their ranks. But he said few are as fundamental as those on display at the NDP convention.

“This is a party that’s obviously, traditionally an ideological party, that’s proudly called itself socialist. And I think they’re having a bit of an identity crisis here,” Moore said.

Stephane Dion, the Liberal observer, said the failure to drop the socialist label shows the NDP is stuck in the past and is “not ready to be a government.”

As for the merger resolution, Dion said Liberals aren’t interested in joining forces with the NDP. But he added the tone of the resolution and the evident hatred for Liberals that emanated from its supporters, “shows that part of this party does not understand what is a democratic, pluralist party; they’re still in a socialist world.”

There was certainly evidence of gloating from some delegates over the fact that the NDP vaulted past the once-mighty Liberals in the May 2 election, winning a record 103 seats and official Opposition status for the first time in its history.

“I think we need to be clear. We don’t need the Liberals,” said one supporter of the anti-merger resolution.

Another said the resolution was really about “rejecting everything the Liberal party has stood for.”

“We have to stand on our own two feet,” he exhorted.

However, the counter-arguments of two MPs, who argued that the NDP can’t afford to alienate potential Liberal supporters, carried the day.

“To close the door on any discussion with Liberals now or in the future, I think is a tactical, serious mistake,” said Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer.

He pointed out that the NDP needs “a lot of Liberals” to switch allegiance in order to win power.

“We don’t get Liberals if we say, ‘Because you’re a Liberal, we no longer have talks with you.’ “

Northern Ontario MP Carol Hughes echoed the sentiments: “Instead of pushing them away, let’s welcome them with open hands and open arms into our party.”

Yet another MP, Winnipeg’s Pat Martin, gave an impassioned defence of the proposal to shed the party’s socialist baggage.

“Friends, I ask you to consider today that we are within striking distance of forming this country’s first stable, progressive, majority, social democratic government,” Martin said.

“We have the wind in our sails … We only have one problem, our anchor is dragging behind us. Our anchor is fouled up on the rusted hull of some old ship that sank in the last century and it’s holding us back.”

But Martin’s fiery rhetoric was greeted with boos. It was Barry Weisleder -chairman of the self-styled socialist caucus, which NDP brass regard as an irritant – who won cheers for his defence of the party’s socialist roots.

“You can take socialism out of the preamble but you can’t take socialism out of the NDP,” Weisleder proclaimed. “This proposal, it’s a bit like trying to take cornflakes out of Kellogg’s.”

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