It Really Is About New Politics

The New Politics Initiative (NPI), which made its debut at the New Democratic Party’s national convention in Winnipeg last weekend, could be one of the most innovative and significant developments for Canada’s left in a long time.

Of course I am a little biased, since I’m a co-founder.

Contrary to what you have seen in the media, the NPI is not primarily about moving the NDP to the left.

The NPI is about a new kind of politics — it’s about being more participatory, more engaging, more open and more diverse.

NPI argued that the NDP must open itself to the new forces of the anti-globalization movement by initiating the formation of a new party. What became clear over the course of last weekend’s NDP convention is the new initiative is really about transforming leftwing politics by bringing together the best traditions of the old left with the radical democracy of the new.

As Jim Stanford, an economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, told a caucus of NPI supporters on Saturday, “If anyone had told me that a young woman would be marching around the floor of an NDP convention, wearing nothing but an NPI banner, distributing buttons, I would have told them they were dreaming in technicolour.”

It wasn’t just the spirit on the floor of the NDP convention that revealed the changes, but also the extraordinary forum that the NPI held on the Friday night of the convention.

In an uplifting meeting, a wide diversity of people talked about why they supported the NPI. Participants included several youth and a couple who had attended the founding convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1932.

Feeling a little like a revival meeting, what was unique about this night was that people were sharing their experiences rather than arguing their political points.

While the women’s movement has been using the techniques of sharing experiences to build a common politic for years, the political left has never before embraced this kind of discussion.

Almost everyone had a voice here. You didn’t need to have fully formed political views to speak, and the most unexpected people got standing ovations.

Even physically, the meeting drew together the old ways and the new. Some people lined up at the main microphone while others spoke from their seats, using a roving mike.

Every participant, even hardened old activists like myself, felt inspired by the experience.

It can be difficult to combine a traditional convention based on old top-down politics with a new open participatory politic. So the NPI made mistakes. Our members could have been better organized on the floor. Some people who should have been able to speak couldn’t. Some weren’t able to counter the spin about the initiative being a hard turn to the left.

Yet, instead of recriminations, everyone openly admitted the current weaknesses and moved on.

The NPI also brought the spirit of the anti-globalization movement onto the floor — chants, costumes and face paint included.

But more significantly, within a profoundly cautious political party, 40 per cent voted for the NPI’s radical proposal to initiate a new party.

Indeed the impact may have been strong enough to open the NDP, for the first time in its history, to formally including a political opposition.

The other side of this group’s activities is to challenge the anti-globalization movement and other social movements to understand not only the importance of electoral politics, but also the value of the NDP itself.

This convention showed clearly that the NDP is really a party of working people.

On the flight back from Winnipeg, I sat next to an older woman who, after three days of intense conventioning, had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to go to work at her plant.

She and thousands like her see the NDP as the party that best represents their interests.

The contempt some leftists feel for the NDP is troubling, giventhe the profound working-class nature of the party and its importance to the political life of thousands of working people, who see no other institution in society speaking for them.

The NDP might rarely do justice to this important responsibility, but no other force on the left, except the trade unions, can claim this kind of mass representation at all.

Internationally, two currents are emerging on the left. On one side, social democratic parties in England and most of Europe are moving to the right, embracing the so-called “third way,” meaning corporate globalization with a slightly more humane face.

The other current is emerging through the anti-corporate globalization movement and some socialist parties in Latin America. This current strongly opposes corporate globalization, seeing radical democracy — engaging citizens at every level of government — as the way to counter corporate power.

Only two people at last weekend’s NDP convention openly supported “third way politics ” — Peter Stouffer, a Nova Scotia Member of Parliament, and Jeffrey Simpson, a Globe and Mail columnist.

Almost 40 per cent voted to go in the other direction.

Clearly, the work of the NPI is just beginning.

Our caucus at the convention decided to continue to build local groups, and continue to bring the NDP and grassroots activists closer together.

As someone who has given up on the NDP more than once in my long political career, I have a strong sense that a new kind of political party — one that brings together most of the forces fighting for social justice — is a real possibility.

Further Reading

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