'New' isn't the only old thing the NDP has to lose

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The Gazette, Friday, August 14, 2009

The NDP started out as the New Party, and became the New Democratic Party as a kind of afterthought, due to a proposal on the floor its founding convention in 1961.

Nearly half a century later, the party isn't so new anymore, and members are thinking of losing the "new" and just becoming the Democrats. They're going to talk about it on the floor of their policy convention in Halifax this weekend.

Then they wouldn't be the Dippers anymore, they'd be the Dems. It might be worth doing for that alone. I mean, how would you like your party to be known as the Dippers?

And could they lose the orange at the same time? "That's not a constitutional change," says Brad Lavigne, the NDP's national director. "We can change the colour any time."

A name change, that's different. It does mean amending the party's constitution, which requires two-thirds approval. Which is why they're going about this gingerly, giving all the brothers and sisters a say. The most likely outcome is that the matter of a name change will be referred to the party membership in a consultation, a very Canadian compromise.

In terms of media coverage, it's already been a huge success, and in that sense has served its purpose of getting people to talk and write about the NDP in the dog days of summer.

"It's the means, not the end, to a discussion of the future of social democracy in this country," Lavigne says.

But this is an important branding issue, and no one knows it better than Lavigne. He used to be party leader Jack Layton's communications director, a much easier job than the one he agreed to take on, at the leader's request, after last October's election.

In a party known for taking itself far too seriously, Lavigne is famous for an ironic sense of humour that has made him friends on all sides of the House. When the Dippers want to talk to the Conservatives in the back room, Lavigne is often the guy they send in.

Rebranding the NDP as the Democratic Party makes eminent sense from a marketing point of view. It's less clunky, less wordy, in both languages. Besides, there's been nothing new about the New Democrats since Ed Broadbent's time, and that's 20 years ago.

Which points to a larger problem of a party stuck in the past, a prisoner of its own interest groups, reciting ideas by rote. They're not quite North Korea, but they're not in the age of Obama, either, although they are on Facebook and YouTube.

From its founding, the NDP's problem has always been the perception that it's a creature of organized labour. Indeed, the Canadian Labour Congress was not only present at the creation, but mid-wife at the birth. All these years later, who is giving an opening keynote? Ken Georgetti, president of the CLC.

The affiliation and affinity with the unions is both a blessing and a curse for the NDP. The labour movement, from teachers to public servants, provides the party with a ground game. But every time there's a strike in the public service, from bus drivers in Ottawa to garbage collectors in Toronto, the NDP brand takes a collateral hit. When an NDP leader calls for essential-services legislation, that'll be a new day.

Moving forward on new ideas in, say, health care, is also a problem in a party that raises statues to the founding father, Tommy Douglas.

That being said, there are some leadership opportunities for Layton provided by Michael Ignatieff's vacating the left in a bid to reclaim the Liberals' hold on the centre, where elections are won and lost in this country.

As another NDP insider puts it: "From torture to tar sands, Iggy is giving us a lot of room." Actually, they don't call it the tar sands anymore, it's the oil sands, but the NDP think they can make it stick to Iggy.

The NDP poll numbers cratered after the abortive Three Stooges coalition last December, when voters figured out they were a party to a very Canadian coup. For months afterward, Layton gave a very good impersonation of an angry white guy. But the smile is back on his face, and going into the convention, the NDP numbers in this week's Nanos poll are at 19 per cent, right where they were last election day when they won 37 seats. That's verging on their target of 20 per cent, which would push their seat total into the 40s, where they were in the glory days of Ed Broadbent.

Question: How is that the NDP regularly forms governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and, now, even in Nova Scotia, but is never more than a third party, the conscience of the left, in Ottawa? Well, because in those provinces, they have become the party of the centre as well as the left, with things like balanced budgets.

For the federal NDP, getting there would mean leaving a lot of baggage behind, perhaps starting with a name.

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