Volume 96, Issue 69
Friday, January 31, 2003

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Can a "heart of gold" win over voters?

By Tait Simpson
Gazette Staff

"This is a party interested in you," declared Jack Layton, the charismatic Toronto city councillor. "It's time to end the senseless quest towards the militarism in this world."

Whether it's time for peace or not, one thing is for sure – it's Jack Layton time on the national stage.

The new leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada has a tremendous amount of work to do in the coming months, not the least of which is to recruit strong candidates to run in ridings where the NDP have not traditionally received support, such as those around London.

Last Saturday in Toronto, as I stood on the convention floor surrounded by 1,600 NDP members – already converted believers – it seemed clear that the new leader's challenge was to broaden the party's appeal, the perennial challenge of the NDP. Layton has skeptics in every major paper in country, but, on this day, he had what he wanted – the strong support of a majority of Canada's left-wing party members.

Much of the party's old guard has, and still hold, reservations about Layton's ability to lead a national party – a party which last saw mainstream political success under former leader Ed Broadbent, who led them to 44 seats in the House of Commons in 1988.

Layton has already run unsuccessfully to become an MP in two federal elections, and does not currently have a seat in the House. He has been perceived as shallow and impersonal by some party members. Still, Layton's believers spoke volumes, giving him a clear first-ballot victory in the leadership vote

Whether Layton is successful or not, the national presence of the NDP will remain solidified by a core group of members who have always and will continue to believe in the ideas of the party.

As I entered Canadian Exhibition Hall B on Friday, the opening day of the convention, the hall was full long before television cameras had begun live broadcasts. Resolutions were being passed to direct party policy until the next convention, on everything from health care to the environment, to promoting peace.

Dozens of tables were full with people from every province, many of them party members who had lost count of the number of conventions they had attended. Retired and current union members and aging social activists played a large role in the crowd, highlighting the lack of youth and working professionals. I was in the youth and student minority.

One specific resolution that was not passed by the delegates was a proposed plan to increase the party's base among students. Youth membership in the party wanes behind that of other major parties, and the number of youth at the convention worried observers, such as Dr. William Cross, a professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.

An expert in political parties, Cross said the party needed to broaden its base among minorities and youth groups in order to be competitive in the growing urban ridings.

"So many kids vote along traditional family lines," said one student delegate at the convention. "It's unfortunate, because this party is the loudest to speak to the need for social action, and yet I feel, among students, there is little faith in what this party can do."

What is clear from the filled seats, passionate speakers and attentive ears, is that this is a party that has no plans of going away. There was no talk of party mergers or changing party names, common scenes at the conventions of Canada's political right.

Here was a party based on ideas of equality that meant a great deal to a great many people. A genuine kindness among party members seemed to override internal policy disputes.

As the delegates thrusted their orange Layton signs in the air during the victory speech, a delegate handed me a Layton sign to carry, as if to say, "Aren't you coming with us?"

Western lost its NDP club some time ago. In conversations with party delegates, I was often asked if I was a party member, to which I responded no. How could I not want to be a part of this many asked? Did it not make sense to me?

Much of the rhetoric actually didn't sound right – the speeches about the need to get rid of trade agreements, freezing spending to an already poorly equipped military and little talk of fiscal responsibility. Despite some arguably impractical policy, on a personal level, the convention somehow felt right.

As the resolution discussion ended on the first day, Neil Young's Heart of Gold came over the loud speakers as the delegates filed out.

The NDP has always been the party with a heart of gold, but it's rarely translated into votes. And it remaines to be seen, whether this newly anointed leader can reverse that trend.

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