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New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton comments of the goverment's budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 27, 2009. (SHAUN BEST)
New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton comments of the goverment's budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 27, 2009. (SHAUN BEST)

Interview

Layton positions himself as the man in the middle Add to ...

NDP Leader Jack Layton will contrast his "new thinking" with the "old thinking" of Liberals and Conservatives when he takes the floor Sunday at the end of his party's three-day policy convention.

He will try to convince voters that he offers something they haven't seen before - and that he is the man of the middle.

It could be a tough sell for a guy who has led the federal New Democratic Party for nearly seven years and through three elections, and who spent the full $20-million allowed in 2008, yet walked away with just a handful of additional seats.

But Mr. Layton sees a gap opening for New Democrats in Canada's political centre, as Michael Ignatieff moves his Liberal Party further to the right.

And he is buoyed by the success of Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, whose New Democratic Party defeated the Conservative minority in this province two months ago, taking 31 of the 52 seats. A whole session of the convention will be devoted to the Nova Scotia experience and the tantalizing possibility for New Democrats that it could be mimicked at the national level.

"If you watch Darrell Dexter and how he's built his party … it's been step by step," Mr. Layton told The Globe and Mail during an interview Thursday, as final preparations were being made for the party's meeting in the Nova Scotia capital.

Federally, those steps have been slow. Poll numbers suggest that the federal NDP has hit a ceiling. After gaining the support of 18 per cent of voters during the 2008 election, the party has hovered between 15 and 16 per cent in public opinion surveys.

But Peter Donolo, a partner with the Strategic Counsel, says the story has not been all bad for Mr. Layton's New Democrats.

They have prevented the Liberals from polarizing non-Conservative voters against Stephen Harper, Mr. Donolo said. "The stubbornness of NDP support has to be a headache for the Liberals."

Keeping NDP support from drifting to the Liberals is a major part of Mr. Layton's job. And that means keeping a firm grip where loyalties are softest.

"Oh yeah," the NDP Leader said when asked if his party will make a pitch for the centre.

The plan, he said, is to portray New Democrats as being "reasonable and competent." Among the many policy items to be debated this week is a proposal to phase out small-business income tax, something Mr. Layton said he has favoured for a long time.

It's a concept that contrasts with traditional socialist ideals.

James Laxer, a political science professor at York University in Toronto who once ran for NDP leader, took Mr. Layton to task in a magazine article last year for abandoning socialism in pursuit of an elusive election victory.

Mr. Laxer still feels that way. "When it comes to differentiating the NDP from the other parties and presenting a clear progressive alternative, I think the federal NDP hasn't really done the job," he said.

But not all of the policy proposals to be debated this weekend are a natural fit for other political parties.

One of them envisions a massive retrofit of every building in Canada for energy efficiency - a program that would make similar initiatives introduced by Liberal and Conservative governments seem "pathetic, minuscule, symbolic," the NDP Leader said.

And although there is a move afoot to rebrand the New Democrats by changing the name to the Democratic Party, Mr. Layton said he is staying out of the debate on that subject.

Instead of parsing names, Mr. Layton said, he will focus on the economy and the vision that he will sell to Canadians during the next election.

As the current crisis recedes, the job of casting the Conservatives as poor fiscal stewards could become more difficult for all opposition leaders.

But Mr. Layton claims not to be worried.

"I measure that economic situation on the basis of its effect on people's lives. And people are still losing their jobs at horrible rates."

And he has Mr. Dexter's Nova Scotia win to bolster his optimism.

"Darrell is very steady as she goes. You're not going to get a surprise," Mr. Layton said. "Mr. Dexter says, 'here's what we stand for, and we're going to do it responsibly and on a straightforward path.' And so that's the approach that we're taking."

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