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NDP leader Jack Layton pauses as he delivers his keynote speech to the party's 50th anniversary convention in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday June 19, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP leader Jack Layton pauses as he delivers his keynote speech to the party's 50th anniversary convention in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday June 19, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NDP faces barriers to evolution Add to ...

Delegates to the federal New Democratic Party convention faltered at taking the next evolutionary steps on Jack Layton's path to forming government in 2015.

After 50 years as the "conscience of Parliament," the NDP are finally the Official Opposition. Mr. Layton used his weekend convention in Vancouver to begin to modernize party policies, to entrench new-found support and to build a campaign organization that can rival the federal Conservatives.

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But a proposal to drop the "socialist" label from the party's guiding principles - a symbolic bid to make the party less scary to mainstream voters - bogged down in heated debate and was put on hold.

Delegates also were divided over how to deal with the Liberal Party of Canada, now relegated to third-party status in the House of Commons. Delegates voted to leave the door open to merger talks, but not before exposing a bitter vein of anti-Liberal sentiment.

Mr. Layton, in an interview Sunday, said his party needs to refresh without abandoning the principles that won 4.5 million votes on May 2.

"Whatever we were doing seems to have attracted the support of an awful lot of Canadians," he said in an interview. However, he added, the party has to build new bridges as it evolves into a mainstream alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's majority government.

Next steps

Organization

The party needs to bulk up weak riding associations and ramp up its fundraising reach. On Friday it launched the Broadbent Institute, a left-wing think tank to generate new ideas that will shape the party's platform heading into the next election.

At the same time, Mr. Harper's Conservatives are now building on a bigger, more established base. Little wonder Peter Stoffer, MP for Sackville-Eastern Shore, fought a resolution to reject any Liberal merger talks. "We need Liberals in the future to develop the New Democratic Party of the future," he told delegates.

Regional balance

The NDP has long been a party of English Canada. On May 2, it became a party with MPs in eight provinces - more than half of them in Quebec.

"We are well-positioned as the official opposition party to make sure Quebec will feel respected, like its aspirations are being met by a federal party within Canada," Guy Caron, the NDP's Quebec caucus chair, said in an interview. Mr. Layton is treading carefully to find a balance that does not cost the NDP voters outside of Quebec - last month, he was lambasted in Quebec for ambiguity on the party's position on sovereignty.

There are other regional challenges, such as deciding if the harmonized sales tax is good or bad. The NDP government in Nova Scotia recently raised its HST rate, while in B.C., the NDP opposition is fighting to kill the tax.

Political balance

With the collapse of the Bloc Québécois and the Liberals, the NDP have room to fill. Do they tilt left and carve out a clear alternative to the Conservative majority, or seek to occupy the middle ground?

The party's research last year showed that the greatest room for growth was in targeting a different kind of voter than the party's traditional base: Older, wealthier Canadians. Keeping those new-found supporters in the NDP tent now is the task. "We need to entrench the gains we made and to occupy the space taken up by both the Bloc and the Liberals," said Brad Lavigne, the party's principal secretary. "We need to ensure our appeal is broad."

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