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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters after a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on June 2, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters after a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on June 2, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Socialist Caucus

'To survive, the NDP has to turn left,' diehards tell Layton Add to ...

After voters placed the NDP squarely in the mainstream of Canadian politics, Jack Layton must now face a convention where some party diehards are urging a sharp left turn.

The self-described " socialist caucus" knows what it would like to see when the party gathers for its 50th anniversary later this month in Vancouver.

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Its wish list of convention resolutions include calls to close "the Alberta Tar Sands," legalize marijuana, boycott "apartheid Israel," nationalize the auto, bank and insurance companies and repeal the Clarity Act.

The chair of the socialist caucus, Barry Weisleder, says they've succeeded in getting some of the resolutions endorsed by riding associations and youth clubs.

Few, if any, of them, however will make it to the convention floor as they are likely to be weeded out by a closed-door session at the start of the convention that controls what issues will be allowed for debate.

Mr. Layton, the NDP Leader, noted Thursday that certain resolutions at NDP conventions always attract lots of media attention even though their odds of success are slim.

"Political parties are there in part to help pull together a diversity of range of issues, sometimes very controversial," he said. "Headline writers sometimes find this fun and they'll pick an idea that pops out - [it]might not have particularly very much support, but suddenly it's the largest headline imaginable in the world. And we expect that kind of thing. It gets Canadians talking and I think it's a good thing for people to be talking about the issues, but I also have a lot of faith in the wisdom of our party and its democratic structure, which over the years has served us very well."

The history of the NDP shows that party leaders alienate the far left of the party at their peril.

On more than one occasion, serious campaigns from the left threatened to split the party. Among them, the socialist-based "Waffle movement" of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the "New Politics Initiative" that nearly saw the NDP disbanded in 2001.

That movement, which included current NDP MP Libby Davies, felt the party had moved too close to the centre under then leader Alexa McDonough. A motion was put to delegates in 2001 to disband the NDP to create a new, more leftist party. Delegates defeated the idea in a 684-401 vote.

Mr. Layton, who has long pushed to move his party closer to the political centre, has nonetheless always given Ms. Davies prominent roles. She is currently one of two deputy leaders.

Mr. Weisleder, the socialist caucus chair, rejects the idea that Mr. Layton's electoral success shows more moderate policies are the path to victory.

"I think the election on May 2 sent a very clear message: the voters rejected the Liberal Party and the NDP should not strive to become a substitute Liberal Party. That's the road to ruin," he said in an interview. "To survive, the NDP has to turn left and offer Canadians and in particular working people, an alternative to the corporate agenda."

One of the founders of the Waffle movement, York University political science professor James Laxer, said Mr. Layton's political success will surely dampen any grumbling from the party's left flank.

"I think that tension is always there," he said. "I think frankly that it's going to be muted at this next convention."

Mr. Laxer said Mr. Layton's success at avoiding those internal splits is partly because he won with left-leaning credentials, meaning many gave him the benefit of the doubt as he edged the party toward the center.

"When you're winning, it tends to mean that people who are going to suggest that 'Hey, we should be doing different things,' are less likely to get much exposure and less likely to even make the effort in a kind of serious way," he said.

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