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Trinity-Spadina MP Olivia Chow speaks to supporters during a tribute to her late husband, Jack Layton, at the NDP leadership convention in Toronto on March 23, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Canadian Press)
Trinity-Spadina MP Olivia Chow speaks to supporters during a tribute to her late husband, Jack Layton, at the NDP leadership convention in Toronto on March 23, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Canadian Press)

Final pitches by NDP contenders fail to inspire Add to ...

In the last year, more Canadians seem to have warmed to the idea of supporting the NDP. Watching Friday’s speeches by NDP leadership candidates, I sensed the party is getting cold feet about this relationship.

For one thing, there was more talk about how not to win than how to win a general election. Several candidates went out of their way to say it's better to lose than to compromise their principles. Whenever this was said, it got a rise out of the crowd – who curiously didn’t rise for much.

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Now, it’s hard not to quarrel with the sentiment behind this point. Except that nobody wins elections in our system without putting at least some water in their wine.

If New Democrats don’t want to move toward the centre in order to have a chance at wielding power, because they might win but wouldn’t be able to follow their ideology, that doesn’t square so well with their frustration about Stephen Harper. He merged his Conservative Party with a party he considered to be the Diet Coke of conservatism. Now he’s been running the country for six years – and according to the NDP, pretty much pursuing his ideology.

Friday’s speeches tended to draw heavily on three themes:

1. The NDP must win to right the wrongs of past decades. Bad trade deals, policies that favour business, loss of union power. Rhetoric that warms the base, and leadership races are about the base, but this is a unique moment in the history of the party, because so many other people are watching too. And for them, much of this may sound dated and out of touch with how they see the economy today. They may wonder if building up unions, weakening corporations, and unwinding free trade will really create more jobs for young Canadians, make sure that older people can live with dignity, and ensure we all have access to good health care.

2. Harper and his Tories are thugs with bad values. This is a pretty popular song in gatherings like this, and there can be a broader market for it too. But like any song that has been played a lot, it needs a fresh arrangement or it begins to sound like elevator music. Great political leaders make these arguments come alive every time, bring people to their feet, convince them that something can be done about the people who upset them. There was little of that on offer Friday.

3. The NDP can win. Much effort was put into saying that victory was within reach, but it sometimes sounded like neither the speaker nor the audience were convinced it was true. It felt like what a coach might say in a dressing room after the second period, down by five goals, instead of the speech you’d hear before the first game of a new season. The path to victory, several said, was to unite progressives. This may be good strategy, but isn’t a great speech.

Sitting in the cavernous room, I found myself recalling how over the years so many powerful political speeches come from those on the left. Democrats like Cuomo, Jackson, Ted, Robert and John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Lyndon Johnson on civil rights. Speeches that remind people of deplorable problems, our moral responsibility to help others, hope about what can be done, and offer a big dream or two. In an era where disengagement with politics is so widespread, the NDP seemed at risk of falling into a habit that other parties have suffered from: talking about political strategy instead of human aspiration.

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