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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Ian Capstick

The NDP's Red Ensign problem Add to ...

Lester B. Pearson stood in front of a crowd of increasingly agitated Royal Canadian Legion members. He told them unequivocally: a new era had arrived in Canada and this new era needed a uniquely Canadian flag. The crowd turned on him - shouting, heckling and hissing.

This kicked off a debate. It raged for months outside the House of Commons and within. Emotion fuelled it, politics sustained it and eventually a committee solved the months of huffing and puffing. The history of our flag is very Canadian. Bluster turned to committee with eventual compromise, eh.

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This history also helps illustrate why, this weekend at the federal convention in Halifax, some New Democrats will use all their political will and capital to keep our party name whole. I call it the Red Ensign problem.

Battles have been fought and won under the name New Democratic Party. Rightly, supporters are very proud of the moniker; provincial wings with majority governments are certainly wary of the change lest it mess with their successes - but most of it amounts to a simple emotional attachment to the name.

Media and pundits are focused on the proposed rebranding because it's interesting and, let's face it, New Democrats are not interesting all that often. It seems the party has learned a lesson from years of weird-to-obscure - and sometimes asinine - policy resolutions. No longer are various self-appointed factions of the party riding to the convention on a handful of votes and proposing the full nationalization of the economy.

Critics of the proposed change suggest this debate is waste of time; I'd suggest they take a look at what it has already helped reveal.

First, a handful of old-school 1960s-era activists are in a fit of pique about the name change, riling up the left-wing base of the party that respects them, buys their books and tends to echo their cause-du-jour. This reveals them to be simply agent provocateurs .

Recent commentary on rebranding by James Laxer and Judy Rebick read like the golden age of protest was here again. Laxer even went so far as to claim, "While they are not likely to say it, those who want to rename the NDP the Democratic Party want to abandon the social democratic or socialist dimension in the party's outlook."

The New Democrats will always have critics on the left. I just wish they would stop trying to call themselves New Democrats while they lash out at those of us still willing to door knock, mail drop and actually fight elections to win.

Second, this debate has re-energized a group of supporters who want to reach for something more than what we have achieved so far. For many in the federal NDP simply standing on a soapbox in the corner of the House of Commons shouting at the government isn't enough. Many who support the name change believe it is about something deeper than a simple rebranding of the party. This is about a new generation asserting itself.

Politics in which elected people and citizens who are willing to collaborate, debate, adapt and even be allowed to change their mind on occasion will be celebrated. Those who would rather relive old grievances and play old-style class politics will be left to fight meaningless partisan battles - instead of being in power.

The most articulate voice for this new generation is Paul Dewar, the MP for Ottawa-Centre. He has emerged as key part of NDP Leader Jack Layton's team. A teacher, he is a natural negotiator and reacts calmly to otherwise stressful situations. It wasn't Dewar himself who came up with the motion proposing a study of the name change, it was his grassroots riding association. Dewar, being a good MP and a better political tactician, seized it and is using it as way to take a critical look at the way the party is operating.

Already the NDP has proven itself to be a political machine capable of contending in enough ridings to lead a government. Delegates in Halifax will learn to organize better, fundraise smarter and hear from key players in one of the world's most successful political brands. Again, the agent provocateurs will moan and whine. And we should let them - we just shouldn't be worried by them. They practice the same negative politics of the Conservatives - we can be better than that.

Democrats in Canada are centrist and leftist socialists, social democrats, unionists and workers, either fiscally conservative or liberal. Democrats believe fundamentally in democracy and the will of people, we believe government does not exist only to be made smaller or, worse, only to "earn" votes in the next election. Democrats can work with people in all political parties to forge compromise and build solutions. Democrats can lead governments.

Pearson wasn't the first to suggest a new flag. He was just the one willing to put up with the bluster before the change. No matter what Canada's social democratic party ends up being named, it's clear the only path to the Prime Minister's Office is seeking to take a bit of the bluster and anger out of Canadian politics.

Ian Capstick has worked four national elections, three with Jack Layton's New Democrats

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