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Lawrence Martin

A new moniker for the NDP would be like a fresh coat of paint Add to ...

The New Democratic Party is finally getting serious about a name change. There's a growing push to get rid of the "new" and it could happen as early as this month's convention in Halifax.

Brad Lavigne, the party's national director, said several riding associations are pressing for the change and that given the level of interest it will be a high-priority issue at the convention. Leader Jack Layton is not tipping his hand, but insiders say that if backing is sufficient he will gladly support the party simply being called the Democratic Party.

The convention, which will feature speakers from the Democratic Party in the United States, could reject the change, appoint a task force to study the idea, or vote in the change immediately.

If New Democrats choose the latter, it will be one of the boldest and wisest moves they have made in a long time. The name change would modernize the party image, draw a link with the U.S. Democratic Party and potentially give the party a more mainstream appeal.

The fresh coat of paint would help rid the NDP of a wearisome, antiquated image of women at sewing machines and socialist men in frayed tweed suits. The party has called itself new for no less than 48 years. Nothing is new that long. "It was new before I was even born," said Ottawa NDPer Paul Dewar, chuckling at the silliness. "I would be happy to see the change."

Gone would be a lifeless acronym that is so un-hip. "Acronyms have proliferated to the point," said the NDP academic Michael Byers, "where people don't really pay attention to them any more." Mr. Byers, who ran for the party in the last election and has been a prime mover of the name change, rates the chances of it happening at the convention at a little better than 50-50.

Opposition comes from two quarters. The change would create a name difference with the provincial NDP parties. Secondly, the more traditional left side of the party is opposed to the obvious link to the American Democratic Party, which can hardly be classified as left of centre.

But that correlation is what many see as a big plus. Coincidentally, the Halifax convention, the party's first big convention in three years, will showcase two key players from Barack Obama's winning Democratic team. The convention's keynote speaker will be Anita Dunn who was a close communications adviser for him. Also speaking will be Marshall Ganz, architect of the impressive Obama grassroots ground game.

As opposed to just having policy debates, this convention will focus on tactics. In addition to modernizing the name, there is a need to modernize the machinery. Today, the NDP is demonstrating the same support level - about 15 per cent in the polls - as it has in recent years. But considering how today's issues so nicely align for a party like the NDP, that is hardly impressive. There's the recession, there's an unpopular war, there's corporate corruption and malfeasance. If the Dippers can't make gains now, it's a bad sign.

"Yes, I guess you could say that," said Mr. Dewar. The party has to engage new Canadians and young Canadians, people who have not yet found a political home, he said. You do that like the Obama campaign did it - by taking politics to the grassroots via the new technologies and communications tools. Mr. Layton has done well, explained Mr. Dewar, "but you can't carry the whole party by yourself as one leader."

The convention will also give prime place to Gary Doer, the long-time Premier of Manitoba and Darrell Dexter, who recently won the provincial election in Nova Scotia after toiling many years as NDP leader in that province. The idea here is to highlight the point that the long game works. Mr. Layton has increased his party's standing in three straight elections, opening beachheads, as Mr. Lavigne put it, not only in Quebec, but in the last election in Alberta and Newfoundland.

While that is true, no big breakthrough appears to be in the offing. The party is still viewed in the optics of the 1960s. It needs a shakeup, it needs to rid itself of the image of an old party. The best way to do that is get the new out of the name.

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