Skip to main content

Remember the Waffle, the splinter group of arm-flapping ideologues who became a major force in the NDP in 1969? The Waffle's formation followed a disappointing performance by the party in the 1968 federal election, in which it had been outflanked by Pierre Trudeau with his advocacy of a just society.

The Waffle group tore the NDP into two factions. Its guiding document was a Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada free of American economic domination. Waffle candidate James Laxer came close to winning the party leadership in 1971. A rising NDP star at the time was Stephen Lewis, who opposed the Waffle along with his father, David Lewis, who became party leader.

Today, the NDP has a new Waffle to stir the pot.

Its charter document is the Leap Manifesto. It advocates that all oil be left in the ground and we bounce along happily on moonbeams and other rays.

The rise in popularity of the Leap Manifesto follows a disappointing electoral performance in which the NDP was outflanked by another Trudeau. Like the first Waffle group, the new one is splitting the NDP into factions. It too features the Lewis family, only this time they are supporting the radicals. Stephen's son Avi is an architect of the Leap document, which Stephen tends to favour.

Those tempted to think history might be repeating itself are in no danger of deluding themselves. The party is turning back the clock. Under the leadership of Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair, it was moving into the mainstream. Now, with the rejection of Mr. Mulcair at the Edmonton convention and the rise of the Leapers, it is returning to the days of dogma – days when it didn't even pretend to be a serious contender for the prize of governance.

The first Waffle disbanded after five years. It did impact the party's platform and to some degree the Pierre Trudeau government, which heeded calls for economic nationalism.

Given that the Leap Manifesto has the Lewis imprimatur, it could very well have more staying power. Stephen Lewis is revered within the party, as he should be. His speech to the convention was oratory of a quality we have not seen in years. Avi Lewis could well become a leadership contestant.

Having witnessed the tumult stirred by the old Waffle, Stephen Lewis surely does not wish to see the party driven in that way. But the Leap Manifesto is clearly having that kind of impact. It has put Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley in a hellish position. In a province that lives off oil, this rising wing of her party is demanding it live off something else.

In addition to that, the Leapers have reopened the age-old and confounding question of the party's Weltanschauung: Are we a party of purists, of idealists or of power-seekers?

One of the strengths of Mr. Mulcair was the unity he brought. The NDP spoke with one voice under him. In losing Mr. Mulcair, they lose their Quebec standard-bearer and they lose an outstanding, bilingual parliamentarian who could hold a government to account as well as anyone since John Diefenbaker.

His weaknesses were apparent. Being a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, he did not have roots in the NDP. He was imperious, a leader with a look and style more suited to a bygone age. He lacked a public sense of humour and the common touch. His highly reputed platform skills deserted him at crucial times – when he underperformed in the election-campaign debates and in his convention speech on Sunday.

But the party left Edmonton in worse shape than on arriving there. There is no eminent heir apparent. The New Democrat who takes the leader's job will face enormous hurdles – a governing Liberal Party that occupies a good deal of ground on the left; an NDP that is now more divided than in decades; a manifesto that would put the party in a zone on the political spectrum that has never sniffed power.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe