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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

The federal NDP needs to grow up. Can it do the job? Add to ...

Starting now, the political world changes for the federal New Democratic Party.

No longer will NDP comments be judged as those of a third or fourth party; that is, not given much consideration by the media, the other parties or the country. Smiling Jack is a great image, but what NDP Leader Jack Layton actually says, and whether what he says adds up, will now count. No longer can the NDP throw together policies that are poorly costed and don't make much sense, as happened in the last election. No longer are they going to be ignored by the Conservatives' attack machine.

The NDP's shift from party at the margin to party near the action will be the most important political development to watch in the months and years ahead. Will that shift be one of rhetoric or reality?

Already we can see Mr. Layton, a majority of whose caucus comes from Quebec, playing footsy with Quebec secessionists, using their language, taking up some of their causes, associating his party with some of their positions.

This positioning might bring short-term popularity in Quebec, but it will irritate voters, including NDP voters, over time outside the province and eventually bring internal grief to the caucus and the federal party. But beyond the dalliances with Quebec nationalism of various hues, how the NDP understands the economy will determine its long-term political success, since above all, more often than not, average voters will support the party best able to manage an economy.

Will the federal party grow up and become a serious, pragmatic party of the centre-left, as its provincial cousins did in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Nova Scotia, and as some social democratic parties did in Europe? Or will it remain, with all its new, inexperienced MPs, a party of protest?

The federal NDP has always been better at talking about redistributing wealth than creating it. Mostly, the federal NDP sees job-creation coming from subsidies. It longs for some kind of industrial strategy, deeply dislikes free-trade agreements, and harbors a suspicion of corporate size. Very few of its MPs have ever been prominent in the private sector.

Corner stores, family farms, co-ops and small businesses are fine, but the federal party has this thing about corporate size. Big oil. Big banks. Big telcos. Big agribusiness. Big mining. Corporate big is bad; labour big is good.

Indeed, the whole worldwide thrust to globalization in all its manifestations has left federal New Democrats distinctly uneasy. This kind of uneasiness, even hostility, used to characterize European social democratic parties, but does so no longer. Within Europe, they have come to terms with a multinational world. They also understand that their little countries have to compete with emerging giants in a mercilessly competitive world.

Nor has the federal NDP come close to understanding the kind of changes introduced in Britain and Sweden by centre-left governments to provide more consumer choice within public services, be it health care, education or daycare. For the federal NDP, health care remains the classic public good: publicly financed, publicly run, the problems of which can best be solved by continuing, sizable infusions of additional dollars, a recipe for almost certain stagnation.

Since the federal NDP has never run a government, or come close to running one, it tended to attract people for whom government policy was more of an abstraction than a reality. The federal party was therefore quite unlike its provincial cousins, as anyone who ever attended a federal NDP convention immediately understood.

Quietly, for sure, the provincial types from Saskatchewan and Manitoba would roll their eyes at some of the pronouncements from their federal cousins. Provincial New Democrats had had to make compromises, juggle contending interests and try to make revenues and expenditures roughly balance.

Just as absolute power corrupts, so absolute lack of power also corrupts, in the sense that people without the hope of power can say whatever they want without ever being held closely to account.

Those days are now over for the federal NDP as Official Opposition. As a result, the party's habitually close relationship with the parliamentary press gallery is about to change, which will be quite a shock for some New Democrats who, accustomed to being overlooked, don't take kindly to being looked over, especially critically.

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