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Shedding 'socialism' bad move for NDP?

Change in party constitution may irk grassroots

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OTTAWA -- For the third time in as many policy conventions, NDP party brass are pushing to change the NDP constitution to tone down references to socialism and open the door to modern policies on resource development.

It is, inevitably, giving rise yet again to questions about whether the NDP is abandoning its roots, walking away from the core beliefs of supporters, in order to become a more palatable, less-lefty option for voters in Canada, the majority of whom sit in the mushy political middle.

Winnipeg politics professor Shannon Sampert says she wondered when this was actually going to happen because all political parties, as they grow up, need to appeal not just to a niche group but to voters as a whole.

"It was really just a matter of time," she said.

The change proposed will be voted on this weekend at the NDP convention in Montreal.

Two years ago in Vancouver, just weeks after the NDP had its best election showing ever and was still finding its feet as official Opposition, a motion to remove references to "socialism" from the NDP constitution was tabled. It led to a heated debate at the party's convention in Vancouver. Some felt the party was trying to become another Liberal party and was moving too far from its roots. Others believed it was a necessary change for the party to stay relevant and modern.

The waters were calmed only when then-party president Brian Topp moved to postpone the motion, and have the party executive work on it some more.

A committee was struck, including former NDP MP Bill Blaikie from Manitoba, which spent time over the last two years consulting and working on a new preamble for the constitution.

Unlike the 2011 version, this time the proposed new preamble in the constitution maintains at least one reference to "democratic socialist traditions" but tones down some of the rhetoric against capitalism. Gone is the line that says "the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people within a sustainable environment and economy and not to the making of profit."

Instead, the NDP now wants to advocate for a "rules-based economy" in which governments "have the power to act in the public interest, for social and economic justice and for the integrity of the environment."

It is perhaps more subtle than the 2011 proposal but it is still likely to alienate some NDP members who joined the party specifically because of its socialist connections.

Almost any party in Canada tends to end up in the centre to win and hold on to a government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to quiet the socially conservative members of his caucus after the Liberals, during the 2004 election, successfully scared Canadians into thinking he was going to ban abortion and reverse the legalization of gay marriage.

The provincial NDP is often said to be a completely centrist government, so far from the left that recently even Tory Leader Brian Pallister appeared to the NDP's left when he advocated for an increase in rental allowances for people on welfare.

The NDP's move to the centre is so profound, it has left no room for the provincial Liberals. Which is what the federal NDP would love to see happen for them as well.

With the Liberals poised for a potential comeback under the leadership and star power of Justin Trudeau, the federal NDP must define themselves for voters without scaring them off. But they must do it without alienating the strength of their party, which has always been a loyal and dedicated membership willing to drop everything to help campaign.

NDP party president Rebecca Blaikie, who has roots as deep as anyone's in the party, said if she thought the new preamble would alienate the grassroots and abandon the party's history, she wouldn't back it.

"I think it's something the membership will see themselves reflected in," she said. "It speaks to who we are."

Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin said the party's enemies use the word socialist against it, so why not throw it overboard.

Martin said he actually thinks the proposal is a better reflection of what the NDP already stands for.

"That's the kind of party I want to belong to," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2013 A10

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