Actually the so-called risk averse policy is very risky for a supposedly left wing party. In Great Britain where the Third Way worked for labour for many years the Labour Party was the alternative to the Conservatives but as the article notes the NDP is a fourth ranked party. Generally people do not see it as an alternative governing party but part of the opposition. Adopting pragmatic main stream parties designed to appeal to most everyone simply leaves the NDP competing for the same group as the Conservatives and Liberals and those parties are already better at that and have more funds They will lose supporters to parties such as the Greens on the environment and to the Liberals as well since they will be seen as having similar policies to the middle of the road NDP but a better chance at governing.
One problem with the NDP is that it is impatient for power even though it has been relatively successful at the provincial level. J.S. Woodsworth the famous CCF leader was quite pleased when the CCF was able to garner 16 per cent of the vote running on an outright socialist platform. Even though he had only a handful of elected representatives they were able to push the old line parties much further to the left than if he had been concentrating on moving to the middle to try and elect more members. However, during all of its existence the NDP has been more concerned with gaining power and has dropped any pretence of trying to replace capitalism by a socialist system. Even a social democratic program is probably too radical for the NDP now or the new party whatever it will be called. This article is dead on the mark but no doubt it will be rejected as leading the NDP back into the wilderness. Sometimes the wilderness is good for the soul.
Risk-averse party will be relevant again when it dumps pragmatism and embraces controversy
August 13, 2009 David Goutorassistant professor of labour studies at McMaster University
As the New Democratic Party's convention prepares to open tomorrow, it appears the main topic for debate will be a proposed name change to "Democratic Party."
Many initial impressions of the idea seem to be positive, particularly because adopting a new name (ironically by dropping the word "New") has been seen as a means of getting the party out of the rut it has been stuck in the last few years.
These initial impressions are entirely wrong.
The NDP's focus on a name change is actually a perfect manifestation of the thinking that has put the party in its current rut. In particular, focusing on the party's name is exactly the type of unimaginative, play-it-safe move that has become typical of the NDP. This cautiousness, in turn, is exactly the approach the NDP cannot afford.
At the most basic level, today's NDP is a truly remarkable phenomenon: it is a fourth-place party, usually stuck in the teens in the polls, and purporting to represent the most marginalized groups in society – yet it has become stubbornly risk-averse, acting as if it has too much to lose to speak out strongly on many key issues facing the country.
When it comes to strategy, the NDP was certainly bold in lunging for power through the coalition. It also has a notable amount of talent in its parliamentary caucus, with even right-wing commentators praising NDP MPs for being knowledgeable and performing effectively in parliamentary committees.
But when it comes to the party's main policies, a mind-numbing blandness has set in. There are few instances where the NDP has boldly taken a controversial position on a key issue.
If you have visited the NDP's website frequently in the last couple of years, you were much more likely to read about credit card rates, bank fees, and insurance premiums than central economic, social, or foreign-policy questions.
A particularly deep part of the NDP's rut is that avoiding controversy has become to be seen as the "pragmatic" approach. Standing out on major issues, meanwhile, is viewed as the "radical" approach that will keep the NDP on the fringes. But if pragmatism means anything, it is paying attention to results. The results of the recent "pragmatic" approach are in, and they are dispiriting.
The party failed to break out of fourth place, or even break its old record for seats in Parliament, in an election against the weakest leader the Liberals have ever had in Stéphane Dion. Moreover, the NDP suffered greatly from the backlash against the proposed coalition government, with Jack Layton's personal popularity especially hard hit.
Dismissing more controversial stands as a "radical" tactic is also ridiculous. If there is one thing that the NDP has to recognize, it is that Canadian politics has moved so far to the right that the party no longer needs to take radical positions to stand out. Eminently moderate positions are now far outside the so-called mainstream.
The best example is Canada's biggest foreign policy issue: Afghanistan. At its last convention in 2006, the NDP adopted the policy of withdrawing Canadian troops and negotiating with the Taliban.
But after facing a backlash from some quarters, Layton and other NDP leaders have been far from eager to pursue this issue. Indeed, it has been widely noted how rarely Afghanistan is seriously debated in Ottawa at all.
Meanwhile, over the last three years, opposition to our mission in Afghanistan among the Canadian public has grown to the point where it is now the majority view. Staying out of Afghanistan (or at least avoiding combat roles) is also the position of the overwhelming majority of NATO countries.
A vast number of security and defence experts in the West have been vocal in complaining about flaws in NATO's strategy. Most recently, negotiating with at least some members of the Taliban has been seriously contemplated by the British and American governments.
All of this should constitute a major vindication for the NDP.
Instead, the party's sense of "pragmatism" has dictated that it avoid upholding its own position, even as Canadian voters, key allies, and experts in the field come to agree with most of it.
Another example is trade policy. This, too, should be fertile ground for the NDP, as the free-trade orthodoxies still revered by most Canadian politicians and pundits have steadily lost credibility in much of the rest of the world.
Protectionism has been rising gradually in the U.S. for years, as witnessed by the softwood lumber dispute.
Many Latin American governments openly reject free-market nostrums. Last year, the refusal of rich Western nations to actually practice free trade caused developing nations to walk out of negotiations on farm subsidies at a World Trade Organization meeting. .
Even if it is too much to ask for the NDP to challenge free-trade theology head on, at least it could have insisted that in an era of globalization, Canadian leaders need to recognize major shifts in attitudes outside our borders. It could have emerged as the main voice warning Canadians about the most recent wave of protectionism, including the "Buy American" policy, and demanding that Canada stop acting as the world's naïve little cub scout about trade matters.
In short, the NDP is not stuck far behind the other parties because it has lacked opportunities to offer distinct policies that would have, with time, proven to be both prescient and popular. What has been missing is the basic will to take the heat that comes with going against the grain.
Whatever the party wants to call itself, the biggest priority at this convention should be shaking out of the fundamental culture of risk-aversion, of venturing nothing but still hoping to make gains, that has taken over the NDP in recent years.
David Goutor is the author of Guarding the Gates: The Canadian Labour Movement and Immigration, 1872-1934.