What Would Tommy Douglas Think?

New Democrats today promise to make your life better without subscribing to anything as old-fashioned as a system of beliefs. Inside the ranks of the party unfaithful

Photograph by Christopher Wahl
Photograph by Christopher Wahl

The most striking change on the political left is that they’ve dropped the folk music. I’ve been to protests and picket lines where, between bullhorn catechisms, some well-meaning “brother” or “sister” inevitably brings out the guitar to sing, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, something-or-other has got to go,” while a bearded and batiked crowd claps along out of sync, and that’s when I go home on the bus. But nothing speaks more to what leader Thomas Mulcair calls the “modernization” of the New Democratic Party than the fact that, at the March 2012 convention in Toronto, I saw not one, not a single acoustic guitar or cowbell among the 4,600 members who had come to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to vote for Jack Layton’s successor.

A maze of ramps and escalators sitting in the sundial shadow of the CN Tower, the convention centre is Toronto’s mecca for excitable capitalists. On that weekend, the brightly lit halls on the main floor hosted a trade show for new refrigeration and heat exchange technologies, where the door prize was a Nissan NV cargo van. Meanwhile, the social democrats were sent three long escalator rides underground, deep enough to encounter their own microclimate: cold, dark, damp. There was no door prize, although for $20 you could buy a Tommy Douglas bobble-head doll. It all made some sense. Given the current political reality, if you generate wealth in the private sector you get the prime space. If you’re the party of higher corporate taxes and government spending, you get sent to the basement like a surly teenager.

The underground hall had been set up as if for a heavy metal show. Over the stage hung a ring-shaped video screen, lit up in NDP orange, like a giant spaceship waiting to beam the winner into Stornoway as soon as the last ballot was announced. Campaign workers hollered and stomped in a row of bleachers along the south wall, running the risk of peaking too early, as they had nearly thirty-six hours of speeches and candidate showcases yet to go. The bleacher crowds were young, giddy, and highly caffeinated: Mulcair workers in black “#TM4PM” T-shirts chanted, for reasons known only to them, a Spanish soccer fight song. The Peggy Nash team wore purple and waved round campaign signs, possibly designed by some socially progressive health and safety committee (no corners with which to take out someone’s eye). One man wore a purple wig he claimed to have borrowed from his wife. Niki Ashton’s supporters waved sky blue scarves. It made for good television, which was seemingly the main reason for this event. Some 55,500 of the more than 131,000 eligible voters had already cast their ballots online or by mail before the convention centre even opened its doors. There would be no dramatic floor crossing, no decisive delegate blocs shifting from one candidate to another when things got hot. There were no delegates. This was one member, one vote, with the majority playing at home, watching on TV, and logging on to the party website. As far as anyone knew, the race had already been decided before the first speech.

The indie pop sounds of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire filled the room. Cross-generational, hip but not too hip, this had become the music of a new political movement. Vaguely familiar, safe, and middle spectrum, they embodied the values of the “modernized” NDP. Not quite Liberal, but Liberal-ish. In other words: screw “Kumbaya” and the ideology it rode in on. Here was a party that less than twenty years ago had nine seats in the House, and now found itself as the Official Opposition with a clear shot at government, following the recent Liberal meltdown. Even ten years ago, if you had spoken of an NDP Opposition (or a majority of then splintered Conservatives, for that matter), you would have been called a lunatic. New Democrats had weathered the loss of their leader, launched a long campaign they never wanted, taken nine (then eight, then seven) strong parliamentarians out of the House for months—and still an Environics poll released the week of the convention showed the party tied with the Tories in “voter intention,” for the first time. It looked as if the May 2011 orange wave was more than a blip, more than just a one-time ballot frenzy for popular Jack. On the eve of the leadership race, the party sent out its most familiar faces to make sure the media wouldn’t miss the point: “This is potentially the NDP’s moment in history,” Stephen Lewis, former Ontario NDP leader and emeritus philosopher king of the Canadian left, told the Globe and Mail. “One of those fateful moments,” added Robin Sears, former national NDP director. This was the theme of the convention: a moment in history, crucially set in the present tense. The decades of being a party of influence but never a party of power were past tense, over, like so much folk music and hey-hey, ho-ho.

Photograph by Christopher Wahl
Mark Critch of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, with CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge.

Good timing, too. The moment in history, as Lewis framed it, called for a strong social democratic alternative. The rhetoric of the right, free trade and free markets as panacea, had come open to blunt examination. The Occupy Movement had popularized the idea of the 99 percent, and engaged voters talked about income inequality, the absurdity of superabundance in the hands of a few. It was now a question of picking the right man or woman to lead a new party in Canada. And here’s where it got sticky. Even after months of campaigning, there was little to separate the candidates on policy. Brian Topp—who positioned himself as an “unapologetic social democrat”—talked of tackling inequality and making polluters pay. Thomas Mulcair—who spoke of “reaching out” beyond the traditional party base of ideologues, trade unionists, and activists—talked of tackling inequality and making polluters pay.

Those who had come to the leadership race looking for deep, wonky policy debate (the red meat for any social democrat) left disappointed. Most of Topp’s effort went into carving a rhetorical space between himself and his rival. Mulcair, he said, was bent on driving the party to the political centre, where rumour had it that free-trade fiscal conservatives lived under bridges, like trolls. Mulcair said this was nonsense. Rather than move to the centre, he would act to bring the centre, whatever that was, to the party. There are those on the left who would prefer ideological purity, “and I love them dearly,” he said. But then he asked, Do you want to be a party of influence, nudging at Liberals and Conservatives to realize your programs? “Do you actually want to be able to make into reality what you’ve only been able to, up until now, talk about? ”

It was a masterful backhand to Topp’s volley: win first, ask questions later. There was nothing to be gained by being specific. It was enough to define the New Democratic Party as, simply, not the Tories. James Laxer, a professor of political science at York University in Toronto, and himself a candidate for federal NDP leader in 1971, put it this way: line up all the candidates, bring Tommy Douglas back from the dead to review them, and he wouldn’t be able to tell you which party they belonged to, the New Democrats, the Liberals, or what? But this was beside the point. Laxer backed Mulcair. If there was so little daylight between the candidates, he said, then pick the person who can build on the success in Quebec and win in the rest of Canada (“And I’m a socialist!” he told me, more than once). Speaking of moments in history, this was an odd one. The socialist was backing the centre-left former Liberal cabinet minister from Quebec.

Not exactly a screeching leftist myself, I have committed left-ish acts in the past, at protests and at the ballot box. I have socially progressive roots, by which I mean that three of my grandparents were communists. One grandfather fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, where he blew up fascist trains and ate toothpaste to survive. He spoke often about workers’ rights, and inequality before it was a middle-class buzzword, although when he ate in restaurants he never tipped. If they want more money, he said, they should organize. My father, meanwhile, found his social milieu with eastern Ontario Freemasons who combed their hair with Vitalis and voted Conservative, even after they were dead. All of which is to say that a red upbringing is not without inconsistency and paradox, and to this I owe the fact that I’m no ideologue, nor have I ever been involved in mainstream politics except to vote.

But lately I had been caught up in the energy and wit of the Occupy Movement, despite the media’s impatience with its lack of a halfway-sensible bumper sticker slogan. I bristle at the Conservative agenda to roll back collective bargaining rights, and the cold game played by locomotive maker Caterpillar, which reportedly told London, Ontario, workers to take a 50 percent pay cut, and then moved the whole operation to Indiana, where wage expectations were lower. Labour battles that had been fought and won forty years ago were back in play. And if you want to talk about political galvanization, I was more than grumpy that Dalton McGuinty forced me to do my laundry after 7 p.m. on weeknights to take advantage of preferential hydro rates. What was missing, though, from my own political thinking, was any kind of moral compass. I believed in this and that and this and that, a buffet of causes and personal peeves, but I had no big picture, no motivation for getting involved beyond posting cranky tweets about oil spills. And Shell Canada isn’t reading me on Twitter; it’s still mining. Meanwhile, I just grumble and read the comics. It used to be that to identify as left you bought in to a coherent world view, on taxation and social programs, trade and the Middle East, trade unions and Crown ownership of industry, organic spelt muffins and bathing in rainwater. But with increased economic and cultural complexity has come lower value in identifying with groupthink. We have been given permission, by a fractured culture, to worry about our own problems first. And anyway, spelt muffins taste like sawdust. So I’m technically left, but performing solo. In other words, I am the very target of the current New Democratic Party’s election strategy, what Brian Topp calls, with trepidation, the centre. And that’s no fun. The centre is no fun. Leftist anarchists and right-wing nuts may be insufferable, but at least they have a good time, take risks. In the centre, there is no risk taking, no conscience. It was in this spirit that I went to the convention, with a flat, non-specific hankering to wiggle free from the bag of ambivalence and figure out my own moment in history.

One floor up from the convention hall, I passed the booth where they sold the Tommy Douglas bobble-head dolls. A fan of the genre, I admired the handiwork: smiling little fists raised in oratorical punctuation, with a sweep of plastic hair and the brow line eyeglasses, he was a promotional tool for the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation. The foundation began in 1971 as a “gadfly,” to provoke discussion on the left, and to keep the political movement from “getting in a rut.” I pushed Tommy’s little head. It didn’t so much bobble as shake with palsy. I wondered what the NDP from 1971 would make of today’s NDP, with its move last summer to take the word “socialism” out of the party’s constitution, and Jack’s campaign promise to provide deeper tax cuts for small business than what the Tories were offering. Had the party changed ideologically? “Absolutely and dramatically,” James Laxer told me later. But it’s a mistake to see this as something new, he said. The party has been shifting to the centre for over fifty years, since before it was the NDP, and the gadflies have been pestering it ever since.

The founding document of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the NDP’s predecessor), the Regina Manifesto of 1933, was a socialist decree that called for public ownership of industry and public planning of the economy. By 1956, David Lewis had drafted the Winnipeg Declaration, which toned down the rhetoric, instead emphasizing human dignity and opportunity, and using the levers of existing fiscal and monetary policy to achieve those goals. No more talk of eradicating capitalism.

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

Lunch at the NDP leadership convention.
Then, in the late ’60s, a radical wing of the party called the Waffle, led by Laxer and Mel Watkins, tried to revive the debate about public investment in industry. “Remember,” Laxer said, “this was a period of growing fear among Canadians about foreign ownership.” Even the Tories talked of nationalism, Canadian sovereignty, and the threat from the United States. Here was a very Canadian twist on ’60s radicalism. In the States, civil rights riots broke out, populist leaders were murdered, and war raged on in Vietnam. In Canada, they debated ownership of natural resources, and whether there should be a national oil company. In any case, the Waffle saw room for pushing the NDP not from without but from within.

Laxer ran for the leadership in 1971, at age twenty-nine, against David Lewis. He lost, and the Waffle disbanded a few years later. For Laxer, that was the last time the NDP could even hope to have a significant debate about economic policy, because sixteen years later free trade changed the rules of the game, as capitalism spawned a global economy with a specific, firm set of rules. Trade deals meant there would never again be space to talk about regulating industry, in particular petroleum, with one price for exports and another for domestic consumption. NAFTA made that kind of talk unpalatable—and illegal. “So the NDP pressed the cause of social fairness within that context,” Laxer said. “Stronger anti-scab legislation, more attention to the environment. But the party had nothing to say about the economy.” Its hands were now tied by global rules.

At the beginning of the 2000s, old school leftists tried to build a new party, called the New Politics Initiative, based on grassroots activism, but it petered out after Jack Layton took over the NDP. “Localism is a good thing,” said Laxer, “but NPI’s emphasis on social movements over electoral politics was a dead end. It matters who gets elected.” Raise wages, tax the rich, maintain medicare. None of it will happen unless you’re in government. “And I speak as a socialist,” he said again.

Under Jack, the NDP set popularity ahead of any harsh economic policy that might make captains of industry drop their monocles into their scotch tumblers. Instead, the party emphasized personal finance, hydro bills, and credit card debt—kitchen table economics. Jack never directly challenged the Conservative idea of an economy based on extracting oil and gas. You didn’t have to identify as left or right or centre to care about your hydro or MasterCard bills; therefore, you didn’t have to identify as left or right or centre to vote New Democrat. In the leadership race of 2011–12, this became a theme, and the old political labels no longer mattered. It was enough to see the NDP as an alternative to the grey, fraying net of Tory austerity. The moment in history had nothing to do with ideology.

So what happened to the ideologues? They were wished into the cornfield by party organizers who didn’t need their help anymore. This is why people like my friend Avi Lewis end up working outside the party, at the grassroots, organizing activists and lobbying for social change without playing at mainstream politics. The NDP is no longer key to the left in Canada, he told me, a heretical position for the son of Stephen Lewis and grandson of David Lewis. While the party rattles on about personal debt and tax cuts for small business, the urgent crises of inequality and climate change go more or less unattended. Mulcair talks about “sustainable development” of the oil sands, and cap-and-trade policies that make polluters pay for their mess, but in Avi’s view it’s time for serious talk about a moratorium on development, and about capturing higher royalties from oil companies to pay for the transition to new energies. Forget market-based solutions like cap and trade or piddling, feel-good consumer strategies like refitting your house with twirly light bulbs. The temperature is literally going up, but talk of moratoriums won’t win votes. By focusing first on electoral success and looking less at climate change as a real, solvable social issue, the NDP, according to Avi—in an odd echo of his father’s words before the convention—is “weirdly disconnected from its moment in history.”

Other activists, even the ones who did bother to attend the convention, feel this disconnect, too. Tria Donaldson is a twenty-something community organizer and Pacific Coast campaigner for the Wilderness Committee in BC. Like Avi, she spends her energy in communities, fighting, for example, a proposed coal mine in the Comox Valley, where residents are worried about threats to the water quality, and their livelihood in the Fanny Bay oyster fishery. Still, she allowed herself a genuine flirtation with mainstream politics and had come to the Toronto convention to support Peggy Nash; she wore the purple T-shirt, waved the round Peggy sign, and stomped and hooted in the bleachers. As in Comox, Donaldson told me, every Canadian community has one issue that matters, and unlike Laxer she believed it was possible to build a political movement from all of those individual issues. She thought Nash understood this, and that’s why she backed her; there was, she believed, still room for front line activists in the national party. Still, most of her activist friends, like Avi, had little time for the NDP. “Those on the left,” she said, “are down on the left. They want to win right away. They get burned out and bitch when they see nothing coming.” Instead, they live from one crisis to another or, as she put it, with a shot of irony, chasing after “crisi-tunities.”

Donaldson is an alumnus of Next Up, a program for young activists about social and environmental justice, at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. According to Seth Klein, who runs the BC program, Gen Y activists may have a fierce sense of right and wrong, particularly about climate change and inequality, but they are far less ideological than their counterparts of previous generations. “They have less of a world view, no theoretical framework,” he said, “which was the strength of the old left.” Rather, they work in a parallel universe, apart from those who actually wield economic and political power. Donaldson called this the activist bubble. Mulcair had asked voters if they wanted to make into reality what they could only talk about until now. The activist’s answer is, we’re already working on it; go away. The trouble with living in a bubble, said Donaldson, is that you end up ceding the mainstream political movement to less progressive voices, meaning that it operates without the gadfly. So instead of ignoring the NDP, or being ignored by it, she got involved. It remained to be seen whether any of the candidates, including Nash, would tell her what she needed to hear.

The candidates had a tight twenty minutes each during the Friday afternoon showcase, no do-overs, to win voters on the floor and at home. I sat deep in the back to stage left, in full view of the giant teleprompter, which let me follow the speeches in real time like it was Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music. New rules that had taken away the preferred 25 percent voting bloc from trade unions meant there were few union colours in the hall, save the Public Service Alliance of Canada members waving flags, and a row full of steelworkers in yellow hockey jerseys.

Despite co-host Andrew Cash’s promise of eighteen video screens and 120 moving lights, the event started with a curious whimper. Nathan Cullen took the stage and spent his twenty minutes talking without notes or prompter, without multimedia and music. It was a cross between old school CCF cracker-barrel minimalism and a Beckett play, just Cullen and a hand mike. “I’ve raised ideas… some of these have been controversial,” he said, referring in code to the theme and millstone of his campaign: one-time co-operation with the Liberals and the Greens to nominate single candidates in strong Tory ridings. We will have an open and democratic conversation, he said, and if there’s disagreement, “that’s cool.” That’s cool? This struck me as a brave reframing of a divisive debate. Donaldson told me that she had nearly picked Cullen as her first ballot choice, based on his green credentials and his opposition to the Enbridge pipeline, but she couldn’t get past this idea of co-operation. At the Winnipeg debate in February, Paul Dewar pointed out that the NDP’s job was to build its own grassroots, not the Liberals’. But Cullen had set the tone for the showcases to follow: we know the enemy, and it is not us.

Paul Dewar opened with the now-famous hip hop duet of MP Charlie Angus, from Timmins–James Bay, Ontario, and Sudbury, Ontario, rap artist OB, who boomed the ready-for-T-shirt refrain “NDP, what up!” Then Dewar told the crowd to forget about left wings and right wings, that “none of that matters to the Caterpillar workers… to the kids in Attawapiskat… or to the eighty-four-year-old woman in Brandon who can’t afford to retire.” What mattered was Stephen Harper, and Dewar promised to take him on and take him down, in that tidy order. By now, I was getting the picture. The way to address any concern in the party ranks about a shift to the centre is to announce, one by one, that there is no concern in the party ranks about a shift to the centre. We are all united in our goal to unseat the Conservatives, so let’s get on with it. I remembered Cullen at one of the initial debates announcing that he was in “violent agreement” with his colleagues in the race.

Photograph by Christopher WahlThomas Mulcair reacts to the ballot results.

Mulcair’s showcase turned into an object lesson in the perils of live programming, or why it’s important to rehearse. Opening with an over-lit video featuring a thumbs-up from former BC premier Mike Harcourt (who once said of good government, “You go left, you get left out. It’s not complicated”), the candidate appeared at the back of the hall with a team of drummers, the Montreal troupe Kumpa’nia, dressed in red street juggler outfits. They moved up the aisle slowly, pressing against the TV cameras. Before he hit the stage, Mulcair must have known he was cooked, and that he was nearly out of time. Working without a prompter, he read from his notes like an auctioneer on Benzedrine: we have run an upbeat campaign, we can’t drop debt into the backpacks of our children, we must reach beyond the traditional base. “My only adversary,” he managed to squeak in before the music swelled, “sits across from me in the House of Commons.”

Nash got into the same pickle. With too much production in the front end, a snappy video, and a long lineup of introductory speakers introducing other introductory speakers, she, too, hit the stage with the clock nearly spent. The teleprompter rolled out of control, and, forced to improvise, she ran breathlessly through a stream-of-consciousness checklist of GLBT rights and child care promises, and then on to the leitmotif of the night, a call to boot Stephen Harper out of office in 2015.

There was no obvious stylistic inheritor to Jack Layton here, except perhaps Martin Singh, who came off as relaxed and articulate, and who led with one of his ten-year-old twin boys playing St. Anne’s Reel on the fiddle. But he had little to say outside of his call for a national pharmacare program. A drinking game had been established on Twitter: whenever Singh says “pharmacare,” drink. People watching at home were getting hammered.

Topp opened with a crowd-hushing testimonial from actress Shirley Douglas, Tommy’s daughter, who rose from her wheelchair to announce with Shakespearean vigour that, with Topp as leader, “we will win.” A man in front of me nodded, as if to say he wasn’t about to argue with Shirley Douglas. Topp himself called for a Canada that was economically and socially equal, “no gimmicks, no shortcuts,” his coded smack at Cullen’s coded idea of co-operation, from which Cullen had already backtracked anyway.

It was all mildly entertaining, in a Canadian Idol way, which is at its most delicious when someone tanks onstage. I thought about Avi’s argument that the real conversation happens outside of mainstream politics, which prefers the control of theatre over the chaos of messy debate. This was theatre, or rather attempted theatre, for a TV audience. The bells, whistles, drums, and James Bay–style white hip hop were calculated to appeal not just to NDP members, but to curious and disgruntled Tories and Liberals who had tuned in for a peek at a proposed new prime minister and his or her federal cabinet. This was an audition for government. The candidates sang a chipper hit parade of child care, our children’s backpacks, retirement benefits, economic and social equality—neither controversial nor divisive, but restrained, as safe as Arcade Fire. Without an organized Waffle or a New Politics Initiative to press for specifics on the oil sands, Afghanistan, corporate taxes, or energy policy, candidates had the freedom to be vague. I saw Laxer’s point, too, a twist on Pascal’s wager: they’re all neo-liberals anyway, so suck it up, pick the best of the lot, and then press them on the issues.

I caught up with Donaldson by the Peggy Nash bleachers. Tired and hoarse from hollering, she figured her candidate still had a shot. But the size and noise of the Mulcair troops made for tough competition. “Then in his video we see Harcourt,” she said, “and it’s like, oh right, that’s the guy who threw hundreds of British Columbians in jail over Clayoquot Sound.” People like to back a winner, she said, leaning back into one of the folding chairs on the convention floor: “It’s hard to know what motivates people. There’s the story of my life.”

Maybe, I thought, people don’t know what motivates them. That’s my problem in the political arena: mad about lack of collective bargaining rights, mad about doing laundry at night. Beyond that, much is up for grabs. If I don’t know what I want, I can’t blame a process that seeks my vote through a deliberate lack of clarity. Mulcair talked about moving the NDP beyond the traditional base, beyond the old left of the trade unions, the environmentalists, the soldiers of the free trade battles. To hear a Conservative tell it, that traditional base is a gathering of tax-and-spend, job-killing, anti-corporate radicals and national security threats, people like Donaldson, in her blue cowboy boots and Gore-Tex, out to stop economic growth and good, well-paying (non-union) coal mining jobs. They represent, the Tories would say, a system of beliefs at odds with economic growth. That’s the rhetoric of the right, and it has been hugely popular. Mulcair could have corrected that gloss of the left—by affirming a relationship with those who, far from calling for radical revolution, had simply stood up for fairness and a more even distribution of riches, and had fought for the rights of women, gays, lesbians, and other marginalized groups. Instead, he sidestepped them, moving quickly to canvass people like me who didn’t know what they believed. And there are a lot of us.

After the first ballot voting, campaign teams hosted “get to love us by drinking with us” parties, at the nearby Sheraton and InterContinental hotels. At the Sheraton, crowds for Topp, Dewar, and Nash spilled thickly into the hallway on the fourth floor. It was hot and loud and young, with volunteers, MPs, and journalists barking into each other’s ears in both official languages. I squeezed past Quebec MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach in a foam Red Bull trucker’s cap, past a tired huddle of Peggy Nash floor captains who had adopted code names such as Igor and Corncob One for walkie-talkie purposes. It was like a college frat party before the police show up. By contrast, at the InterContinental, the Mulcair team had taken over the two rooms adjacent to the lobby lounge. An older crowd sat down to white wine, $9 beers, and candlelight. A jazz trio played neutral elevator classics while the wait staff, in white shirts and black vests, served mini-samosas.

I sat down with three others, Bob and Cathy Viscount, from Lion’s Head, Ontario, on the Bruce Peninsula, and a man they had just met. Bob drove a tour bus for a living, and Cathy was a retired schoolteacher. They were Mulcair supporters. The other man was still undecided about his second ballot choice. “Brian Topp is a brilliant man,” said Bob, “but he’s never held public office, never put his ass in the grooves.” Mulcair, he said, appealed to the small-l liberal, “and I’m an example of a big-L Liberal gone to the NDP—not because of ideology, but because it makes sense.” The other man grabbed a samosa from a passing tray. “Look, I’ll go out on a limb,” said Bob, telling us that there were plenty of Liberals who wanted in but didn’t want to be part of an old NDP too tied to labour unions, not that he was against labour unions. It was just that people already worked for bureaucracies and didn’t need yet another one.

The other man said, “Is there more wine, you think? ” and disappeared.

Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says we are living in an age of “liquid modernity.” What we feel under our feet is not solid ground but deep water. It shifts so readily, there are no means by which to organize a life, a career, a belief system, or loyalties. It’s just one crisi-tunity after another. The moment in history changes by the day, and the difference between the mundane and the enduring is impossible to sort out, just one result of the global economy. Capital is mobile and may bring growth one day but disappear the next, as it did at Caterpillar’s London plant. Liquid modernity is one big, cloud-covered, borderless open market without stability or roots. You could blame Facebook, too, for turning democratic debate into a series of clickable likes, but then what’s more passé than shaking your fist at Facebook? The idea got old before I even mentioned it. See how it works?

But how do you build a political movement from all of this? You don’t. You catch people on the fly, uncommitted voters who are in enough flux to find temporary refuge with the NDP, given a Liberal party in shambles and a Conservative party too in love with tax cuts and austerity. This NDP is the perfect haven for the liquidly modern: no need to identify as left, no need to identify as pro-union or anti-corporate, with all of the limitations and heavy footwear that go with them. It’s the party of the liquid centre. Call it the Cadbury Creme Egg effect. A little free enterprise is good, a little government intervention is good. Remix, mash-up, cut and paste. This NDP masterfully reflects its moment in history, one of chaos and lack of consensus. The problem is that this NDP is also handing me the temptation to give up on common goals—and that’s dangerous.

On Saturday, before the fourth and last ballot, I went looking for Donaldson. Nash had been dropped. Near the coffee and snack stand, a group of young Mulcair volunteers sat cross legged in a ring on the carpet, building a replica of 24 Sussex Drive out of campaign posters. They made cardboard crowns, too, and put them on each other’s heads. The candidate himself came out for a media op: he smiled and tented his fingers, and in their rush to get it all on video the camera crews nearly crushed the cardboard castle. I had to think, if this were Jack he would have kicked off his shoes and sat down with the kids to see how they solved the architectural problems. It would have been both charming and awkward. Mulcair, it struck me, was a little less of both.

Donaldson and I sat in an alcove away from the action. “I had some fries and tequila,” she said. “That helps.” One of her fellow volunteers, a young man, came by, and they hugged. He looked over at the Mulcair kids building their castle and whispered, “They all have crowns. It’s disgusting.”

“I hate the drums so much,” said Donaldson. “We should have got those plastic horns. What are they called? Vuvuzelas. We needed purple vuvuzelas. Why didn’t we think of that? ”

She took a big breath. Regardless of who is in charge, she said, there is a need for a progressive voice, no matter the name and the brand. The left is famous for finding the opportunity for fracture, but imagine what happens when all of those people out-shouting one another in the bleachers work on the same team. She didn’t have much hope on the climate front. “The public,” she said, “has a lot further to go to make greenhouse gas a top item. For now, it’s about jobs.”

Photograph by Christopher WahlA weary participant.

Before the convention, I had met Andrew Cash, MP for Davenport, at the Common, a coffee shop in his Toronto riding. Around us were hipsters on laptops, part of what he called the new urban labour force: writers, web designers, artists, part-time and contract workers, people with two jobs. “What we see,” he said, “is less of a left–right axis and more common ground than we’ve ever seen in the past,” people with middle-class incomes who can’t afford a house or rent, and are neck deep in debt, cellphone bills, too-high taxes on their home heating—a sector outside the traditional definition of labour. “It used to be we fought to protect pensions,” he said, “but now we also look at workers who have none to begin with.” These were communities with which the NDP had never properly connected. I could identify with a loose group of loners with problems, but, haunted by the idea of personal responsibility, I had to wonder: what about the world view Seth Klein talked about, the strength of the old left that put global issues, the environment and poverty, up alongside their own home heating bills and retirement plans?

“If you go door to door in Davenport,” Cash said, “this is a sobering fact. You will hear climate change, but it’s way down the list. They say, ‘I’m on the Dufferin bus for an hour,’ or ‘I don’t have a job, and I’m swamped in student debt.’ We have lost thousands of jobs in Toronto since 2009. I don’t want to talk about climate change unless we talk about jobs. We look after people. We don’t throw them under the bus, biofuel or otherwise.”

I remembered an online interview with Australian writer Clive Hamilton, who said that when it came to public opinion on climate change, there was a perceptual difference between “being fucked and completely fucked.” As long as we were only fucked, there was more opportunity to focus on other issues, such as jobs, pensions, heating bills, and laundry. This is what I mean by the problem of being offered the opportunity to give up on common goals: a kind of American bootstrapism has crept into Canadian politics. As long as climate change and economic inequality don’t directly touch your life (yet), all problems are individual, and so are the solutions. Thinking of the needs of the collective is for Swedes and hippies.

Centre politics promises to make your life better; everyone else is on his or her own. Mulcair is the pragmatist’s smart choice, given the liquid moment in history, but he fails if in his fascination with the creamy centre he turns away from the necessary hounding of what used to be called the left. Tommy Douglas was right. There’s call for a gadfly to keep the political movement out of a very American rut: this includes Donaldson, and Avi Lewis, and whoever else makes noise, at pipeline protests, Occupy camps, and while getting naked in the streets of Montreal, about inequality and the inevitable arrival of complete economic and environmental fuckedness. Especially if the mainstream is shifting. In 2010, more than 80 percent of those polled by Environics agreed that too much focus on the economy and consumerism was the root cause of the climate problem. And in April 2012, in a poll commissioned by the Broadbent Institute, 64 percent said they would be willing to pay slightly higher taxes to address social inequality.

“I’m going to stick with the NDP,” Donaldson said. The test of politics is how it answers when you call it, and she had some ideas. “I’m thinking a lot about taxes,” she said, “how to make them sexy.” But first she was going back to the hotel for a nap.

By now, I needed food, and I had two options: spongy muffins at the coffee stand, or Hank Daddy’s Barbecue. Hank Daddy’s offered a culinary train wreck called the Pulled Pork Parfait, alternating layers of pulled pork and mashed potatoes in a parfait cup, topped with baked beans. It was impossible to read too much into the Pulled Pork Parfait; here was an edible centre-left symbol. No need to settle for one taste when you can have it all jammed into one dish.

By the coffee stand, I ran into two young men in suits who looked out of place. The lanyards around their necks were branded with the logo of Deloitte, the corporate audit and professional services firm. Josh and Levan had stumbled in from another trade show down the hall, where they were competing in a Dragons’ Den–style smackdown for venture capital. Their product was an iPad restaurant menu that lets diners drag icons to an onscreen platter and then zap their orders to the kitchen.

“I like it,” I said. “I guess it’s good for the restaurant. They can downsize the staff.”

“Well, yeah,” said Josh, seeing where I was going with this. “Someone still has to bring the food.”

Fair enough, I thought. Besides, if they want better job security they can organize.

We agreed it was weird that the socialist convention was held next door to a capitalist one, although I promised them this NDP was into small business. Even Jack talked about dropping the small business tax rate to 9 percent, two points lower than the Tory status quo. They nodded politely and shook my hand twice each, and as they went back to their competition I figured they were headed in the wrong direction: they should be here, on the convention floor, jonesing for their two-point tax cut. These boys were New Democrats. They just didn’t know it yet.

This appeared in the October 2012 issue.

Tom Jokinen
Tom Jokinen has written for the Globe and Mail, Literary Review of Canada, and The Walrus. He lives in Winnipeg.
Christopher Wahl
Christopher Wahl is a Toronto-based portrait photographer who has shot photos of Barack Obama, Neil Young, and Queen Elizabeth II.