Jack Layton kicks off NDP convention saying party will form next government

Jack Layton kicked off the NDP convention Friday with a bold prediction that the one-time protest party is on its way to becoming the next government of Canada.

The NDP leader said Canadians are counting on New Democrats to present an alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives and to be ready to take power by the next election.

``I know that we're not going to let them down because, step by step, working together, we can and we will build the Canada of our dreams,'' Layton told some 1,500 deliriously jubilant New Democrats.

``And we don't dream little dreams here at the NDP. We dream big dreams.''

However, a debate is raging among delegates as to whether the party needs to jettison its roots in order to win over centrist voters. They are to vote Saturday on a proposal to change the preamble to the NDP constitution to replace the word socialists with the more anodyne ``social democrats.''

With his 102 MPs crammed onto the stage behind him, Layton maintained that Canadians elected a record number of New Democrats last month and vaulted the party into official Opposition status not simply to oppose Harper's Conservatives.

``In asking New Democrats to form the official Opposition, they asked us to oppose the agenda of Stephen Harper and we will, we will,'' he said.

``But they also asked us to propose, to put forward positive proposals to improve the lives of Canadians and to take the next step to be ready in four years to become the government of Canada. And it's up to all of us in this room over this weekend to live up to that responsibility.''

The convention, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the party's founding, is meant to be the first step toward building on the historic gains made in the May 2 election.

Layton said delegates to the founding convention didn't create the New Democratic Party to be an opposition party.

``The delegates created the NDP to be a party of government. And that's exactly what this convention is for here in Vancouver.''

In the not-so-distant past, New Democrats often referred to themselves as the ``conscience'' of the nation, gratified if they could influence the government's agenda but rarely daring to dream of being the government.

All that changed on May 2.

Having captured the support of almost 31 per cent of voters, the party is now attempting to reach out to the 30 per cent of non-Conservatives who voted for other parties, in particular the 19 per cent who stuck with the Liberals.

As part of that effort, the NDP is trying to shed some of its ideological baggage. Among other things, delegates are being asked to approve a new preamble to the party's constitution, which touts the party's ``social democratic principles'' of economic and social equality, individual freedom and responsibility and democratic rights _ replacing the current preamble's dedication to the principles of ``democratic socialism,'' which include ``social ownership'' and a pox on making a profit.

Not all New Democrats are willing to give up their socialist roots without a fight. Former MP Bill Blaikie said delegates who debated the proposal in a closed-door workshop appeared evenly split, which suggests the new preamble won't get the two-thirds vote needed to pass during the plenary session Saturday.

``I think the concern is that if there's to be a re-write of the preamble, that this is kind of a hurried job,'' Blaikie said in an interview.

While most are not opposed to modernizing the language of the preamble, Blaikie said a ``significant number'' of New Democrats fear the proposed change fails to enunciate the party's longstanding criticism of an unfettered, free-market economy.

``People are open to a new wording but they want to make sure that wording captures the essence of what makes the NDP different than any of the other parties, particularly with respect to the market.''

Vancouver MP Libby Davies said she hasn't yet decided how she'll vote on the proposed change and predicted a vigorous debate on the matter.

Harper's Conservatives use every opportunity to describe New Democrats as socialists, using it as an epithet to conjure up images of a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. But Davies suggested that shouldn't compel New Democrats to drop the word.

``I think Mr. Harper would like lots of words to become dirty words, anything he doesn't agree with he wants to be dirty words,'' she said in an interview. ``I don't think that will deter us from what we want to do and how we move forward as a party.''

Still, there are signs that proximity to power is imposing discipline on convention delegates who don't want to rock the boat unnecessarily.

In closed-door policy workshops Friday morning, some potentially controversial resolutions were defeated, ensuring they won't be aired publicly at the three-day gathering. For instance, they nixed a resolution supporting Canadian involvement in a maritime flotilla planning to take aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which is under naval blockade by Israel.

Delegates also defeated a motion by Barry Weisleder _ chairman of the so-called socialist caucus which had proposed a host of controversial, hard-left resolutions _ to provide an additional hour for policy debate. The socialist caucus is not officially sanctioned by the party and is considered a troublemaking fringe group by party brass.

Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus spoke against Weisleder's motion, summing up the prevailing mood. He argued the convention is about ``building the momentum to form government'' and said he didn't want to ``start deflecting the agenda'' by getting into drawn-out debate.

As part of the NDP's outreach effort, party icon Ed Broadbent announced he's lending his name to a new, social democratic think tank.

The former NDP leader said he hopes to have the Broadbent Institute up and running by the fall. The aim, he said, is to tap into experts who can come up with practical ways to implement social democratic hopes and dreams and to square long-held principles with modern realities.

For instance, he said the institute could grapple with how to reap the benefits of a market economy while addressing the inequalities it has created. And in the process, it will develop policies that could help propel the NDP into power.

``The party is in a special position today. It is not simply an opposition party; it is literally a government in waiting,'' Broadbent said.

``Therefore, the party has to be prepared for some longer range ideas.''

Broadbent said the non-profit institute will operate independently of the NDP, although the party may kick in some start-up funding.

The party is not apparently prepared to soft-peddle its ties to labour unions as it moves into the mainstream. Layton took time out from the convention to deliver a spirited message of support for striking postal workers.

``We're standing in solidarity with you,'' he told several hundred cheering postal workers, whom he addressed as ``brothers and sisters.''


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