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Federal NDP looking for fresh path into Canadian voter hearts

Party faithful meeting in Hamilton to plot course as national alternative to the Conservatives
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New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh makes his way to the podium for a news conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. Singh faces a mandatory leadership review at a party convention this weekend. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

New Democrats are gathering for a three-day convention to focus on how to convince voters looking for change they are a better choice than Conservatives, despite having helped to keep the minority Liberal government in power.

“We see a Liberal government that is out of gas, out of steam and no ideas,” said Brad Lavigne, who was national director of the NDP under former leader Jack Layton.

“The New Democrats are positioning themselves as the chief alternative or the lead alternative to Conservatives. This convention will be an opportunity to take stock, and set that new direction.”

It could also end up giving new life to older debates within the party, such as an emergency resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has the potential to distract from the agenda.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has been in the role since 2017, will also face a mandatory leadership review — his first since the 2021 election. At the last convention held in April of that year, 87 per cent of delegates voted against triggering a leadership race.

The biennial policy convention in the southern Ontario city of Hamilton comes just over a year and a half after the NDP entered into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals that could avoid triggering federal election before 2025. The deal has the NDP support the Liberals on key votes in the minority Parliament in exchange for action on some NDP priorities.

New Democrats attending the convention will discuss cost-of-living policies on Friday afternoon, which is a topic that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been focused on throughout the summer as his party’s fortunes have risen in the polls — at the expense of the Liberals.

Many of the affordability measures the Liberals have brought in over the past year, including dental-care benefits for children in low-income households, one-time rental supplements for low-income tenants and a temporary doubling of the GST rebate had been NDP priorities in the deal.

“After the last election, when Canadians sent 25 New Democrat members of Parliament to Ottawa, what did they do with their time? They actually got concrete things done, particularly in an era where cost of living is a top issue,” Lavigne said. “Can you imagine what we could do if we had more members of Parliament to get more things done?”

Party organizers are hoping to keep things focused on affordability issues and efforts to persuade voters to stick with them in the next election, but policy conventions are also a chance for the grassroots to have their say — including through emergency resolutions.

One emergency resolution that is expected to come up for debate will call for the NDP to pull out of the confidence-and-supply deal unless the government brings in legislation that commits to a universal and entirely public pharmacare program.

An emergency resolution could open a debate over how the party should approach Israeli-Palestinian issues, given the heightened attention paid to the conflict since Hamas militants launched a deadly attack from Gaza this weekend. Israel has responded with airstrikes and cutting access to water and power in the Gaza Strip.

At the 2021 convention, which was held virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, members voted in favour of a resolution that called for “ending all trade and economic co-operation with illegal settlements in Israel-Palestine.”

This year, the NDP Socialist Caucus had submitted a resolution this year to go further — calling on the federal party to campaign for “boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli state until Israel ends its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

That did not make it to the priority list, meaning it will not be brought to the convention. Still, the topic is expected to come up through an emergency resolution, which members had until Thursday to submit. The final list has yet to be released.

Karl Bélanger, a longtime senior adviser to several federal NDP leaders, said the leadership needs to find a way to resolve this issue quickly and move on.

Canadians will not vote for or against the NDP based on their position in the Middle East, he said, but on affordability and health care.

“If you’re not able to figure out a way to move from the crisis of the day, you will not be able to provide your message to the electorate,” Bélanger said.

Singh’s chief of staff, Jennifer Howard, said that members are entering the convention still “riding high” from the Manitoba NDP having won the provincial election earlier this month, with Wab Kinew becoming premier-designate after defeating the Progressive Conservative government.

Keynote speakers at the convention include other New Democrats who are in power after defeating conservative-leaning candidates: British Columbia Premier David Eby and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow.

“New Democrats are the ones in provinces and cities who are, first of all taking on Conservatives and winning, but then also working hard to find the solutions that people need,” Howard said in a recent interview.

“And if we can do that in provinces and cities, we can also do that for the whole country.”

But translating their wins from lower levels of government into federal seats will be a battle.

The most recent survey by Leger tracking voting intentions, conducted Sept. 22 to 24, had the NDP as the choice for 18 per cent of decided voters, placing them third. Thirty-nine per cent of respondents favoured the Conservatives and 27 per cent the Liberals.

“The NDP has a lot of work to do to position themselves as a party that can win the next federal election, and try to form government,” said Mélanie Richer, former director of communications for Singh.

READ ALSO: Emergency resolution on pharmacare expected at NDP convention