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For The Federal NDP: Power Or Purpose, Which Is It?

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Like the troubled New Democratic Party, the Old Testament prophets never had an easy time of it. Their message always seemed outside of the public mood and practice. They were men and women powerful in their passions for justice and slightly alienating as a result. But no one could deny their authenticity or their vigor. They were the most dangerous when close to the centre of political power. Ironically, it was precisely in such moments that they faced their own personal risks.

In the old days of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CFF) and the beginnings of the New Democratic Party (NDP) the reference to the Old Testament seers was a common one, driven by the belief that clear voices were required to keep in check those in power. It wasn't by accident that the prophetic mention was made of Tommy Douglas -- a firebrand prairie preacher who became the first NDP leader in 1961. One of his predecessors in the CFF movement was J. S. Woodsworth, another towering preacher who left the ministry to champion the rights of the poor.

It is this problematic linkage between ethics and power that has become the NDP's most excruciating problem.

So this historic characteristic with the NDP party to speak truth to power has been passed on through the years, often with beneficial results but always with a sense of conscience. Yet it is this problematic linkage between ethics and power that has become the NDP's most excruciating problem. For decades the party understood its slim hopes of gaining ultimate power and contented itself with aligning with the better angels of our collective nature to fight for a more equitable democratic estate. But for many in its ranks the thought of perhaps one day grabbing the brass ring remained a prime motive for involvement.

The impressive list of prophetic voices voted in by the national party continued to nip at the heels of established Ottawa. Through a insightful line of competent leaders -- Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin, Alexa McDonough -- the federal NDP reminded the country in equal measure that the environment, women's rights, the plight of the poor, the sad state of Indigenous peoples, financial fairness, and the importance of meaningful employment, should be the great motivators of a modern society, not a mere rush for money, individualism, or goods. Regardless of their electoral success or failure, they remained true to their prophetic vision.

With Jack Layton's success in 2011, power suddenly seemed attainable, but to gain it they would have to modify their historic message to cater increasingly to the centre of power itself -- the middle class. Tom Mulcair was brought in to steer them to the promised land and his performance in the House appeared to verify the wisdom of that decision. Policies were revamped appreciably and compromises were made that left some of the party's long-time allies in a mild state of alarm. Yet power was so near, and for the first while in this past federal election the polls predicted the unheard of: poised to form the next government.

We all know what transpired next and the difficult baring of the soul that occurred in the NDP convention last weekend. It was an excruciating thing to witness for those of us who appreciate the NDP, as the historic soul of the party rose to confront the laissez faire flirtations of its present leadership.

Sadly, the prophetic voice has never sold well and no amount of mass marketing will change that reality.

And now... what? Will it be back to the drawing boards, and a new leader, to take another run at the ultimate prize? Or will the party members, perhaps feeling a bit like Icarus in flying too close the sun, choose to enhance its ethical bonafides once more, taking on the established order with a sense of justice and equity as opposed to partisan advantage. Power, once flirted with, easily draws seekers who then double down to remain within its influence.

Half a year ago, the NDP believed they had it; today they face a road diverging into a divided path. One who understands this process far better than most of us, Gerald Caplan, put it cogently: "Isn't there a lesson here: that whoever the leader and whatever the circumstances, the large majority of Canadians have not bought whatever the NDP was selling?"

Sadly, the prophetic voice has never sold well and no amount of mass marketing will change that reality -- a truth both Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel painfully learned once they achieved power. And yet the belief in a fairer and more just world, never fully prioritized by the other parties, has been the shining "city on a hill" for the NDP for decades and remains a stirring vision. It still sustains them as they move forward and Canadians still require their outlook. The question is: will it remain their principal and overriding passion or will their recent nearness to power have them seeking more power than purpose?

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