The NDP held its 2018 federal convention from Feb. 15-18 in Ottawa, Ontario. Delegates from across the country met in what newly elected NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the most well-attended policy convention ever. The weekend was the scene of a cold war that turned hot at a few key points, between the party establishment looking for a stage-managed event and delegates who saw the meeting as an opportunity to push the party to the left. From Palestine, to free education, to universal dental coverage, the debates were obscured by maneuvering from party hacks attempting to shut discussion down through manipulation of the agenda.

Prioritization panels, an undemocratic tool

The skirmishes began before the actual plenary discussions had even begun. The NDP unfortunately has a tedious and bureaucratic process for deciding the order of discussion of the resolutions submitted by party branches to be discussed at the convention. Several contentious resolutions, including a resolution to adopt free education and another to erase the marks of the Zionist shift Mulcair had affected in the party’s policies, were deprioritized by the bureaucracy. Placed closer to the bottom of the agenda, it was clear the plan was to bury them and prevent any discussion from taking place at all.

But that was not all: The schedule given out to delegates and hosted on the party’s website left the entire first half of the meeting’s first day completely empty. Evidently, the bureaucracy wanted people to think there was nothing happening during that time. In reality, that empty block from 9:00 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. was precisely when the prioritization panels were being held—the only place members could overturn this maneuver and put forward resolutions such as free education at the top of the agenda to ensure they would be discussed.

Unfortunately for the party establishment, these tactics only enraged delegates and enthused participants who outnumbered the hacks and were able to score some early victories that morning. One very important victory was prioritizing the free education resolution, which after an amendment from the floor of the full convention on Saturday eventually ended up being discussed first on Sunday. But on the Palestine resolution, the vote to prioritize it narrowly lost by eleven votes, and a far inferior resolution that hypocritically spoke of the responsibility of “both sides” was the one to make it to the floor.

Left phrases from the leader and hard-fought victories on the floor

Singh addressed the attendees on Saturday, Feb. 17. His speech represented a shift to the left in comparison to the anemic speeches of the Mulcair years, which stayed away from promising any major concrete reforms that could prove contentious. Singh’s speech described the paycheque-to-paycheque existence of the vast majority of Canadian workers today and firmly laid the blame on the “ultra-rich”.

At least in words, a page was clearly being taken from the playbook of the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn phenomena we have witnessed in recent years. It seems the message has finally gotten through that Mulcair’s brand of careful, moderate “reformism without reforms” was not what people wanted to hear. The Liberals in 2015 outflanked the NDP on the left and won that year’s federal election precisely because they better understood the mood of the country and promised that they would not implement austerity, while Mulcair attempted to appear “responsible” by promising a balanced budget.

By contrast, Singh at this year’s convention spoke of closing tax loopholes on the super rich, and made a call for universal dental care to be brought into the healthcare system as well as pharmacare. He called for the Internet to be a publicly owned utility, and promised a nation-wide ban on carding. He spoke of Colten Boushie’s murder and the crime against justice committed when his murderer was found not guilty.

One thing that Singh has built on was the very clear rejection of anti-Muslim hysteria that the NDP has loudly put forward over the last few years. Singh placed this in its larger context of certain politicians wanting to divide us against each other and deflecting blame for the tough economic situation felt by so many. Alongside the picture Singh painted of corporate Canada ripping the nation off, with companies such as Sears paying out billions in corporate bonuses and not paying salaries or pensions after declaring bankruptcy, such rhetoric was a breath of fresh air in comparison to the poisoned xenophobic cloud that has been getting thicker and thicker across Canada.

A resolution in favour of free education passed on Sunday, and delegates can be proud that for the first time the federal NDP officially stands for free education, as well as student debt forgiveness and 0 per cent interest rates on existing student loans. But the victories on free education, on restoring a public bank at the post office, on dental care, etc. show that the grassroots are yearning for a bold program from the party. On that basis, rank-and-file organizations such as Courage and Niki Ashton’s supporters are beginning to win some partial victories. One is a resolution on digital democracy instructing staff to be ready to replace the prioritization panels with an Internet system that will allow members to take prioritization out of the hands of the faceless bureaucrats.

But the question left to us now is: After Mulcair publicly removed candidates in the middle of a general election for their opposition to Israeli apartheid, after a decade spent under constant bureaucratic bombardment in attempts to remove socialism from the DNA of the party, and spitting on the NDP ranks by playing games  to block the adoption of any major reforms, is anybody really paying attention anymore?

Whither the NDP?

For the first time in decades, the NDP appears to be moving to the left. After decades of the NDP brass moderating the party’s messaging to the point where it has become almost indiscernible from the Liberals, the rank-and-file are now pushing back and scoring some victories. But it is perfectly clear that the party leadership has merely been giving lip service to the left in order to avoid the pitchfork rebellion that catapulted Corbyn to power.

The ranks of the NDP have shown courage in fighting to push the party to the left, but there is absolutely no guarantee that any of these policy items will make it into the 2019 election platform. In fact, Singh is already backtracking, stating that these proposals are just “aspirational principles”, and as yet there is no plan for their implementation. If the leadership maintains its current trajectory, no one will care and support for the party will continue to languish in its current position, which according to recent polls tops out at approximately 15 per cent nationally. It will take a radical change in the direction of the party, such as that seen with the Corbyn movement in Britain, to elicit the necessary enthusiasm to defeat the Conservatives and Liberals. The NDP needs concrete commitments, not just “aspirations”, if it is to win.