HALIFAX — Federal New Democrats are hoping that provincial success in Nova Scotia and Manitoba — as well as a possible name change — can boost the party’s electoral prospects as delegates gather for their annual convention beginning Friday in Halifax.
Since Jack Layton became leader of the NDP in 2003, the party has made small breakthroughs, particularly in Quebec and Alberta.
Still, Layton has not been able to guide the party beyond fourth-place.
In an interview, Layton brushed aside any concerns that delegates may begin to question his leadership after six years at the party helm.
“As long as they feel we’re going in the right direction, then they’ll probably ask me to carry on,” he said.
More than 1,300 delegates are expected to descend on Nova Scotia, where voters recently elected the first NDP government east of Ontario.
Delegates are poised to hear from organizers of successful NDP campaigns in both Nova Scotia and Manitoba, as well as members of the team behind U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic race to victory last November.
Layton said the party will take pointers on how to convince disenchanted voters that change is possible.
“There was a lot of excitement about the Obama campaign and how they were able to mobilize people, especially people who had given up on the political process (and) had walked away from voting,” Layton said.
“How do you get people back to feeling that they can actually make change happen?”
But some pundits said the New Democrats may struggle to make an electoral breakthrough unless the Opposition Liberals seriously stumble before the next general vote.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the NDP cannot afford to make any mistakes and has to be ready to pick up the pieces if Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals do.
“The (NDP)’s fortunes are more in the hands of others than it is in its own,” Wiseman said Thursday.
“In other words, it has to hope that the other parties — especially the Liberals — trip all over themselves.”
Some delegates attending the convention also hope that dropping the “New” from the NDP’s name will freshen the party’s image and cement it as a more mainstream political force in Canada.
Layton would not say whether he’s in support of the proposed change, which is expected to be introduced Friday and voted upon Sunday. But he insisted the issue would not dominate the weekend’s debates.
“I’m not weighing in. I want to see where our members go,” he said.
Layton said the party needs to remind voters of its past success, particularly on policies such as health care and pensions.
“In some ways, we need to go back — and we are going back — to some of those very strong policies that our party brought forward for Canada,” he said.
Jim Bickerton, a political science professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., said if the NDP wants to be successful in the next election, it must hold onto its established vote and swing others its way.
“The electorate has become willing to switch around and the NDP can get in there and pitch like the other parties,” said Bickerton.
Still, he said it’s unlikely that a major breakthrough is in store for the party.
Layton is undeterred.
The party has been “raising and spending as much money as the two old-time parties” and has a team of strong candidates at the ready, he said.
“Canadian politics hasn’t seen the New Democrats in a position where we’ve been able to offer a full-fledged campaign from coast to coast to coast with a strong caucus going into an election,” he said.
“That’s going to happen this time.”