In the not-so-distant past, it wasn’t unusual to see 1,000 delegates at the annual NDP convention.
Delegates from every riding in the province — including rural ones — would travel on icy November roads just to debate resolutions that the NDP government of the day would largely ignore anyway.
Nevertheless, sheer numbers were always the strength of this party, giving credence to the notion that it was a truly grassroots movement. Maybe it didn’t have the best financial machinery (although it often did), but it certainly had enough loyal foot soldiers to get out the vote on election-day.
So to see a mere 350 souls at the recent annual NDP convention in Moose Jaw — only 281 were actually voting delegates — is a strong suggestion that the party is dying not only in rural Saskatchewan but also everywhere in the province.
Sure, it was a nice May-June weekend with little at stake, given that we are about at the midway point of Premier Brad Wall’s second term.
And, sure, even in NDP ranks the annual conventions aren’t nearly as important as they used to be — especially with their party mired in Opposition and with no real ability to influence government policy.
But while New Democrats might want to spin this as just the new reality, the numbers don’t bode well for this party’s revitalization.
Of course, this demise comes as no surprise to most in rural Saskatchewan, who parted ways with the NDP two or three decades.
Really, the process started with frustration over the anti-free-enterprise nature of the Allan Blakeney government that resulted in the NDP being wiped out in the rural areas in both the 1982 and 1986 elections.
New Democrats made a brief recovery in 1991 in the wake of the Grant Devine government debt and incompetence, but the closure of rural hospitals by the Roy Romanow government has sealed the fate of the NDP in rural seats for the past two decades.
But regardless of its lack of rural success, there were still devout New Democrats from rural ridings eager to trudge to their party’s annual convention.
It was such supporters from both the city and the country that were always the backbone of this party — what allowed the NDP to keep winning elections when they were already well past their best-before debate.
But 350 people at an NDP convention is telling.
By no small coincidence, the night before the convention Wall managed to attract 2,100 paying $250 a plate for the annual Premier’s dinner in Regina.
Sure, everyone likes a winner the winning government party always get support more easily. And, yes, this thinly veiled political event is really designed to hit up politically inactive, rich business types for cash. Nevertheless, it was hard not to notice the contrast.
Perhaps an even more telling sign is that while the NDP convention was in full swing, Wall was in Saskatoon for the grand opening of the province’s first full-service private liquor store run by the Federated Co-op.
The Federated Co-op was once a strong ally of the NDP and many of its members are still tied to the NDP. In fact, its president Scott Banda _ son of a one-time NDP backbencher — made a spirited run for the NDP against Lorne Calvert in 2001.
But Banda has moved on since then. And it’s hard not to notice that he is about the same age as Wall and his contemporaries running the Saskatchewan government right now. In fact, they all went to the University of Saskatchewan about the same time in 1980s.
That post-baby-boom generation is absent in NDP ranks and has been missing for a while.
And now it seems lot of other former New Democrats are missing as well.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.