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NDP support for Tories sign of broader strategy, analysts say

OTTAWA - The NDP feels it's gotten a bad rap.

OTTAWA - The NDP feels it's gotten a bad rap.

After 10 days of intense political manoeuvring that brought the country to the brink of another election, Jack Layton's party has been pilloried by pundits, mocked by the Opposition, and forced to explain repeatedly why, after vigorously opposing the governing Tories for months, it has suddenly switched course.

"It's been a political loser for them," said Peter Graefe, assistant professor of political science at McMaster University in Hamilton, and a specialist on the NDP. "So far, it's been a bit of a media disaster."

But NDP insiders say they couldn't have played the week any better. They argue that they have seized a chance to reposition the party as a practical group of politicians that can improve the lot of their key constituents.

And they may have a point, analysts say - if they can manage to communicate their new approach in a way that resonates with voters, and distances the party's reputation from nasty accusations flying around in Parliament.

The support that Layton's NDP and Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Quebecois gave the Tories in an election-averting vote Friday proved ample fodder for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

"You know, Jack and Gilles have gone up the hill and we know how that little fairy tale ended," Ignatieff taunted.

Ostensibly, the change in approach began with the Liberals' recent announcement that they would no longer vote with the Conservatives, and would move to bring the government down at the earliest opportunity. The Tories needed the support of the NDP to hang on to power.

When the Tories responded by introducing a tantalizing $1-billion boost to employment insurance last week, the NDP decided that not only would it support the measure, it would also prop up the Conservative government for as long as it takes to get the EI bill passed.

The decision puts the NDP in a position similar to one the Liberals were in for months: supporting a government it despises in the hope of extracting benefit for its causes.

But there is more to the transformation of the NDP strategy than the EI bill and Liberal tactics, say party insiders and analysts. The seeds were planted at the party's annual convention in Halifax in mid-August.

There, party members focused intently on how to win. They talked about putting an end to the political games and voting for things that they actually wanted to happen. And they took a hard look at how provincial NDP Leader Darrell Dexter managed to work his way up to be premier of Nova Scotia.

The events of the last week "are an example of Jack Layton trying to take a page from Darrell Dexter," said Anthony Salloum, program director at the Rideau Institute think-tank and a former staffer for Alexa McDonough when she led the NDP.

Salloum, who is also close to Dexter, said the Nova Scotia premier had a patient, pragmatic approach to politics when he was in opposition. He didn't oppose for opposition's sake, and would hold his nose and support measures that made sense. Gradually, he expanded his base that way, developing a reputation for being practical rather than partisan.

Manitoba Premier Gary Doer has had a similar approach, Salloum added.

"I think in this case, we shouldn't discount the example of Manitoba and Nova Scotia in 1/8Layton's 3/8 decision-making.

Layton spent time at Doer's cottage this summer, and stayed behind in Halifax for a few days with Dexter after the party convention, added Brad Lavigne, the party's national director.

"There's no question, Darrell Dexter played a significant role" in developing the party's approach heading into the high-stakes fall parliamentary session.

Despite the criticism heaped on Layton for changing course, the party believes it has worked, Lavigne argued. Donations are flowing in, some polls are showing better momentum for NDP support, and feedback from provincial party leaders and labour leaders has been positive, he said.

"This has been one of the best weeks of Jack Layton's leadership. He's risen to the occasion."

Political scientist Graefe points out, however, that the electorate is still digesting the news conference this week where a seemingly defensive Layton abruptly announced his intention to support the Tories, and then walked away without taking questions. Voters' ears are still ringing with the accusations of hypocrisy, he said.

If the NDP can cut through the noise and convince the public that its new, pragmatic approach is better for Canadians, there is "some potential upside," Graefe said.

But the move is a "gamble," he added. "They kind of lost a bit of the moral high ground."

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