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Canada's socialist party may come unglued

Canada's socialist New Democratic Party is on the ropes. It celebrates 50 years of socialist politics next month but could see itself decimated at the next federal election.

Some members of the party want to move the NDP further to the left with radical policies on the economy and on defense, similar to those adopted by the Labour Party in Britain. There is even a proposal that would allow for the breakup of Canada - unusual for a national political party. The left wing will have its say at a convention in July.

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Perhaps because the founding meeting was held in western Canada, the west has always been the base of the NDP's support. The only NDP government is in the western province of Manitoba.

At the end of this week, the New Democratic Party will meet in Regina, where it was founded in 1933. But this time it will be as a successful political party , with 31 seats in the federal parliament. The NDP has come a long way since 1933, but the problem is it is not going anywhere.

At a time of high unemployment in Canada and diminishing power of older industries, the NDP is shocked that its support has never been lower. The latest polls give the party about 16 percent of national support. If that were translated into votes, those 31 federal seats could well be cut in half.

Although the politicians are surprised the unemployed are not rushing to the NDP, historians are not. Desmond Morton, a professor at the University of Toronto, says the left has always done badly in hard times because people fear change.

Professor Morton says the NDP needs new ideas. He does not see the convention in Regina solving any of the party's problems. ''I think there will be the usual left-wing reiteration of ancient dogma, and there will be a statement of mindless compromise from the party establishment.''

The party has seen itself as the social conscience of Canada. That conscience comes from the intellectuals who founded and still dominate the party. But the NDP also sees itself as the voice of the workers, and it gets the support of the big, established labor unions. Without the labor unions it would have trouble raising money.

But the support of the unions has a price. The party supports any measure - like tariff laws - to keep Canadian jobs shielded from outside competition. This causes a moral dilemma, which the NDP has never addressed, because the party also supports the rights of developing countries.

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Have a conversation with a staunch New Democrat and the phrase ''third world'' is bound to come up in the first three minutes. But the jobs the NDP wants protected in Canada - in shoes and textiles - are the jobs tariffs take away from developing countries in Africa or Asia. This problem is unlikely to be debated at the convention in Regina.

What will be brought up is a new Regina manifesto being suggested by some disillusioned western New Democrats. They see the party leadership as being too dominated by the interests of central Canada and too middle-of-the-road.

The proposed manifesto will call for full employment, decry the government's anti-inflation policies, and ask that workers ''participate as equals in the management of their workplace.'' It will call for wage and price controls - a slap in the face for labor unions, which despise wage controls.

There will also be a call that Canada become a nuclear-free zone, although in many ways it already is, since no nuclear weapons are stored in Canada. The left wing wants Canada to pull out of NATO. The moderate wing does not want Ottawa to test unarmed cruise missiles in Alberta.

These policies will be debated hotly and sincerely, but there is little likelihood of their becoming the law of the land. If the NDP does not move up in the polls, it could be little more than a splinter party after the next federal election.

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