The NDP doesn't need to sever its historical ties to Canada's labour movement in order to broaden its appeal, party leader Jack Layton says.

At the party's national convention in Vancouver on Saturday, the NDP leader credited the party's tight relationship with unions for the historic gains made in the May 2 election.

Layton said it makes little sense to change a relationship that was responsible for the party's founding 50 years ago and has been so integral to its success since.

Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti also talked to delegates about the importance of the NDP and how it should work with the labour movement to defend pensions.

"These disputes are also about the future of work for our children and our grandchildren, who deserve decent family-supporting wages and decent pension plans after a lifetime of work," he said.

"These corporations can get away with it and no working person's pension in this country is safe anymore, and it sure looks like they have an ally in that Conservative government."

NDP luminaries

New Democrats from across Canada are gathering for the party's 50th anniversary convention, where they'll debate whether to shed some history after capturing federal Official Opposition status.

Party icons like former leader Ed Broadbent, onetime Ontario NDP leader and Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Stephen Lewis and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter have all given speeches.

"You must hold to account the government of the day, but you must also demonstrate to Canadians that our party can be entrusted to form government," Dexter said in an address Saturday afternoon. "As New Democrats, we must not fall into the trap of believing that we are owed anything. That is an outlook for others. Every vote, every seat, must be earned by the choices we make over the next four years."

Delegates passed resolutions calling for measures to end the trade in so-called conflict minerals, like diamonds from Ivory Coast, and to improve benefits for military veterans. They also debated topics ranging from immigration to Canada's foreign policy. 

On Saturday, the party chose its new president, union leader and former election campaign director Brian Topp, by acclamation.

Delegates on Sunday will consider a proposed new preamble to the party constitution that would swap out a reference to "democratic socialism" for one advocating "social democratic principles," in an apparent bid to capitalize on the New Democrats' stunning performance in last month's election.

Next government: Layton

Layton opened the convention Friday night by predicting the New Democrats are on their way to forming the next government of Canada and boasting of the NDP's highest seat count in its history.

"I just hope this stage is strong enough to hold this new huge caucus that we've got here," he joked, referring to the party's 103 MPs.

The New Democrats vaulted into Official Opposition status May 2, far eclipsing the Liberals, and now they're looking at how to attract even more voters.

On Saturday, there was a dedicated workshop about the 2011 campaign and what the party learned from it. But while the mood is buoyant, there will be serious debate to set party policy ahead of the next election.

That means a debate over legalizing marijuana is nixed. Instead, resolutions on the environment, food security and public transit are set to go ahead, as well as one to expand the Canada Pension Plan.

'A lot of folks, well, the media, [are] focused on this one word, but I think you look at the resolution as a whole.' -NDP deputy leader Libby Davies

Vancouver MP Libby Davies, the party's deputy leader, has said she expects a vigorous debate on the matter of removing the socialist label. But in an interview with CBC News on Saturday, Davies refused to tip her hand about the vote.

"I've got an open mind about it," she said. "I think what I'm going to do is look at this resolution as a whole and the preamble as a whole. I mean, a lot of folks, well, the media, [are] focused on this one word, but I think you look at the resolution as a whole."