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The ONW Salon:  The NDP Leadership Race

Voting is on in the ranked ballot race, with the first round results to be announced Oct. 1st. Where is each candidate on the NDP political spectrum and what are would make them attractive as leader? Richard Mahoney, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin discuss.



Richard Mahoney:

Leadership contests reveal all about a political party—the good, the bad and the ugly. For partisans, they are rivetingly important—the choice you make is one you have to live with for a long time—and sometimes painfully divisive.

Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don't. Often what seemed like a good idea at the time doesn’t hold up so well. Not that I have any experience with that concept.

Moving right along, the NDP are in the midst of an interesting and important race. I have argued here before that the NDP have yet to recover from the beating Justin Trudeau handed them a little under two years ago. I don't mean that in the normal partisan sense, but 2015 was a special situation for the NDP.

Jack Layton's triumph in the 2011 election hit their primary rivals in the Liberal Party right between the eyes. He won Opposition and made an historic breakthrough in Quebec. After Layton's tragic passing the seemingly competent and moderate Quebecer, Thomas Mulcair, looked to many like the next Prime Minister of Canada.

We all know how that ended. Trudeau not only out campaigned the NDP, he seemed to many to be more progressive than the NDP and its leader.

So for many New Democrats, this leadership race is about what kind of party they want to be.

Do they want to be the social democratic, progressive, "socialist" (no longer the pejorative term it once was) alternative to the ruling Liberals? Or are they a more traditional "brokerage" party that brings together disparate and sometimes competing regional, cultural and linguistic groups?

Where you sit on that issue probably defines your choice for leader. In many ways, Charlie Angus, one of the frontrunners, represents the historic progressives. But

Jagmeet Singh has excited a lot of people in the party and appears to have an edge. Finally, Guy Caron claims the Quebec mantle and Niki Ashton seems to represent the coalition of interests that make up the "New Left".

So grab your popcorn, and let's watch the fun!


Tom Parkin:

The NDP leadership race is about place on the political spectrum, federalism and strategy.

Niki Ashton has placed herself on the party’s left. But this isn’t a situation of Corbyn vs. Blairism or Sanders against Clintonian centrism. Really, all four hold many similar positions. In this race the political spectrum hasn’t been all that big a divide.

Yet Niki’s campaign could develop an “allied left” to replace the oppositional left the NDP has faced a long time. But it would be underpinned by a stronger social democratic identity.

That growing identity is party of party maturation. The NDP doesn’t seek to "keep the Liberals honest." It seeks to replace them with an honest government. The maturation and preparation to win requires an intellectual renaissance, which the party is now going through.

The federalist debate has been interesting. The NDP respects that debates about the development of Quebec society will happen in the Quebec National Assembly. But that can be a narrow path to walk because it means respecting decisions even when you think they’re wrong.

We’ve seen the narrowness of the path on Bill 62. But, if followed and not knocked off, this path will widen into a deeper, values-based relationship between the Canadian and Quebec left. Achieving that could permanently marginalize the Bloc Quebecois.

On strategy, Caron’s federalism gives him a path forward. With the Conservatives running fourth in Quebec and the BQ moving in a xenophobic direction, a Liberal-NDP battle for Quebec seems very possible. Liberals aren’t loved in Quebec—and while social democracy may be mainstream in Quebec, the NDP’s roots aren’t that deep. So that will be interesting.

The other strategic path is the suburban route offered by Jagmeet Singh. Canada’s working class suburbs in Toronto and Vancouver are ethnically diverse. Singh can accelerate the NDP’s economic appeal with those voters who haven’t felt close to the NDP in the past.

The challenge for the NDP is to make the Quebec and suburban strategies internally consistent. Parties that paper over fault lines usually have them revealed at an inopportune time—just ask Tom Mulcair.


Will Stewart:

I want to first pick up on something that Tom mentioned about Quebec. I think that the next leader of the NDP will have a massive problem recreating support there. Not to say it can't be done, but the hill is difficult to climb.

All the candidates combined only managed to sign up 4,000-5,000 people in Quebec. If we cast our minds back to the Layton era we remember that the famous orange wave that the NDP rode to official Opposition status was mainly a result of voters in Quebec.

It seems that level of support has radically dropped in this leadership, which could signal a massive problem for the NDP next time out, regardless of who the leader is.

I am glad that we are discussing this race here this week. After suffering through a seemingly endless Conservative leadership hearing nothing but “why don’t we hear more about this?” it is nice to see the NDP beat the CPC for a lack of interest.

There seem to have been nothing of substance or policy in this. It’s the race that isn’t.

Seemingly the only narrative that has come out of the race is “Will Jagmeet win?” Without passing judgment (yet) on Jagmeet Singh, that is hardly a compelling narrative for a leadership.

Guy Caron started as a total underdog but has received endorsement from significant and respected New Democrats (Brian Topp, Alex McDonough and Ruth Ellen Brosseau). Early on his fundraising numbers indicated he was at the bottom of the pack but the campaign has gained a lot of momentum in recent months and he appears to have a lot of second choice support.

Niki Ashton, despite a definite block of support among younger members and some of the party’s more left wing elements, will most likely be the first to drop off the ballot. I am told that there is a feeling her second ballot choices will be fairly evenly split between the other three candidates.

So this race will come down to the past (Angus) or the future (Singh) to see which way a potentially divided party will go.


Richard Mahoney:

While Tom knows more about the internal workings of the NDP than I do (I try not to admit things like that too often, but in this one case it’s true!), it seems to me the main match here is between Jagmeet Singh and Charlie Angus. And I am sure that both pull support from a broad spectrum of views within the NDP. This happens in all leadership races, and different candidates appeal to different people in different ways.

That said, this is a fascinating choice. Let's look at Charlie Angus first. He is a grassroots politician, who seems to me to be an authentic, smart, hard-working progressive. His background is cool. Many won't know this, but Angus was/is one of Canada's finest musicians. I admire his work in The Grievous Angels. For a while there, the NDP had both Andrew Cash and Charlie Angus in their caucus. I will admit I was jealous—the cool factor was high, and both seem like decent, well-motivated people. Will does have a point: Angus does seem to have captured more of the traditional NDP activist vote.

Singh, who would have started this race unknown outside Ontario, where he is an MPP sometimes frustrated by Andrea Horwath's somewhat bland approach to leadership, seems to have lit a fuse with his campaign. From the beginning, a lot of senior NDP strategists said he was the one to watch.

He is an interesting figure, sometimes compared to Trudeau—telegenic, progressive and not your traditional politician. His unusual response to a racist heckler went viral across North American and put the buzz around him. In the end, it feels to me like he has the edge because of all of that.

But we don't know too much about him, and I suspect most New Democrats don't either. It looks like he is more of a pragmatist, but we don't know what really motivates him. It’s fine to talk about love, but what does that mean for the kind of government he would want to lead?

How will he perform under pressure and in difficult situations? It is hard to tell and we probably won't know for a while. But I think New Democrats mostly pine for what Tom said above—to replace the Liberals. And they appear to be in the process of deciding Singh is their Justin Trudeau.

Will that work? As a wise friend of mine used to say, there are no facts in the future. We can't know, and neither can New Democrats. But he is an interesting choice, if that is where it ends up.


Tom Parkin:

Overall, this leadership race has been incredibly healthy for the New Democrats. Never before have I been involved in a leadership campaign in which competing strategies over the electoral map have been an issue. Before 2012 it was about survival. In 2012 it was about picking a winner to take the NDP over the top. This is about growth.

The NDP also comes out of this race quite united—so far, anyway. There were hints earlier that it could get divisive and chippy but members made it clear that type of conduct would be punished. It ended.

The race has also built better bonds between New Democrats in Quebec and elsewhere. We don’t see things exactly the same yet, but we’ve come a long way in six months. The NDP’s support for the Sherbrook Declaration in the past was perhaps ritualistic or formal. Many more "Rest Of Canada" New Democrats now truly get it.

In 2019, the NDP can reshape a battle for Quebec. There is already an interesting debate with the BQ happening because Singh wears a turban. I think BQ leader Ouellet has massively over-reached in her comments in that she will turn off progressive Quebecers, who will start to see the BQ as more akin to the French National Front. That allows the NDP to be the social democrats. In this fight there is no room for the Liberals to hide. On Quebec values the Liberals can't support the BQ and they can't attack the NDP.

And in the result the NDP will shape up as the main competitor to the Liberals in Quebec—the left vote. We'll see how far that takes them.

As for how the race ends up, it’s very hard to say. What I can say is that I have cast my first vote for Guy Caron and plan to cast by second one for Jagmeet Singh. Combined, I think they could get the NDP back on a growing path.


Will Stewart:

Here is a fun game: look at Richard’s commentary when he says “it’s fun to talk about love, but what does that mean for the kind of government he would lead?” and substitute Liberal for NDP in that paragraph.  Tell me the difference between that and the Trudeau campaign.

With Angus and Singh as the last two standing, we could be witnessing a divided NDP. If they do in fact end up as the last two on the ballot, fighting it out for the coveted 50% +1, it has the potential to cause ongoing problems.

As Richard said at the outset, sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. In my experience that is more of a debate inside the party than out, as the factions continue to fight long after the ballots are counted.

Singh is claiming that he has 47,000 members signed up. If true, and if they come to vote, he will be close to 50% on the first ballot. Those are big “ifs” however.

We partisan hacks know that new members are less likely to show up to vote than existing party insiders, which makes these Singh vs. Angus numbers fun to watch.

My prediction? Singh wins. And that will signal something interesting in Canadian politics. Trudeau will become the oldest party leader of the three main parties. Time for the old man to go and let the younger generation take over?


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 


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