I’ve been putting off writing this blogpost for far too long. In part, my procrastination stems from a general feeling of boredom related to the subject matter – even though the subject matter is important. I had been hoping that I might be turned on at some time over the past several months – turned on enough to write a real rah-rah piece about one of the contenders for the NDP’s leadership. I’ve been following the contest fairly closely – I even attended the “debate” that was held here in Sudbury on May 28th. But I’ve been unable to muster much interest in writing – and I fear that this piece will suffer as a result of my ‘meh’.
In all seriousness, I had hoped for the kind of leadership race that might prove to be inspiring – inspiring in a way that led to the election of Jeremy Corbynn as Labour Party leader in the U.K. – and inspiring in the way that led many to take a very close look at Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during the U.S. Democratic Party leadership run. I know I wasn’t the only one looking for something that none of us should be surprised just wasn’t in the cards. The situations with the Labour Party and the Democratic Party are quite different than with Canada’s New Democratic Party. In the U.K., Labour has been trying to wake-up from the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, and ultimately turned to a life-long socialist to re-invigorate the Party. In the U.S., many have long felt (with plenty of good reason, in my opinion) that the Democratic Party is not all that different from the Republicans. In both cases, significant space had been created for the right personality (er, actually a personality of the left) to step in and force change.
But Canada’s NDP hasn’t really ever been in that situation. As much as it has drifted to the right of the political spectrum since Jack Layton took over, the NDP have remained a relatively progressive party – especially when compared to Canada’s Conservative and Liberal parties. Here I’m talking more about the policies that NDP members have approved, rather than the way in which the NDP has approached elections and platform creation. One of my own biggest issues with the NDP has to do with the way that the Party behaves as a populist political animal – playing politics rather than staying true to its principles and policies. I know that I’m not the only one who is turned off of the NDP because of their tendency to be hypocritical.
But how much further to the left would any candidate have been able to take the NDP while remaining serious in a way that Sanders and Corbynn were? Because the NDP’s policies are already progressive, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that just about all of the candidates in the race to replace Tom Mulcair have stood up and said, more or less, the exact same things as one another. With only a couple of exceptions, Guy Caron, Niki Ashton, Jagmeet Singh and Charlie Angus have all been singing from the same song sheet. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because it’s a pretty good tune in my opinion.
Fact is, any one of these 4 will make an excellent leader of the NDP. What I’m less certain of is whether any of them can make voters want to cast their ballots for New Democrats in the face of Justin Trudeau, who I continue to believe will remain a formidable force in 2019 with his faux progressive values. What can any of the NDP contenders offer the public that’s new – besides more progressive policy?
And that’s got to be the key to this whole leadership discussion. Which of the 4 leadership candidates can be the best salesperson for the job of selling Canadians on the superiority of the NDP’s policy approach to progressive Canadians? If that sounds pretty shallow on my part, so be it. But remember: under Jack Layton, the NDP won 103 seats. Under Tom Mulcair, the NDP took just 44. Sure, Layton was up against Harper, who was no Trudeau – while Mulcair was steamrolled by a slick campaign with a happy face. But politics today really is mostly just a sales pitch – albeit one that clearly includes the ability to package and showcase key pieces of policy.
Which is why Trudeau and the Liberals will win another majority government in 2019.
The NDP: Now An Existential Question for Greens
But back to the NDP. So, what does it matter to me, a member of the Green Party, whom I think would be the best leader of the NDP? It matters a lot – because this decision of New Democrats actually represents an existential dilemma for my Party. What the 4 NDP leadership candidates have been talking about out on the campaign trail (yes, the same stuff generally met with yawns from the mainstream media and the wider Canadian public) has been the same sorts of stuff that Greens have been talking about for years, for the most part. In some respects, the NDP has moved ahead of where we Greens are at on issues that we have considered fundamentally our meatless-meat and potatoes. Whomever emerges leader of the NDP is likely to embrace many of the policy positions of his or her rivals – and if not directly, you can bet that grassroots New Democrats are going to continue to push their party to adopt the truly progressive policy planks of defeated leadership rivals.
I’ll come back to all of this in a little bit. Right now, let’s take a look at the four candidates – and what I think New Democrats ought to do.
Caron started the leadership contest pitching a Basic Income policy very similar to the one that the Green Party has long advocated. I happen to like the idea of a Basic Income – and so do many New Democrats. To my surprise, however, there has emerged on the left serious opposition to any sort of Basic Income. Mainly this appears to be out of fear that a Basic Income could lead to the state reducing services that promote equity. I get it, it’s not all about money, and certainly a poorly designed Basic Income would not be a benefit to the nation. But Caron wasn’t pitching a poorly designed version. Nevertheless, Niki Ashton felt compelled to oppose Caron on this – and she was wrong to do so.
When the dust settles from the leadership contest, Caron will not emerge victorious. But his Basic Income policy will be a big winner with New Democrats – and you can bet that the Party will continue to push for promoting a Basic Income, to the chagrin of what I predict to be an unmotivated minority (meaning, a small number of extreme leftists in the party who won’t get all that worked up about this particular policy).
What, in my opinion, completely disqualified Caron from becoming the next leader was the position that he took on the rights of people, especially women, to wear what they want to wear vs. the rights of the Quebec Assembly to legislate racist laws that prohibit people from wearing religious symbols – laws that can’t possibly stand up to a Charter of Rights challenge. Caron had the opportunity to defend Canada’s Charter, but instead he opted to defend what he views as Quebec’s right to give the Charter the middle finger. Sorry, Caron – but that was clearly the wrong choice. I know, I know – I’m over-simplifying the issue. But really – not by much, not from where I sit in Sudbury, Ontario.
Not only would I not recommend Caron as leader of the NDP, but I think that most New Democrats are going to see things the same as me – and Caron will be the first one eliminated on the ballot (or receive the fewest overall votes on the first ballot).
Ashton really really tried to be Bernie Sanders. She figured out a way to (mostly) talk the talk of the truly progressive. But unlike Sanders and Corbynn, there has always been something about Ashton’s authenticity – and it’s not just because of the habit that she developed during the campaign of acquiescing and clarifying her position, leaving everyone with a muddled opinion of just where she stood on a good number of issues. Rather, the lack of authenticity reminded me of Kellie Leitch. Ashton appeared to wake up one morning and decided to put on a suit of clothes she never wore before in order to become someone she wasn’t. Same as Leitch, whom I know is not as bad a person as she made herself out to be during the Conservative Party’s campaign. Ashton became an actor – and never really looked all that comfortable.
And that’s too bad, because the real Niki Ashton does have a tremendous amount of authenticity when it comes to connecting with younger voters. To make these connections, she didn’t have to go full lefty radical – and I think she and her campaign would have been better off. Rather than channelling Bernie Sanders, she should have tried to channel Jack Layton.
Ashton is going to continue to be a strong asset for the NDP. I just hope she puts away the faux radical and decides, instead, to be herself and build on her truly natural strengths of connecting with people.
I hope she decides to do an about-face on her Basic Income stance. Her initial waffling on the Quebec religious garb issue was problematic, but she recovered – I get what was going on there, too – Ashton sees Quebec as an opportunity for herself for when Caron drops off the ballot, so she did what she thought was best to appeal to Caron’s voters for their second place preferences. And who knows – it may have worked. I do expect a lot of Caron’s people will move to Ashton – but not enough to see her make it through the second ballot.
Ashton will be the second leadership hopeful exiting the contest (or she’ll receive the second lowest vote count on a first ballot victory of another leadership contestant).
Singh and Angus
So that leaves Charlie Angus and Jagmeet Singh – two candidates who actually exhibited a little bit of a less-than friendly rivalry during the leadership contest, which is very uncharacteristic for the NDP. But you know what? I really think these two got underneath each other’s skin. Singh’s jab about Angus not really caring about seniors was completely over the top and frankly not in keeping with reality. Angus, probably realizing whom his real competitor was going to be early on, took jabs at Singh’s lack of commitment to universality for social security – and was right to do so, given the NDP’s long history here. Perhaps Singh was thinking ahead to when he was going to have to face a broader electorate – and not just New Democrats.
Anyway, Singh doesn’t appear to have been harmed by these true missteps. If Angus represents the Party’s historic core, Singh represents what the Party aspires to be – and if he really has signed up 47,000 new members, it’s quite likely that Singh will find himself leading the NDP when all of the ballots are counted.
Angus has a lot of passion, and I hope that Singh can find a way to reconcile himself with the MP from Timmins-James Bay. Singh and Angus will make a great one-two punch for the NDP – and if Singh wins, he would be foolish to try to dim the light on Angus.
Of course, if Angus wins, it’s doubtful that Singh is going to stick around federal politics – not when there’s a provincial election coming up in Ontario in 2018, which is likely to be Andrea Horwath’s last as Ontario NDP leader. In many respect, it’s really too bad that Singh is leading the provincial party right now. But I digress.
Charlie Angus would make an adequate leader of the federal NDP – but his rumpled approach to party politics isn’t going to make much headway against Justin Trudeau. I like a lot of the things that Angus was saying during the campaign – but I think that the NDP would be making a serious, albeit not fatal, mistake if Angus was selected as leader.
Gotta Go With Singh
Clearly, in my mind, the NDP has to go with Singh. He may be the most lightweight candidate in the running (from both a policy and politics perspective), but if any of these four have what it takes to motivate voters, it’s Singh. Look, I understand the fears about Quebec – and I suspect the New Democrats will take a hit in that province with Singh as leader (but I also expect they’d take a hit there with Angus or Ashton or Caron as leader, too), but Singh’s ability to connect with people can’t be overlooked. He’s the only one that can out-selfie Justin Trudeau.
But that’s not the only reason that New Democrats ought to select Singh over Angus. Angus has, quite frankly, just been too wishy-washy on a number of issues of growing importance to New Democrats – specifically on climate change and pipelines. Don’t misunderstand me – I like Angus’ carbon budget – but it’s just not a winning policy when Angus is caught leaving the door open to pipelines (in a way that Singh has refused to do). That might play well in Alberta – but it’s a problem in Quebec, and more importantly, in B.C. And B.C. is ground zero for the NDP in 2018 – the lower mainland will be one of several primary battlefields where the NDP has a real chance to knock off some incumbent Liberals.
Why I Prefer Angus
So, as a Green, I’m rooting for Angus – because I believe that Angus will be the best choice the NDP can make (besides maybe Caron, which isn’t going to happen) for the Green Party to really grow our support. Angry Angus from mine-living Northern Ontario who won’t say no to pipelines will play well for Greens in B.C.
And it’s why a Jagmeet Singh-led NDP scares me, as a Green. Remember: in 2014, Greens went into the election targeting maybe 20 ridings across the nation. Just about all of them were on Vancouver Island or in the lower mainland. And we got our hats handed to us –not by Justin Trudeau, but by the NDP. When the Liberals were steamrolling New Democrats east of the Rockies, the NDP made gains in B.C. – in those very ridings that Greens thought we could figure out a way to win in. And that was under a cautious, uninspiring Tom Mulcair. What chance are we going to have in B.C. with Singh leading the New Democrats?
And that’s why the NDP’s leadership contest might be a bit of an existential question for Greens. If the NDP has some (mostly) really good and progressive policy, why should we continue to fight them? I mean, ok, maybe the NDP has to do a bit of a reckoning with carbon pricing – but perhaps Singh could see the wisdom on revenue neutrality (especially if he continues to question universality of old age security).
The NDP: a New Green Party
What I saw during the leadership campaign were a group of people more than willing to turn their Party into a Green Party. Maybe not exactly what the Green Party of Canada is today – but certainly something very recognizable to Greens. And I think it would be incumbent on the part of we Greens to figure out whether we should be continuing to put our efforts into opposing the NDP – and ask ourselves if our time and resources might be better spent doing something different.
Since the massive disappointment of the 2015 election, I’ve stayed with the Green Party out of optimism that when Canada’s electoral system was changed, Greens might be able to figure out a way to have more influence – not to punch above our weight class, but instead to have influence equal to the will of the electorate – something Greens and Green supporters have been denied for too long, thanks to First Past the Post. So the only saving grace coming out of 2015 was Trudeau’s promise to reform the electoral system.
Tough Conversations Ahead
With electoral reform off the table, where does that leave the Green Party? Especially in the face of the NDP becoming a green party, likely led by a dynamic and likable leader who connects with voters, who surrounds himself with a strong team of former leadership candidates and a few others. While I still don’t think that the NDP is going to be able to topple Trudeau from power in 2019, I see gains (and yes, likely some offsetting losses in Quebec – but enough gains to make the NDP more than viable come 2023. And I see yet more nothing for a Green Party that has almost completely disappeared from the public consciousness outside of British Columbia.
I hope that my fellow Greens are following the NDP leadership contest as closely as I have been. I think it’s time that we all had a bit of a discussion about our collective future. We may not have seen a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbynn emerge from the ranks of the NDP - but maybe we will see a Jason Kenney - someone who has the ability to make a case to his own Party that it's time to extend a hand of friendship, welcome and - dare I say it - love - to political rivals who perhaps shouldn't be.
And I suppose that’s yet another reason why I’ve been putting off writing this blogpost – because thinking about change is scary. It’s draining. You don’t know where things are going to end up, you lose control. Who wants that?
But ultimately, the one constant in life is that change is inevitable.
And maybe change is just what Canada needs right now.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)