WHO WILL LEAD THE NEW LEFT?
After dispiriting losses under Tom Mulcair, Canada’s party of the left seeks a leader to recreate the euphoria of Jack Layton
The NDP leadership race has been an exercise in how to heal the hurt of 2015 and recreate the euphoria of Jack Layton’s success.
OTTAWA— Shortly before Christmas last year, Guy Caron travelled to Toronto and met Jagmeet Singh for breakfast. The race for the leadership of the New Democratic Party was barely a whisper in the national consciousness, but it was front of mind for these men.
Caron, a friendly 49-year-old MP from Rimouski, Que., had heard stories of the stylish, bike-riding Sikh politician who was deputy leader of the NDP at Queen’s Park. Though neither had yet committed to running for federal leader, both Caron and Singh were mulling it over.
They had more to chew on that day than just breakfast.
“I wanted to get the measure of the man, the person he is,” Caron recalled months later, speaking by phone as he boarded a bus from Calgary to Edmonton in the campaign’s final days.
During their meeting, Caron said they spoke of the many challenges facing the party, especially in the wake of its deflating 2015 election loss and Tom Mulcair’s ouster as leader in a convention the following year — 52 per cent of members voted him out — that left Caron “stunned.”
They spoke of Quebec, too, Caron said — his home province, where the party under Jack Layton achieved its previously unthinkable breakthrough in 2011, only to see so much crumble under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal tsunami four years later.
At the time, Caron said he was ruminating on his new-found leadership ambition, and left the break- fast thinking it would be naive not to expect Singh — a social media celebrity in certain circles, with the pop culture power of a GQ magazine spread to boot — to jump in the race, too. But he also felt the contest might not have anybody with his own mix of “economic credibility” and appeal in Quebec, prerequisites in his mind to any shot at victory for the NDP.
Now, just days before New Democrats start voting Monday for a new leader, Caron and Singh are on the ballot. The other two candidates, Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus, are experienced federal politicians who promise to reconnect with the party’s base and win back more than what was lost to the Liberals.
In a sense, just as Singh and Caron surveyed the party’s challenges over that December breakfast, the entire leadership race has been an exercise in how to negate the hurt of 2015; to find the champion that can charge back to the glory days of relevance and power proximity that the party attained under Layton.
Each candidate has campaigned against the backdrop of past failure. Each has tried to convince their partisan family that they have the right recipe for the future.
This contest, at its heart, is about how to cure disappointment.
In Olivia Chow’s mind is a metaphor: three streams, each representing a distinct school of thought for the party’s future, need to convene to form a river. One flows with a vision of a grassroots, activist movement; the second has a requirement for electoral domination in Quebec; and the third involves expanding the party’s reach into new, diverse constituencies.
All together, that river, if properly navigated, will lead the NDP to government.
“We have four candidates that embody those three streams, some more than others,” Chow, a former MP and Layton’s widow, told the Star recently. “Who would best bring those together?” Chow’s criterion for success brings up a question that NDP politicians are asked all the time. Is this a party that should try to appeal to a broad pool of voters for the sake of winning power, or should it stick to a strict social democratic platform and be happy with a clump of seats in the back corner of the House?
Ashton, a 35-year-old Manitoba MP, has the most left-leaning campaign. With tuition-free education, aggressive tax hikes, staunch opposition to new oil pipelines and frequent talk of connecting with “grassroots” activism, she appears most aligned with Chow’s first “stream” for the party’s future.
But Ashton twists the power-principle proposition into a different choice: relevance or irrelevance. She sees the millennial age group, which she defines as 35 and under, becoming Canada’s largest voting bloc in the next election. The NDP needs to connect with them, people she believes are focused on climate change, income inequality and precarious work.
This is why she argues the biggest mistake in 2015 was allowing the Liberals to “out-left” the social democratic party. Trudeau caught the impulse for change and spoke to progressives and younger voters. The NDP didn’t. It’s now the third party, with 44 seats.
“We lost touch with some of our clear principles, and I believe with people that support us,” Ashton said. “There’s much work to be done in building a movement. That is what we used to be.”
Angus, a 54-year-old veteran MP from northern Ontario, also has framed his candidacy as one that would reconnect the party with its “grassroots.” For him, the party under Layton and Mulcair became overly oriented to the daily squabbles on Parliament Hill, a political machine detached from its roots.
“I heard this all the time, that the only time the party went to the base was to raise money,” he said.
“This raises a sort of existential question for New Democrats,” he continued. “What is the future of our social democratic movement?”
Caron is unequivocal: the NDP must strive for power in every election. If the pitches from Ashton and Angus represent Chow’s first “stream,” Caron’s is the second: he believes he alone has the right formula, a combination of coherent, left-wing economic policy and Quebec appeal as a francophone progressive.
“I was at Jack (Layton)’s speech that launched his leadership bid” in 2002, Caron told the Star. “He had a vision of the future that we have to form government . . . we can’t do it without Quebec.”
Yet his opponents all agree on the importance of Quebec. In fact, they agree on a lot. Each says inequality and climate change are among the biggest challenges this century. They nod at the mention of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the need for electoral reform and a push to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“The candidates agree on pretty much everything,” said Karl Bélanger, a fixture of the party’s parliamentary staff through the Layton era and much of Mulcair’s tenure.
“New Democrats are looking at a difference in style and tone.”
And that brings us to the third stream in Chow’s metaphor: breaking through to new supporters.
The audience giggled, but Jagmeet Singh wasn’t smiling. It was late August, during the only entirely French debate of the campaign in Montreal, and Charlie Angus was needling him on whether he would still try to jump from Ontario to federal politics if he loses his leadership bid.
“With respect,” he said, casting his eyes on Angus, “I will not lose.”
Laughter spread through the room. Even Angus seemed to be chuckling.
“When I win,” Singh continued, “I will run in the federal election.” “If you lose?” Angus inquired again. “I will not lose,” Singh deadpanned. The 38-year-old Ontario legislator was, for many observers, the presumed frontrunner even before he entered the race. Bélanger called Singh’s entry, in midMay, the “game-changer.”
“Before that, it was like a phoney war,” he said.
It might seem strange a provincial politician who is not even the leader at that level would make such a splash. Hélène Laverdière, a Quebec MP who supports Singh, said she didn’t know much about him until he showed up in Ottawa around the time he formally launched his campaign. He came to her office, and she was impressed.
“He wanted to listen, rather than talk,” she said. “What struck me the most with him — how could I say? — it’s the leadership side. It’s the human being.”
Whatever it is, Singh appears to have resonated. His campaign claims to have brought in 47,000 new party members, of a total roughly 83,000 sign-ups during the campaign. In fundraising, too, there’s evidence he’s in the lead: Elections Cana- da numbers show he raked in more than $350,000 in the second quarter of the year. That’s more than Angus, Ashton and Caron combined.
He has also experienced some campaign flashpoints, most strikingly early this month, when a video of his response to an incensed heckler went viral. A woman — later tied to an Islamophobic group, Rise Canada — stood at a Brampton campaign event and started shouting in Singh’s face about “Shariah” and said he’s “in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Singh’s reaction has been widely parsed and praised. He calmly repeated to the woman, as she gesticulated and yelled in his face: “We love you. We support you.”
Ian Capstick, a political strategist and long-time NDP insider who is neutral in the race, said the impact of the video — viewed at least 40 million times — cannot be overstated.
Moments like that may also be integral to the party’s longer-term goal of finding someone who can shine on a level with Trudeau, a political celebrity, said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data in Ottawa. That’s important, given the history under Mulcair, when the play-it-safe strategy in 2015 backfired, Coletto added.
“If I’m the New Democrats,” he said, “I want somebody who will get the attention of the public for a moment, and that moment is my chance to convince the public that Justin Trudeau is not as progressive as he says he is.” None of that is to say that Singh is a lock. Angus, for one, is critical of what he sees as Singh’s “too big to fail” campaign, a bid to win on the first ballot of the race, rather than building bridges with various constituencies to bring people together when the race is over. Party members will vote by ranked ballot, in a one-member, onevote system. New rounds of voting will take place each week through October — with the last-place candidate being eliminated — until someone has more than 50-per-cent support.
(Singh did not make himself available to be interviewed for this article.)
Another factor is Quebec, key to the party’s electoral chances but marginal in the leadership race, with less than 10 per cent of NDP members in the province.
“The paradox of this campaign,” said Farouk Karim, Guy Caron’s campaign spokesperson, “is that we know NDP members in Quebec will not elect the next leader, but Quebec will decide the next prime minister.”
The province was at the centre of one of the biggest friction points of the campaign, when a debate in Quebec City over proposed restrictions on religious face coverings such as the Muslim niqab jumped into the leadership race.
This was prompted by Caron, who put out a platform in late August on respecting Quebec’s distinctness as a nation within Canada. His proposal included a section on secularism, in which he explained how it has been a priority in Quebec since the official uncoupling of the Catholic Church from the provincial governing apparatus in the 1960s. He said that, while he personally opposes the government telling people what they can wear, he would ultimately respect the Quebec National Assembly’s decision.
This prompted a sharp discussion that echoed an element of the 2015 election: Many believe the party’s declining fortunes in the province were due to Mulcair’s firm stance against a niqab ban for citizenship ceremonies, being discussed at the time.
Singh and Angus came out against the recent proposed legislation in Quebec, and predicted the courts would quash it. Ashton initially appeared to agree with Caron, but now says she’s against the idea in principle and trusts the National Assembly to make a decision that respects individual rights.
The discussion is by no means settled. This week, Pierre Nantel, a Montrealarea MP, told Le Devoir that he would consider ditching the NDP if the next leader doesn’t respect Quebec’s decisionmaking.
Statements like that may have fuelled a late surge of endorsements for Caron, who contends he’s the only one with a true understanding of Quebec’s political dynamic. Brian Topp, a prominent insider, former leader Alexa McDonough and the Steelworkers union all backed him in the days after the secularism discussion broke out.
There is also the practical question of French language ability, which appears to be of most concern to Angus and Singh.
Many in the party feel that to fail in Quebec will be to return to the time when the NDP had no legitimate shot at power, thus the nuances of debates of identity and self-determination in the province need to be navigated with extreme care.
As Coletto pointed out, the NDP has consistently trailed the Liberals in Quebec polls since Trudeau took power. “There has been a sea change,” he said. “Quebec (for the NDP) looks particularly daunting.”
If Chow is right about her “three streams” prescription, whoever becomes the next leader needs to pull off something unprecedented for the party — enliven its social democratic base, appeal to new tranches of voters in places it has never won seats and reclaim its Orange Wave success in Quebec.
Back in March, at the first candidates debate in a hotel ballroom in Ottawa, none of the candidates mentioned Mulcair. They spoke instead, and with great frequency, of Layton, who was practically beatified in the NDP for leading them to groundbreaking success.
It’s been like that the whole campaign — reaching around the disappointment of the Mulcair era to try to embody the euphoria of a prior time.
“It has interestingly become: who can be the closest to the next Jack Layton that we can possibly elect,” Capstick said. “That’s what the party has always been after: who can capture the imaginations of Canadians the way Jack Layton did.”
In a matter of days, New Democrats will hope they have found the right person for that lofty task — catching the future by chasing the past.