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Avi Lewis and the NDP: Why stars don’t point the way forward for the left

Today’s left faces problems that no individual, no matter how dynamic, can really solve

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Without a connection rooted in trust with its electorate, the left must compete on terms similar to the other parties, with branding and ads and celebrity candidates. But these approaches do not mobilize the voters the left needs. Photo by Alexis Ramlall/Toronto Observer.

This article is part of a series in which CD editors asked NDPers, current and former, to weigh in on the state of social democracy in Canada, and on Avi Lewis’s recent decision to pursue the party’s nomination in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. This is the first component of our coverage in advance of the upcoming federal election in fall 2021.

The thing about shooting stars is that they only light up the sky for a short while. You really can’t count on them to guide your way for the long haul.

Right now Canada’s media elite, the usual liberal chattering classes, and many in the NDP are giddy with excitement at the prospect of a candidate with real star power running for office with Canada’s left party. And not just any star. Avi Lewis is about as close to NDP royalty as you can get—grandson of one of the party’s founders and a former federal leader, son of an international human rights leader and a former provincial party leader, and husband of celebrated left author and activist Naomi Klein.

His own CV is impressive, too: accomplished filmmaker, social movement activist, and co-author of the widely discussed Leap Manifesto that dominated discussion at the NDP’s 2017 federal convention. So when he announced his intention in early May to seek the federal NDP nod for the BC riding of West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky it got people talking. When he secured the nomination a few weeks later it made headlines.

A lot of people seem to think that an Avi Lewis win could make a big difference in both the party and Parliament. But what will his star power really add to the NDP’s arsenal? Unlike the stars in the night sky, human stars tend to fade, sometimes quickly.

Let’s assess Lewis’ staying power. One mark in his favour is that he is a big ideas guy. With its vision of energy democracy and climate justice his Leap Manifesto has already made the most significant contribution to ideological debate within the NDP since the Waffle manifesto of 1969. And at the NDP’s 2017 convention the party voted to engage in a process to study the issues and themes it raised. Not bad for a guy who once eschewed electoral politics.

So Lewis has got a high profile, independent of the party, and a track record pushing well thought out and principled policies and positions. Many political analysts would that argue that this is what makes him an ideal candidate for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky, a riding whose demographic has not typically responded well to NDP candidates. In fact, it is home to some of the wealthiest people in Canada. West Vancouver, which makes up about one-third of the constituency, is the wealthiest municipality in Canada where household net worth averages $4.5 million. Nevertheless, a sizeable group there seem open to some of the post-material themes that various Liberals, Greens and NDP candidates have promoted in the past.

The current pitch is that Lewis’s celebrity status could bring a slew of swing voters over to his campaign as being the most likely to defeat a Conservative or right-wing Liberal. After all, his campaign has already attracted support from international stars like Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, among others. So, all this sounds credible. And if Lewis can bring West Van’s upper middle class voters into the NDP coalition that’s good too, as the privileged middle class have always been key players in progressive politics.

But thinking about the big picture of left politics, simply adding another MP to the NDP caucus, even a principled policy-centric one, won’t really change all that much. Today’s left faces problems that no individual, no matter how dynamic, can really solve.

Now here is where Lewis partisans will focus on his policy depth and how it will attract voters and may change the character of policy discussions within the broader party. The idea is that a guy like Lewis is known and well-liked by various activist currents and his involvement will draw in those of like mind beyond just his own riding, and that his policies like the Leap Manifesto will energize public discussion, bringing new voters to the party. It’s an inspiring story but one that fails to engage with a lot of inconvenient facts about what we know about political parties and voters, and the particular challenges facing those that campaign from the left.

First, countless voter studies underline one solid finding: individual candidacies don’t really matter that much. Despite public complaints, people vote party and only after making that decision do they then extend their support to the individual carrying the party banner. Nevertheless the media love celebrities and linking them to politics just creates another way to reduce news to shovelling entertainment disguised as current affairs. And yes, such coverage could aid an individual campaign by raising its profile. But it’s unlikely to have much effect if the party doesn’t already have some significant competitive standing in the riding. So Lewis’s strategy could work but it remains a long shot, given the NDP’s historic weakness in West Vancouver.

Second, Lewis supporters make a lot of hay out of his policy commitments, as if their substance is the product the party needs to sell. This plays into analyses that focus on politics as marketing and that if the party would just tweak its product, get it to better align with consumer preferences, then it would succeed. But this ignores that the party’s existing politics are already popular with voters, even if the party is not. Name a host of recent NDP federal policies—increased wealth tax, higher corporate taxes, national drug plan, national daycare—and you can find strong majorities in national opinion polls for all of them. But such support doesn’t translate into seats on election day. Finding out why this is so would help the party much more than celebrity endorsements or another critical policy brief.

The real challenges for the left today are not about big names and bold ideas. They’re about identity and mobilization. We’ve been led to believe that elections are about individual voters examining parties and their policies like critical consumers looking for the best deal while parties are policy entrepreneurs just trying to meet consumer demands. But research on actual voters and party behaviour doesn’t support such a view. Voters are largely ignorant about policy details. In fact, as one political scientist noted, most political scientists are too. Public policy is just too complicated and diverse for the public to get up to speed on for more than few hot button issues. And there has long been a mismatch, as noted above, between what public opinion says the public wants and what parties who claim to serve the public actually do.

Clearly, strong veto players, like capital, matter. Except on the left. Only left parties consistently defied such pressures, in large part because they anchored to a base that held them to progressive policies. That base was the working class who desperately needed the policies left parties were promoting—policies like full employment, union protections and social programs. The nature of this historic relationship between left parties and their voters was not the result of some policy-by-policy utility-calculating decision-making by individual voters but one of trust rooted in a strong sense of group identity that was mirrored by the party. It is the breakdown of this relationship that has created the most challenging problems for the left.

NDP delegates gather on the convention floor, Ottawa, February 16, 2018. Photo by Fred Chartrand/CP.

Without a connection rooted in trust with its electorate, the left must compete on terms similar to the other parties, with branding and ads and celebrity candidates. But these approaches do not mobilize the voters the left needs (the working class). Instead, it leaves them chasing only those voters that are already motivated to participate, and that group is distinctly middle and upper class and less likely to respond to the NDP no matter how it brands itself.

So where did things go so wrong? Why did the historic relationship between the left and its working class voters change over time? Academics tell us that voter turnout generally has been declining over the past 40 years, in large part due to young people ‘dropping out’ of participation, largely for normative reasons (they don’t like or prefer engaging with electoral politics, they’ve become more post material). But such accounts fail to grapple with class. For instance, one study actually found that voter turnout amongst college students had actually gone up over time despite an overall decline in youth participation in elections. Reading the fine print the authors noted that the apparent conundrum could be solved by noting how declines in voter turnout amongst working class youth had erased the gains in college youth turnout. Such a finding mirrors other research noting how the working class have largely fallen out of the electorate and direct involvement in political parties across Western countries.

There are strong social and cultural reasons for this, having to do with the lack of confidence many working class people feel when engaging in organized politics, a field dominated by more middle and upper class sensibilities. But if that is true, why was working class voter turnout and participation in party politics higher in the past? The answers can be found in the structure and traditional outreach processes of older left ‘mass’ parties. The mass left parties of the early- to mid-twentieth century facilitated the entry of working class people into politics, by reaching into their communities, taking them to the polls, and by looking like the people they were trying to mobilize. Such parties were run by and ran candidates that were identifiably working class and in doing so gained the trust of working class electorates. But for many reasons this changed in the 1960s and 1970s as left parties went through a process of what Gerassimos Moschonas has called ‘middle-class-ization.’ Left parties no longer look working class and that has contributed to weakening the trust that was historically crucial for mobilizing a working class constituency.

Now it should be underlined that mass parties of the left were never the only factor contributing to working mobilization into politics. In fact, they were just one set of actors, often working in tandem with community groups, social movements, progressive church and farmer organizations, cooperatives, and non-electoral political organizations. Canada’s union movement played a key if uneven role in fomenting a class analysis of Canadian politics. Nor were the CCF/NDP the only political party on the left to make an impact. Particularly in the 1930s and 1940s the Communist Party was quite active at the community level and in various unions, mobilizing working class people into political campaigns but more importantly building a working class identity and politics through educational and cultural work as well as provision of mutual aid.

So the work that needs to be done won’t—frankly can’t—be accomplished by the NDP alone, and through a narrowly electoral focus. Groups like Move On in the United States and Momentum in the United Kingdom have attempted to increase citizen mobilization on political issues from outside the structures of conventional parties, though obviously with a clear beneficial though unofficial relationship with the Democrats and Labour. While they have had some successes, they clearly have not been able to revive the previous era’s ability to mobilize in a truly mass way. Clearly some innovative thinking needs to happen about just how to actually ‘do’ the progressive politics we talk about.

One needn’t say anything bad about Avi Lewis or his campaign to offer some caution about just what it can accomplish. He seems like a nice guy whose heart is in the right place. But finding colourful personalities and clever policies is just not enough to break the stalemate the NDP (and other left parties across Western countries) find themselves in. They need to reconnect with a group of voters who are presently not really engaged with electoral politics. And that is going to require creative thinking about how to connect with them.

It won’t work to flood media with ads or do the rounds of talk shows talking up policy. It is going to require the hard graft of going into working class communities and making connections on the basis of a shared identity, one that inspires trust and a two way commitment to get out to vote and then deliver progressive policies in office. Bright shiny things can be distracting but they won’t light the way forward.

For the left, going forward is going to involve re-engaging the working class. They should be the real stars of what we’re doing.

Dennis Pilon is an associate professor of political science at York University. He is the author The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Voting System and Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth Century West.

Bryan Evans is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies. In addition to a PhD in Political Science from York University, he holds a Master of Arts from York University and a Bachelor of Arts from Laurentian University.


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