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Leading questions

Thoughts on the NDP leadership race

Canadian Politics

As the NDP chooses a new leader , more than a decade after Seattle, a new era of global protest has dawned, from the Arab spring to anti-austerity protests in Europe, and the global Occupy movement, which has put the issue of growing economic inequality squarely on the table. Years of recession and financial crisis have discredited neoliberalism’s promise of increasing prosperity. Liberal democratic political systems are paralyzed, where they are not accelerating the very policies that precipitated the crises. The spectre of climate change looms ever more ominously. Yet as the planetary crises have deepened and protest has erupted, social democratic politics have grown steadily more shallow and short-sighted, and ever more detached from social struggles, mounting at best a rearguard defense of an already weakened welfare state against ruling powers that grow more authoritarian, retrograde and militarist by the day.

The NDP is no exception here, and so far, none of the leadership candidates have said anything to suggest that this will change. Jack Layton professionalized the party and pulled it to the right as electoral successes were seen by many to vindicate his approach. Coherent political vision was replaced with poll-tested micro-targeting, milquetoast language about “working families” and the “middle class” along with populist anti-tax campaigns, the promotion of cap-and-trade and soft environmental regulations – policies which do nothing to address the burgeoning social inequalities and ecological catastrophes facing this country.

While there are obvious personal differences between the candidates, the political differences among them are all but negligible.

Thomas Mulcair is the most experienced politician and a fierce debater who might provide the best foil to Stephen Harper. But his credentials are dubious. As a cabinet minister in the Québec Liberal government of Jean Charest from 2003 to 2006, he supported all of that government’s anti-labour and austerity measures. He has no connections to the Quebec left or the labour movement, and in addition to his neoliberal economic policy proclivities, Mulcair is a slavish defender of Israel and a staunch federalist – stances unlikely to endear him to francophone voters.

To head off the apparent Mulcair threat, party elites have coalesced around Brian Topp, a backroom tactician with little appeal to the ordinary voter, but who is well liked by political insiders. His focus on inequality and his call to raise taxes on corporations, capital gains and the rich make him appear relatively bold, but his true political shading shines through when he represents himself as a disciple of the ultra-moderate NDP governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

If, as many suspect, both Mulcair and Topp have limited room to grow their support, it is possible that one of the second tier candidates may move forward up the middle.

Peggy Nash has the support of many on the left of the party. Nash became a labour movement activist through her job as an Air Canada ticket agent, eventually working her way through her union, the Canadian Auto Workers, to become a negotiator and an assistant to CAW president Buzz Hargrove. For her efforts to introduce 70s style industrial-building economic policies into the campaign, she has garnered support from progressive economists like Jim Stanford, Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Andrew Jackson and Mel Watkins. A Nash win would be a symbolic victory for the left within the NDP, but she fits comfortably within the boundaries of middle-of-the-road social democracy and has shown no sign of nudging the party towards a more inspired and inspiring vision.

Some commentators have observed that in his energetic and positive demeanour and playful sense of humour, northern BC candidate Nathan Cullen is the most Laytonesque of the candidates. So far he has made the only risky proposition of the campaign – to attempt to negotiate an electoral alliance with the Liberals and Greens to defeat the Harper Conservatives. This alone has earned him the support of those, like Murray Dobbin, who believe that defeating Harper in the next federal election is the most urgent political task for progressive Canadians. Calling himself one of the “radicals” reviled as “extremists” by the government, Cullen has been a vocal environmentalist, opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that Harper’s government has made central to its economic plan for Canada. At the same time, like Martin Singh, the leadership candidate from Nova Scotia, Cullen makes a point of identifying himself as a pro-business New Democrat.

Of the other candidates, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar stand outs mainly for the weakness of his French language skills. The youngest candidate, MP Nikki Ashton, has shown herself to be a strong campaigner and an articulate spokesperson for NDP policy. On foreign policy, Ashton has called for Canada to support the Palestinians by promoting a two-state solution and an end to illegal settlements, while on the domestic front, she advocates for full equality for the LGBT community. Now withdrawn from the race, Romeo Saganash, a Cree lawyer from Québec and a career politician in the First Nations world, recently made the jump to federal politics and is the first Indigenous person to run for the leadership of any federal party. Fluently trilingual in English, French, and Cree, he evoked the communal values of Cree culture as the guiding principles of his politics.

It is doubtful that any of the current NDP leadership contenders can hold Québec support for the party, and indeed polls now show that support fast fading.

Already in January, the NDP stood on a par with the Bloc in terms of voting intentions, with the Bloc taking a majority (34%) of francophone votes. Perhaps had the party made a serious effort to reach out to Quebec and proven itself an effective challenge to the Harper agenda the outcome could have been different, but it has done neither of these things.

As the official opposition to what is arguably the worst government in Canadian history, the NDP appears strangely subdued and seems to be squandering an opportunity to play a meaningful critical role by failing to mobilize, coordinate and support resistance to the Harper regime with its policies aimed at environmental destruction, militarization, immiseration of the poor, criminalization of dissent, including spying on citizens and muzzling scientists, dismantling the refugee system, turning back the clock on women’s and gay rights, reviving monarchism, and a host of other malignant schemes.

While the times call for bold alternatives and transformative change, the NDP candidates with left sympathies have shown no imagination for how to build power or intervene in the political landscape in a way that is significantly different from the right-wing candidates. The differences that matter in this race are mostly about technical competence and style, rather than politics.

Meanwhile, with no organized mass opposition to challenge them, Harper’s horsemen of neoliberalism and social conservatism continue, as promised, to transform Canada beyond recognition.

This article appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Degrowth Issue).

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