Sixth NDP Leadership Debate: Debates around CCF-NDP History and Means Testing Generate Conflict
Photo by Justin Tang
This past Monday in Saskatchewan, the NDP leadership contest held its sixth debate, its lone meeting in the Prairie Provinces. While it’s only been a few weeks since the last gathering, new polling data and shifts in the field have forged new dimensions as the contenders met in Saskatoon.
The biggest change has been the exit of Peter Julian, who suspended his campaign based on poor fundraising. His departure is somewhat surprising, because when the race started, I considered him a favourite. But as I’ve noted previously, Julian was never able to manifest his many assets into rank-and-file enthusiasm. This leaves us with a field of four hopefuls: Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, and Jagmeet Singh.
In terms of polling, this race has seen limited coverage. While a relatively early poll put Angus in first with Ashton close behind, it was taken largely before Singh’s entry. A poll taken a couple weeks ago was likewise inconclusive, given a very small sample of NDP supporters. But last week we got what might be the first halfway meaningful poll. Done by Mainstreet Research, it reached nearly 1,500 people on relatively recent NDP membership or donor lists from five provinces. It shows the following:
While these numbers are clearly encouraging to the top two (and both sent out emails touting their strong showings in this poll), there are caveats. First, we have little credible comparative data. Second, this doesn’t capture all provinces. Third, more than 1/3rd of respondents are still undecided. Fourth, the exit of Julian is not captured in this poll. Finally, the poll captures first choices, and isn’t tooled for a ranked-ballot system.
With all this in mind, each of the four remaining contestants had everything to play for on Tuesday. As each of them releases increasingly-detailed policy pieces, and commands a bigger share of the spotlight, conflict will only increase. At numerous times, this debate showcased passionate exchanges that veered on the aggressive, though it was still fundamentally a collegial debate.
Caron is not a flashy candidate, neither in his image, tone, or penchant for wonkishness. This may be seen as a limitation, but it is also what makes Caron his authentic self. Further, it has worked for him thus far, as he has been gradually building his national profile. Caron has a real grasp on his policies, meaning he can offer specifics without sounding like he’s reading from a PowerPoint presentation. He is especially effective in more informal settings, where he can interact with the audience and can take time to expand upon his proposals, how they work, and why they’ll make Canada a fairer society.
But in many ways this was an ineffective debate for Caron, because he failed to connect narratively, and got lost among some of the biggest flashpoints. He was solid as ever on the technical points, but his attempts to weave this into a story that he can package to prospective supporters just wasn’t effective
Nonetheless, I don’t think Caron is out of the race by any means. While he has polled poorly, he is the only Quebec candidate, and during this debate’s question period, Caron received multiple questions, potentially indicating that the field sees him and/or his policies as a credible threat. In this sense, I don’t see Caron bowing out any time soon.
Given that the debate was held on the Prairies, the historical importance of the CCF-NDP was on full display. And while all four candidates offered interesting interpretations on what that history means to their political vision, Ashton did this the most consistently and convincingly. Specifically, she argued that the legacy of the CCF-NDP and the 1933 Regina Manifesto centred on the democratic socialist conviction that human rights and needs must supersede private profits. Further, she noted that—far from being impractical—what made figures like Tommy Douglas so special was their status as quasi-prophetic dreamers, who came up with ideas that were deemed absurd by many of their contemporaries, but which became key parts of Canada’s social identity.
In a sense, then, Ashton is continuing to make the case that she is the race’s inheritor of this CCF-NDP lineage. More explicitly, she said during the debate that she was the only one offering a socialist vision. I certainly think she is the further along in promoting such an outlook, but as I noted in the last recap, Ashton’s next step is to clearly articulate her democratic socialism in relation to the field. As it stands, Ashton has come out with major policies around taxation and healthcare, but those differ in gradients and not fundamentals from her rivals, who like her are moving beyond the Mulcair era. What will solidify her place as the definitive left candidate will be a concrete set of policies to democratize the economy via a combination of state, worker, and community control. Still, Ashton’s message of building a left party based in both today’s social movements and the venerable legacy of the CCF-NDP is gaining momentum.
While Angus in by no means running away with the contest, he is exhibiting the air of a frontrunner, and was often a target of questions, indicating that his opponents may be trying to reel him back. Specifically, Both Singh and Caron questioned Angus’ practical ability to win in suburban Canada and Quebec respectively.
Angus, simply put, is the strongest at telling stories, at selling what prospective supporters are supposed to feel about this race, his leadership, and his vision for Canada. His pitch: that he best offers a practical path towards victory via a no-nonsense platform that will empower local activists, give voice to the marginalized, and help regular Canadians in their day-to-day lives. He juxtaposes himself to the NDP’s “blue sky dreamers” who often fail to apply goals in achievable ways. None of this is to say that Angus is without principles or a passionate streak. When he speaks of the lost potential of indigenous children, or when he opened up about having to juxtapose his Catholicism with defending gay rights, you get a sense that he is a leader who will take a stand when the chips are down.
But perhaps it is because he is the perceived frontrunner that I want to see a more specified vision from him in terms of detailed policy proposals that build on his various op-eds and media appearances.
Singh had what I suspect might be a polarizing performance in Tuesday’s debate, where he took a strident tone against many of competitors, chiefly Angus. Based on limited polling, it might appear that Singh isn’t resonating as much as the initial excitement in his candidacy indicated. But he has been among the most active in formulating policy pieces, and has just won the endorsement of nearly a dozen prominent BC NDPers, the majority of whom are MLAs within the John Horgan’s BCNDP government.
Perhaps, then, it was Singh’s goal to be more proactive in this debate, and if such is the case, he was mostly successful. Repeatedly, Singh noted how he alone could reach heretofore inaccessible ridings for the NDP. He is the ‘growth candidate,’ the man who could capture the millions of Canadians who already share NDP values, but need to see them packaged in a new and innovative fashion. Beyond this, Singh either went on the offensive, or defended himself with vigour. When Ashton suggested only she was offering fundamental change, he interjected quickly, suggesting that he and Caron were also proposing big ideas, but that Angus was not. He quickly covered this as a ‘just kidding’ remark, but the point was made.
But without a doubt, the most heated moment of the campaign thus far came in Singh’s exchange with Angus on Old Age Security and the merits of means testing versus universality. One of Singh’s proposed policies is to create a “Canada Seniors Guarantee” that merges existing programs and claws back benefits as one’s income rises. Accordingly, Angus attacked Singh for assailing the principle of social program universality, arguing that Singh was shredding generations of CCF-NDP victories. Singh retorted quickly, imploring Angus “to do some research” and “double check your facts,” because the OAS is already means tested, as it starts being clawed back at around $70,000, and is fully eroded by $120,000. Singh continued by noting that income transfers are different from social programs, and income transfer value is maximized by targeting them.
The policy ramifications here are complex, but I feel Singh won this exchange. But Angus’ (as well as Caron’s) critique of Singh’s plan isn’t without some merit, given that universality is often seen as a method of obtaining broad support for income transfers, and there are worries from political economists like Andrew Jackson that too sharp a claw back might increase insecurity among some seniors, and program mergers might might affect individuals—particularly women—who have low incomes in relationship to their spouse.
In short, this is a substantive political debate that will continue to play out throughout the rest of the contest, and raises an important question about how we classify and prioritize social spending, income transfers, and all those initiatives to reduce poverty and inequality. Tom Parkin has noted that, in various ways, all four candidates have offered new and transitioned programs to address poverty. Fittingly, these are the sorts of questions the NDP needs to be debating.
The next debate is a few weeks away, to be held in BC. Here, one can expect intense discussions around environmentalism, and the status of the new BCNDP government will surely have an impact as well. We are quickly approaching crunch time, as more people pay attention, as policies are being outlined and critiqued, and as candidates are appraising their positions going forward. I don’t suspect you’ll see anyone drop out in the short to medium term, so the final four hopefuls will have more time and space to develop their approaches. They’ll need to do just that, because whoever wins will have to hit the ground running with a credible alternative—in both policy and messaging—to the Trudeau Liberals.
Christo Aivalis, a member of the CD web committee, is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and has been accepted for publication with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet and Rankandfile.ca. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.