NDP Leadership Race: A Labour-Themed Debate Brings Most Substance Yet

On Thursday, the five candidates for the NDP leadership met in Toronto to debate issues largely relating to workers and the labour movement. The event was hosted by the United Steelworkers (USW), which is both historically and contemporarily one of the most stalwart NDP-aligned unions. This was also the first debate not officially hosted by the party, and only the second based on a general theme (with a previous Montreal debate being aimed at youth issues).

This debate was an important one for multiple reasons, but perhaps two above all stand out. First, the NDP was basically swept out of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in 2015, as the Trudeau Liberals won nearly every seat. If the NDP has any hope of forming government in 2019, a strong performance in the GTA is imperative.

Second is the need to provide strong outreach to labour unions, their members, and the wider working class, because in 2015 Justin Trudeau was effective in convincing many union members into voting for his largely un-kept progressive promises. Indeed, many unions felt more invested in an anti-Harper strategy than a pro-NDP one, meaning that Trudeau reaped the benefits of the ABC labour contingency. The NDP in 2019 will have to not only make it clear that Trudeau doesn’t stand with workers and unions, but that they are offering a platform that is worth setting aside the strategic approach for. With all this mind, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, Peter Julian, and Jagmeet Singh met in Toronto for the first time since the St. John’s debate.

Niki Ashton

Ashton had a strong debate in terms of her rhetorical performance and energy. She routinely got some of the most passionate applauses from the room, especially when speaking about issues of injustice. This is linked to her desire to make connections and references to wider progressive social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the Fight for 15, along with Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Québec Solidaire. Just recently, for instance, Ashton has met with Fightback Canada, which casts itself as “the Marxist voice of labour and youth,” and has roots in the international Trotskyist movement.

This all ties into how Ashton, in the debate, closed by saying that only she, and none of her competitors, are offering fundamental change to the electorate. The challenge right now, however, will be for Ashton lay out in very specific terms her socialist vision. Right now, we only have one complete platform piece, and it considers a national Pharmacare program. Important to be sure, but that actually falls in line with what the other contenders are proposing. Ashton has spoken about the need to re-emphasize the value and necessity of greater public control of the economy, so a platform piece here may be the place to start. After all, Corbyn succeeded in large part because of a detailed, costed, and plausible manifesto. Canadian leftists need the same.

Peter Julian

In my previous recaps, I’ve noted Julian as a difficult person to cover, because he’s stronger on paper than he is in his actual performances, be it on stage or in polling/fundraising metrics. Still, this was a good performance, especially when he spoke on issues that he is passionate about. When talking about the environment—such as when he critiqued Angus’ policies around carbon emissions—Julian was firm in his tone and set on the specific details. Additionally, when addressing the plight of Temporary Foreign Workers, Julian deftly delivered the line that if people are good enough to work in Canada, they are good enough to live here as citizens.

Julian was also able to make a convincing point when asked about the NDP strategy in Quebec, noting that he has the most caucus support from the province thus far. The challenge for Julian is how to translate this caucus support into increased popular support. Environmental issues may be a path towards this end, and Julian has a potential winner in his One Million Green Jobs program. But while the others don’t take this approach directly, the majority of the field shares his anti-pipeline views, so more work is needed to differentiate himself if he wants to build momentum.

Charlie Angus

It may sound like a concession to ‘fluff’ politics, but one of Angus’ best qualities are his intangibles. The way he handled the early technical difficulties was impressive, and he, unlike anyone else in this race, has the Jack Layton-like ability to not only tell a great story, but to weave it into his political message and policy statements. And this debate was no exception, when Angus told stories about working precariously in the GTA, or helping mentor indigenous activists fighting for their families and communities.

Angus clearly is trying to adopt populist tones when speaking about economic justice and ‘fat cats,’ and pragmatic ones when questioning the costs and practicalities of competitors’ proposals. As I’ve noted previously, this will be a challenging tightrope to walk, but Angus is the only one able to do so in this field.

Finally, Angus’ simultaneous challenge and opportunity going forward might revolve around his acceptance of pipelines, at least as part of a general climate plan that would offset their carbon footprint elsewhere. Because pipelines themselves are such a hot button issue, this position puts him at odds with the field and many party members. Still, this approach might win him support from elements in the party who feel the full anti-pipeline stance alienates blue collar voters and causes harm to the Alberta NDP. If the average member is tilted towards the latter persuasion, it could bode well for well for Angus.

Jagmeet Singh

While Singh’s first debate performance was quite weak, he roared back with a good effort in Newfoundland, pairing his charm with references to his quickly-growing book of policies, on everything from social program creation to the implementation of new taxation, including an estate tax on wealthy families.

Therefore, coming into this debate was a great opportunity, especially considering that the event was taking place on his relative home turf. Nevertheless, he made a strategic error—when pressed by Caron—into admitting that some of his policies would amount to means testing social benefits. While Singh’s argument was that we should target money toward those with the greatest need, the spectre of means testing doesn’t play well among most NDP supporters, who see it as making social aid look like charity, thus stigmatizing the poor. While there’s no reason to think of this as Singh’s intent, the reality is that Caron talked him into a difficult position to hold, and he needs to be sharper in how he conveys his policies. Another slip up like this could be damaging to his overall efforts with the party base.

Nevertheless, Singh was able to make the case multiple times that he—unlike most NDPers—knows how to win in regions of the GTA that the party has historically failed in. Singh also, especially in contrast to his first debate, made direct connections to his work as an Ontario MPP on issues like temporary work agencies and discriminatory police carding. This was not the ideal debate for Singh, but he can learn from the ‘means testing’ debacle and move forward.

Guy Caron

I feel that Caron performs better in small and informal settings than he does in a traditional debate. He was in Kingston, Ontario a couple weeks ago to speak about his plan for a Basic Income, and he was excellent. He spoke with warmth, humour, and real mastery of his own policy. He was neither vague with platitudes nor wooden, as if spouting off from rote memorization. Rather, he spoke as an articulate and engaging expert.

In the debate setting, some of Caron’s personality gets lost, and this happened to a degree in Toronto. Nevertheless, he had an effective performance. He addressed his Basic Income policy, he articulated a proposal for a crown corporation for infrastructure that would counteract the Trudeau Liberals’ infrastructure bank, and as noted above, was able to expose a potential point of contention around Singh’s acceptance of means testing.

So while Caron needs to bring more flash to his substance in larger crowds, the last few weeks have been great for him. More and more people are paying attention to his policy, he is seen as a credible force to preserve NDP gains in Quebec, and has won three key endorsements from current or recent NDP MPs, including rising star Ruth Ellen Brosseau. While early polling in the race had Caron last among the original four contestants, it would not surprise me to see him among the favourites as the race continues.

***

This debate was among the most informative. Not only was the question period format from last time carried over, but we got a real sense that contestants are seeking to highlight lines of differentiation, especially in relation to the first couple debates. The next debate is a few weeks away in Saskatoon, but we are entering a key part of this race. Namely, the summertime will offer great opportunities for candidates to devote themselves to recruiting and engaging NDP members as they travel across the country. The challenge will be to balance this with the further development of tangible policy that will allow the eventual leader to hit the ground running as they move towards 2019.

Some in the mainstream media—like Gary Mason—have said that this race has little meaning because Justin Trudeau appears to have the Canadian left locked up for the foreseeable future. But I tend to agree with Adam Radwanski more, who perceptively notes that the race offers important and varied choices, and that there is a real opportunity to reach out to Canadians if the chosen leader is given the “ability to grow into the job.”

Much is still at stake for 2019, and while Trudeau remains strong, his father in 1972 lost his Trudeaumania majority, nearly lost power altogether, and had to depend on the David Lewis NDP to keep it. Even if 2019 doesn’t bring an NDPer into 24 Sussex, the chosen leader could wield immense power and influence.

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.

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