Inside the Left’s Race to Capture Berniemania in Canada

Architects of Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns kept a close eye on the NDP’s weekend convention.
Images via CP. 

Can the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the United States be replicated here in Canada by the NDP, in time for the next federal election in 2019?

If you ask filmmaker and left-wing pundit Avi Lewis, the answer is a very emphatic ‘yes.’

“Transformative demands are not a liability for the left, they are the path to power—that’s the lesson from Sanders and Corbyn,” he told VICE. “We need to change what’s politically possible, because that’s what our current political crises, from climate change to inequality, require.”


Lewis’s approach might (just) be gaining ground inside the NDP, which held its biennial convention in Ottawa over the weekend. A proposed resolution to support the ambitiously left-wing Leap Manifesto—a 2015 document that was co-written by Lewis, and that has been hugely controversial within the party; Alberta premier Rachel Notley described its call to ditch fossil fuels as “naive, ill-informed, and tone-deaf”—failed to make the convention floor. But the new federal leader Jagmeet Singh delivered a speech that forcefully defended public services, railed against inequality, and even echoed rhetoric used by Corbyn and Sanders. (Although it’s worth noting that, he conspicuously refused to pick a side in the intensifying battle between the Alberta and BC NDP governments over the Kinder Morgan pipeline development.)

Debate at the convention had been framed by another event in Ottawa, this one on Thursday night. Organised jointly by The Leap and Courage—a separate coalition of the independent left—the meeting was staged, in part, to set-out a socialist prospectus for the NDP. Significantly, it was also attended by senior staff members from both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns.

One of them was Becky Bond, who worked as an adviser to Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primaries. She believes the Canadian left needs to embrace ideas that actively galvanise and inspire voters. “I think a lot of time on the left, we go for things that we call wins that aren’t really wins,” she says. “We need policies that are going to make a material change in people’s lives, not just incremental, technocratic improvements.”


Bond draws a parallel between her own experiences of American politics and the current political landscape in Canada, which, she argues, is dominated by a superficially appealing but ultimately insubstantial centrist leader: “In 2008, there was a movement of the left to elect President Obama on a lot of grand rhetoric about hope and change, but what we found out was that his presidency largely bolstered the neoliberal status-quo. I think here in Canada, with Justin Trudeau, you are going through a similar experience of seeing people invest in him a lot of hope but not actually seeing him deliver.”

If a left-populist surge is going to come from anywhere in Canada, it will come from millennials. In 2015, voters under the age of 35 supported Trudeau in overwhelming numbers. Two and a half years later, however, and after countless u-turns on everything from electoral reform to the Trans Mountain pipeline, he has largely failed to meet their progressive expectations. But young people now have political clout. In fact, they were instrumental to both the Corbyn and Sanders insurgencies. Over the course of his primary battle against Hillary Clinton, Sanders won a total of two million millennial votes. Clinton and Donald Trump could only chalk-up 1.6 million between them. Likewise, at the UK’s snap general election last June, Corbyn is estimated to have won more than 60 percent of all votes cast by Brits under the age of 40.


One of the driving forces behind Corbyn’s popularity with younger voters is Momentum, a radical grassroots organisation that sprang from the 'Corbyn for Leader' campaign in 2015. Momentum has pioneered a range of innovative campaigning techniques on the British left. For instance, it uses an app—My Nearest Marginal—that enables Labour activists to identify their nearest competitive seat and focus all their canvassing efforts in that area. (100,000 Labour members are thought to have downloaded it in the run-up to June.) And it has flooded social media with an avalanche of gifs, memes, and targeted viral clips that have helped Labour circumvent the entrenched anti-Corbyn hostility of Britain’s mainstream press.

These tactics have modernized and refined the way Labour communicates with British voters. But for Momentum founders Emma Rees and Adam Klug—both of whom appeared alongside Bond in Ottawa on Thursday—they only work because Corbyn’s staunchly left-wing message (he wants to raise taxes on the rich and nationalize big chunks of private industry) has tapped into a deeper sense of frustration with the British political system. “The digital tools can help amplify the offer,” Rees says. “But ultimately, when Jeremy became leader, it marked a shift in the direction of travel and in how society could be. It was that positive vision that really mobilized people.”

Having watched Corbynism move quickly from the fringes of British politics to its frontline, Rees and Klug are convinced that Canada is primed for a similarly seismic shift. “There’s growing inequality in Canada, and for the first time at the next general election millennials are going be the largest constituency, replacing Baby Boomers,” Klug says. “People said the conditions weren’t right in the UK before Jeremy got on the ballot to be leader, so it’s not always clear that you can feel this kind of upsurge [before it happens].”


Of course, none of this means that Canadian socialism is actually on the brink of a breakthrough. For one thing, external political conditions aren’t the only factors at play. Internal party dynamics matter, too. Corbynism was essentially an activist-led response to decades of triangulation by Labour’s Blairite leadership, and Bernie Sanders has been agitating against the centrist Democratic elite for years. The NDP, on the other hand, has mostly resisted embracing neoliberalism in the style of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. As a result, leftists in Canada have lacked an important unifying theme.

“Both Sanders and Momentum offer a template for what a successful, transformative politics should look like,” says Luke Savage, a Toronto-based writer who contributes regularly to major left-wing titles like Jacobin and Current Affairs. “But people should understand the process that gave rise to both won't be replicated exactly in Canada. Sanders and Corbyn are products of popular insurgencies within parties of government that shifted substantially to the right in the 1990s. The NDP never underwent this kind of Clintonian/Blairite transformation.”

And then there’s the basic challenge of adapting campaign tactics that have proved hugely effective in one country to an entirely different country, with a distinct political culture and geography. My Nearest Marginal worked for Labour because the UK is relatively small, which makes it easy to travel between a wide range of constituencies in a short amount of time. But in Canada, communities can live thousands of kilometres apart, so that simply doesn’t apply. “You could probably use My Nearest Marginal in Toronto or Metro Vancouver,” Savage says. “But in at least half the seats in the country or more, it would be of absolutely no use.”

Whether the ideas and strategies of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn can be imported into Canada remains to be seen. This is a period of immense political volatility. At the start of 2015, hardly anyone knew who Sanders was. Now he’s the most popular politician in America. And barely a year ago, no-one in the British political and media establishments took Corbyn seriously. Today, he’s within touching distance of power at Westminster. It seems unlikely that Canada is completely immune to these trends. At the same time, coming out of its Ottawa convention, the NDP is in an increasingly precarious financial position, at least 20 points behind the Liberals in the national polls, and barely 18 months away from the next federal election. So whatever the party is going to do, it better do it fast.

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