The NDP Leadership Race Needs to Turn Up the Bern Before It Flames Out Entirely

The Conservative race had all the opposite problems.
August 25, 2017, 3:58pm
Jagmeet Singh via Getty Images, Andrew Francis Wallace | Nicki Ashton via Wikimedia Commons

As far as national politics go, it's all quiet on the leftist front in Canada this summer. This isn't necessarily bad, given how an extended stint in the sunlight seems to be actively melting the Canadian right-wing outrage machine. But we're less than two months away from the New Democratic Party electing its new leader, and the race still feels suspiciously low-key.

Less charitably, one might even call it boring—especially compared to the Conservative race that wrapped up in the spring.


By all metrics, the NDP race has been pretty calm. All four remaining candidates—Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, and Jagmeet Singh—are in substantial agreement with one another on most major issues like economic inequality, Indigenous reconciliation, daycare/pharmacare, and climate change. Where they do differ, it falls along fine shades of grey dictated largely by personal style, how enthusiastic they are about a Universal Basic Income program, or where the candidates stand on Palestine. And for all the stink it caused last spring in Edmonton, the Leap Manifesto—a document proposing the aggressive decarbonization of the Canadian economy—seems to be largely a non-factor in the race so far.

The Conservative leadership, by contrast, had the opposite problem: there was way too much going on. There were more than a dozen candidates in play, each one clamouring over the other for the dubious title of Most Politically Incorrect. It felt like an endless series of controversies spurred on by The Rebel's (RIP) deep claws in the CPC machine and whatever the hell Kevin O'Leary was doing for that three-month stretch. It was pure spectacle at a moment when the "revenge of the comment section" (to use one of Kellie Leitch's euphemisms for normalizing open bigotry) made for lurid viewing as the media asked, endlessly, whether Trumpism would be replicated in Canada.

(Take from it what you will that Andrew Scheer got his narrow victory by flying largely under the radar.)


But if you accept the superabundance of CPC leadership coverage as justified in part by an obscene fascination with the global rise of "right-wing populism," it still doesn't totally explain the dearth of attention given to the NDP race. There's an equally significant political sea change happening among the Anglo-American left. The most popular politician in the US right now is a septuagenarian Jewish socialist named Bernie Sanders, and the Democratic Socialists of America party has seen a membership surge this year among American millennials. And in Britain, absolute boy Jeremy Corbyn is already the prime minister of our hearts, if not parliament… yet.

Meanwhile, there is little discussion about where the NDP fits into this global context. The broadest comparative context we tend to get isn't who most resembles Bernie or Jezza so much as whether or not Jagmeet Singh can out-Trudeau Justin Trudeau.

Part of this is definitely Canadian media's left-wing blindspot. The ideological drift of mainstream journalism in this country is overwhelmingly liberal, but it tends to fixate on far right—and even amplify voices like Richard Spencer—much more often than it will give even a negative platform to anyone unapologetically socialist. (Whether this is because "fishhook theory" is an accurate depiction of political reality, or because the term "progressive" is such a sloppy signifier that it muddles most liberals' political self-consciousness, or because of something else entirely, is the subject for another, much more tedious column.)


Then again, beyond Niki Ashton, a large swathe of the NDP itself seems scared to utter the s-word in public. And even despite her impressive ability to cite scripture for her purpose, Ashton seems no closer than her competitors to tapping into the utopian undercurrent at the heart of the Sanders-Corbyn nexus.

It would be disastrous for the party to miss this window of historical opportunity, even if it would be the brutally ironic conclusion of the party's drift to "the centre" (wherever that is) in a bid to get elected. Enthusiasm for the NDP has waned markedly at a moment when the left is otherwise waxing; there were 120,000 members when Tom Mulcair became leader in 2012, but scarcely 45,000 at the end of July 2017. It's a big decline, and it's unclear whether the party's 2015 election showing is a symptom or a cause.

There was an appetite in 2015 for (ugh) Real Change, and the Liberals managed to outflank the NDP on satisfying it, however cynical and empty most of the Liberals' promises have since turned out to be. Giving an account of how this happened has turned out to be one of the central questions in the leadership, and the answers of the two ostensible front-runners—Ashton and Singh—are illuminating.

On Ashton's reading, the problem is that the party strayed too far towards a very timid centrism instead of offering the bold alternative political and economic vision that voters obviously craved. For Singh, the reading is inverted; the party failed to connect with people, and was so ultimately out of touch that they offered weak ideas that were easily outflanked by a Liberal party that could make a stronger connection with weaker (or outright false) promises.

It's a subtle difference but an important one, and where the party membership comes down on it will determine a lot about how 2019 shakes out for the Canadian left. The NDP wager is that despite the strength of Trudeau's personal brand, or the class bias of this country's media, the belief that a better Canada is both possible and necessary remains.

The only question is: will the NDP be offering that Canada, and will anybody care?

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.