On Sunday afternoon the NDP party had their first leadership debate since being led astray by the centrist Tom Mulcair. Remember Mulcair? He was the guy with the beard that had all the personal appeal of a particularly hectoring dentist and, when forcing an "I'm going to be a Prime Minister" smile looked like he was being squeezed through a tube. Who thought that it was a good idea to attempt to outcenter the Liberals by promising balanced budgets, a gambit that failed to convince more fiscally conservative voters that NDP aren't a party of free-spending bongs dressed as humans and also lost them the left vote to Prime Minister Mountain Equipment Co-Op who promised to gently kiss every progressive Canadian on the forehead before they fell asleep.
The NDP lost over 50 seats in the last election and were reduced from "Holy crap we're the Official Opposition status, we might be able to win this whole damn thing" status to "Hello. We're still here everybody" status.
So what is the party now? Is it a rival to the Liberals as a mainstream left alternative that Canada just hasn't given a shot to you yet, or more of a protest party—a home for idealists and dreamers, the one cool bar that plays good music in an otherwise dreary town?
The debate on Sunday was the first glimpse of where the party is headed. The four debaters were:
Peter Julian: MP for New Westminster - Burnaby. Strongly against pipelines. Smiled a lot. Guy your mom dates after your dad, who is so excited we get to be a family.
Charlie Angus: MP for Timmins - James Bay. Salt of the earth, blue-collar organizer type. Sort of like if a hockey duffle bag became a person. Based upon how many times he mentioned it in the debate, loves drinking.
Niki Ashton: MP for Churchill - Keewatinook Aski. Only woman in the race. Intends to speak to millennials and activists in the party. Sharp glasses. Has the contagious, youthful energy of someone recommending their favourite podcast. Thinks neo-liberalism sucks and Beyonce rules.
Guy Caron: MP for Rimouski-Neigette - Témiscouata - Les Basques. French guy. Former economist for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada and had all the charisma you would expect of the former economist for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada. Told a solid Bieber joke.
The first thing to stand out about the debate is that these are some very nice people who all seem to like and respect one another. It was like listening to a bunch of sweaters debate over which one would keep you warm on a cold winter's night. The most common phrase of the debate was, "I agree." Literally, there was not one disagreement the entire debate. "I agree," was such a common statement that people in the bar I was watching the debate in began drinking every time they said it. I don't know what happened to that group but I wouldn't be surprised if they went blind or became anarchists. While all this agreeing made the debate a little boring and staid, seeing a bunch of well meaning do-gooders who probably all bake their own bread in agreeance about what's the best way to achieve a just world was a sweet balm after weeks of watching the Conservatives argue over what is the best method to drink the brains of the poor and miserable.
Beneath all the loving and camaraderie there were signs of an emerging tension. While all the leaders seemed committed to reclaiming the progressive left, Mulcair's responsible, luke-warm centrism was nowhere to be seen, the fissure emerged over how and to whom this would be pitched.
The candidates that seemed to emerge from the debate as the frontrunners were the ones embodying this question. Niki Ashton immediately grabbed the attention with her very woke vocabulary, excoriating "neo-liberalism" while claiming the party will be the home for "intersectional" concerns. Ashton pitched herself of the leader of an NDP that was less a party and more "a movement." She sees the NDP making itself relevant again by allying with progressive movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. It is an appeal to urban Blundstone marchers throughout Canada.
On the other side was Charlie Angus, who positioned himself as the champion of the working class. Angus spent the debate making jokes about loving free beer, telling stories about his grandmother, and recounting conversations struck up while watching a hockey game "at the local sports bar." The only way Angus could have presented himself as more of a champion of the common man would have been if he was getting a Labatt 50 tattoo during the debate.
This then seems to me the conflict that the NDP will have to wrestle with: not so much a question of values but of messaging. Will they speak to downtown Toronto Twitter users or labour halls in Sault Ste Marie? And can they bridge that gap?
Perhaps that is why the second most commonly heard thing during the debate was "Jack Layton." By the end of his life Layton was able to transcend this gap, his commitment to his principles, and his struggle with cancer, all of which allowed him to enter that rarified air of beloved politician admired by bike couriers and chicken farmers alike. All the candidates mentioned Le Bon Jack with a reverence, as if mentioning him enough would bless them with Layton's blessings and approval ratings.
The problem is Jack is not coming back. The good news is he might not need to. On Sunday I witnessed a party, in the response to defeat and unpopularity, recommit to their ideals. The game of footsie with the political middle, that Layton himself began and Mulcair increased, was abandoned. Instead, the candidates were talking about being bold and about winning because of their values, not despite them. The benefit to this strategy is that, as Trump destabilizes the world and our own Conservatives commit to policies of brutality and barbarism, the mushy middle is going to be the last place one wants to be. So let Trudeau attempt to appeal to everyone and no one. If the NDP stays true to who they are and figures out the best way to communicate this, they might end up exactly where they need to be.
Follow Jordan Foisy on Twitter.