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Libby Davies: Next NDP leader must present principled alternative to right-wing populism

Like many, I have been giving thought to the NDP leadership race and sorting through what it is I'm looking for in a new leader. New Democrats and friends have also asked me who I might support amongst the declared and yet-to-be-potentially-declared candidates. I decided to share some of my thoughts in the hopes it contributes to the great debate that invariably happens when New Democrats elect a new leader.

We live in challenging times and any new leader of the NDP will face significant decisions about the direction we take as a party. I believe the new leader will need to demonstrate their ability to position the NDP as the clear choice of progressive Canadians and the strongest opposition and alternative to right-wing populism.

If we want a real alternative to the centrism of Justin Trudeau, the NDP leader must present substance and principle in the face of equivocation and contradictions.

Bold, modern, progressive vision

We cannot equivocate on issues of economic inequality, social justice, climate change and the use of fossil fuels and pipelines, or on issues of anti-racism and inclusion in the face of fear and xenophobia against people of colour, people of the Muslim faith, LGBTQ, gender-based discrimination and other targeted communities. The rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and mosques, have no place in Canadian society.

We often talk about wanting a leader who has vision, but it's a loose term and can be vague. Vision to me means having bold ideas about what a solidly progressive, left-wing, and modern party can do now and in the future. Someone who isn't afraid to speak out and engage actively with people showing leadership and compassion. Someone who believes in collective action. A person who has a personal track record that gives credibility to their political position.

We need someone who looks beyond the polls and demonstrates a strong political analysis of our economic and social conditions with intelligence and clarity. This means reaching out beyond the party, to social movements, activists, labour, and progressive Canadians, speaking the truth about where we are and what we need to do. We need a leader who shows strong support for the right of working people to organize and bargain collectively, strengthening the role of the labour movement.

I believe progressives want the NDP and our leader to embrace the issues of working people, students, seniors, those living in poverty, and immigrants, rather than focussing on hyper-partisanship that divides movements and benefits the right.

I'd love to see our new leader be courageous in understanding that being satisfied with the lowest common denominator in politics and moving to the elusive centre is not what we need to do. When we look at the global economy and the rise of right-wing populism, it’s clear that we need a strong and credible alternative that separates the NDP from failed neoliberal economics, trade and fiscal policy.

Take the Leap

First and foremost we need a leader who will bring forward an economic agenda based on income and wealth redistribution, living wages and a jobs transition to a green, low-carbon economy. Our economic and environmental policy cannot be something for the future -- it is needed now. I supported the Leap Manifesto resolution at the NDP convention not because it is a specific policy prescription, but because it sets out a necessary framework for the discussion and direction that is needed. We need a leader who can guide and inform this discussion as a priority.

We should be clear and consistent on the kind of trade agreements that can be supported, and those which cannot. We should not support trade deals that give more power to big pharmaceutical companies, undermine supply management, contain undemocratic dispute resolution panels, and drive the corporate privatization agenda.

We need a leader willing and capable of articulating that economic prosperity and social justice requires a strong government role supported by increased revenue through fair and progressive taxation on both corporations and high-income individuals, while advancing strong public enterprise and cooperatives.

With a new approach to fiscal policy, a national housing program, fully funded and expanded public health care, enhanced public pensions, a national child-care program, and genuine support for arts and culture can be achieved. The call for free tuition as called for by many young New Democrats outlined in a recent statement is not beyond our grasp and realization.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I believe that the class and social analysis we need also extends to the current prohibition on drugs. I want to see the new NDP leader, lead the way to end the social and economic toll of a criminalized regime that has destroyed thousands of lives and communities. It is time to end prohibition and advance a regulatory approach based on harm reduction and public health. The Harper era destroyed so much of our criminal justice system and we need to stand firmly in support of crime prevention and restorative justice, effective gun control, repealing politically designed mandatory minimum sentences and ensure there is a full review of our prison system.

Respect sovereignty and self-determination

Without doubt our relationship with the Indigenous peoples of this land is critical to nation building. There are no fiscal arguments or practical problems that can justify or explain delays in addressing systemic racism against First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. The NDP and its new leader must demonstrate that we can honour and deliver on a true nation-to-nation partnership with Indigenous communities based on respect, equality and prosperity.

Quebec's role in Canada is foundational for the NDP. The Sherbrooke Declaration sets out our commitment to the self-determination of Quebec within Canada. There is no question in my mind that the NDP leader must be fluently bilingual and also be willing and able to popularize and support the Sherbrooke Declaration in other parts of Canada. And clearly, democratic electoral reform for proportional representation and public financing are key elements for a more participatory democracy.

Historically, the NDP has played a significant role in defining Canada's place in the world by speaking out for human rights and adherence to international law. For me it is critical that our new leader be someone who is not afraid to speak out on difficult and sometimes contentious issues. It's not good enough to point to a silent policy book. We need to be willing to speak out and articulate our position -- even when it's seen as unpopular -- and it has to start with the leader.

We've had difficult debates on the Middle East but I am convinced that Canadians respect us when we stand up for international law and defend the rights of people to be free of occupation and oppression, as is the need in Palestine, and when we advance strong foreign policy positions that are well thought out and truthful. We can and should support economic pressures to end the illegal occupation. A key part of our foreign policy is fully embracing a non-nuclear and demilitarized world as set out in a recent letter from Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (CNWC).

We have so much to be proud of as active members of our party. We speak our minds because we know what is possible when we act together. I really want our new leader to be someone who totally understands and respects that. The leader's office should be there to support and assist the activism of MPs,  New Democrats and our key partners on all of the local and national issues that Canadians organize around. We cannot be relegated to being an election machine focused on a narrow set of priorities raising money and knocking on doors (though we do it because we know it needs to be done). We want a leader who works with us as people driven to make change for the things we believe in.

Maybe the bar is too high, but we have an opportunity here to think about our role as members, activists, and how a new leader can implement the changes that are needed in Canada and the world. There are strong and vibrant movements for change amongst young people, Indigenous peoples, and many other communities --we need to be a catalyst for change that erases the barriers between electoral politics and social movement politics.

I know there are many more issues that need debate, resolution and action -- so this is by no means exhaustive of what needs to be done. My hope is that these thoughts will help contribute to a grassroots debate from which the next leader will emerge.

Libby Davies is the former NDP Deputy Leader and represented Vancouver East as an NDP MP for 18 years.

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Image: Libby Davies

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years Libby Davies was an MP. rabble.ca regrets the error.

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