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Advice to pundits: the NDP leadership race matters

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NDP leadership contender Guy Caron (left) at Ottawa event in August 2017.

Soon, members of the New Democratic Party will begin electronic and mail-in voting to select their new leader. The race features four competent and principled candidates in MPs Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron, as well Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, and it has become increasingly interesting. But the wider question is whether the NDP will be relevant in Canada’s political future. I contend that it will be. In the interests of transparency, I should mention that I served as an NDP MP in the late 1990s.

Promising much, delivering less

Since winning the 2015 federal election handily, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had a penchant for promising much and delivering less, while papering over the gap with charm. That will wear thin. There are significant societal issues that the federal Liberals aren't prepared to tackle at this time. For example, the price of prescription drugs has gotten out of control, with the cost falling heavily on individual Canadians. In addition to national pharmacare, there's a need for better childcare and affordable housing, a project abandoned by the Chretien Liberals. And it is the NDP, not the Conservatives that will bring these issues to the fore.

Such programs cannot exist without a progressive system of taxation, something which the Harper Conservatives did their best to undermine. Despite the recent furor over small business taxes, the Liberals have merely tinkered with the tax system. Their strategy has been to pay for increased spending by running deficits, a practice which they are likely to curtail if they are reelected.

Double standards

In this leadership campaign, the NDP has been held to several double standards. In June, Globe and Mail Columnist Gary Mason wrote that this was "the most boring leadership race ever mounted, anywhere," adding that "it has been variations on the same tired NDP tropes: income inequality; poverty reduction; the working-class poor; affordable housing; the homeless." Actually, Mason is the one dealing in tired tropes. Nobel Prize winning U.S. economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have said repeatedly that persistent inequality has a crippling effect not only on individuals but upon democracy itself. That's true in Canada also.

Another of Mason’s flimsy claims is that the NDP continues to have an existential crisis. "Who are we? A protest movement happy to advocate for progressive policies or a mainstream political party willing to compromise some of its beliefs in order to run a complicated, multifaceted country?" One would think that question was put to rest when Jack Layton led the NDP into official opposition in 2011.

Principled pragmatists

In any event, the NDP leadership will be won by a principled pragmatist. The most established candidate is Angus, a veteran MP, although both Caron and Ashton have served in the House of Commons as well. Singh, an Ontario MPP, has surprised and impressed. The 38-year-old from suburban Toronto was a criminal lawyer for six years prior to being elected to the Ontario legislature. And many believe that he represents the political future of a country that's increasingly urbanized and ethnically diverse. Singh has sold more memberships, raised more money and can boast of more endorsements than any other candidate.

For more than 85 years, the NDP and its forebear, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, have played a significant role in federal politics and have governed in six Canadian provinces. Recently, the party served effectively as the Official Opposition. Don't write them off just yet.

A somewhat shorter version of this piece was published by the United Church Observer on September 14, 2017. 

Image: Dennis Gruending

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