Jagmeet Singh and Niki Ashton: A choice of flash versus vision for the NDP

Photos: Matt Jiggins/flickr; BGM Riding Association/Wikimedia Commons

As the mainstream pundits are putting it, the NDP leadership race just got more interesting with the declaration that Jagmeet Singh, an Ontario NDP MPP, is in the race. He has real charisma and would break the white-only leadership barrier for the first time.

There seems at first glance to be little in the way of major policy differences between the four candidates who preceded Singh in the race. While all are smart, able politicians with a solid understanding of the issues, there seems to be scant recognition of the need for the NDP to distance itself from the Layton-Mulcair period wherein the party decided to go for power and made the inevitable rush to the centre to do so.

The Liberals won that race and now have an almost unshakable grip on the centre. The overarching purpose of the NDP is perhaps the most important issue of all and it's not being debated. Will the new leader follow in the footsteps of Mulcair and his political whiz kids and go for the ring or will they decide to reinvent the party as a principled, unabashedly left-wing party eager to actually challenge corporate power?

The two candidates who stand in greatest contrast on this all-important issue are Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and newcomer Jagmeet Singh. Singh is eagerly poised to fill the role as the man who can take down Justin Trudeau (literally it turns out, claiming his mixed martial arts would be too much for Justin) and become prime minister. He oozes self-confidence but gets close to being a bit too attracted to himself. He doesn't quite refer to himself in the third person, but he gets close, as in this Toronto Star interview: "If people see that I'm dynamic and exciting and approachable, that's a good thing."

But while charisma is an important aspect of leadership it has to be matched by policy depth and transparency. Singh is famous in Ontario for his expensive, perfectly tailored suits and his brightly coloured turbans. But he is a provincial politician with no experience in federal government issues. He has been given an easy ride by the Toronto Star (no friend of the NDP) and has even been featured in the Washington Post.

But his flash fell short when he was interviewed by CTV's Evan Solomon. After saying "Glad to be here, man," Singh looked very uncomfortable when Solomon pressed him three times on his position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. He dodged it three times, falling back each time on a nearly identical rehearsed answer: "We are going to come out with a comprehensive plan…" He similarly dodged a question on whether he would support retaliatory action against the U.S. for its softwood lumber tariff. When Solomon pressed him on what kind of leader he was going to be, he fell flat, suggesting that he was not ready for prime-time questioning.

Singh's discomfort with these questions (and one on immigration levels) reveals a politician who is a bit of a blank slate. In fact, there is a certain irony in his eagerness to take on Justin Trudeau -- another politician who, when he went for the Liberal Party leadership, seemed to have few ideas of his own. The other candidates have been immersed in these issues and their positions seem rooted in personal conviction.

When you haven't developed a clear vision of the party you want to lead, you end up relying on others, which is exactly what Trudeau did -- and it's largely why he has broken the specific promises he has. They were never his in the first place. It begs the question with Mr. Singh: who is he going to rely on for his vision of the party and the country?

One of the people he is relying on is none other than Brad Lavigne, Jack Layton's and Tom Mulcair's strategic genius -- you remember, the guy who thought it was cool to work for Hill and Knowlton, the people who brought you the first Gulf war. While Lavigne is only a volunteer and there are other people advising Singh, there is little doubt that Lavigne will be hard-selling the "we can win" Kool-Aid again.

Niki Ashton is about as different from Jagmeet Singh as you can get -- about the only thing they share is that they are both young. Where Singh has given no sign of how (or if) he would rebuild the post-Mulcair party, Ashton has been clear that she wants to transform the party into a movement. Whereas Singh attributes the loss of the 2015 election to the fact that Mulcair didn't "connect emotionally," Ashton's take is more substantive:

"In the 2015 election, we allowed the Liberals to out-left us. In the last little while we have lost our sense of being a movement. …We need to reconnect with activists and community leaders who share our same values …We need to build the NDP as a movement for social, environmental, and economic justice."

While we have to wait for Singh's answers to fundamental questions, Ashton's answers seem instinctive but rooted in policy depth. She has served as NDP critic for Aboriginal Affairs, Status of Women and Post-Secondary Education and Youth. As the NDP's critic on Jobs, Employment and Workforce Development she led a countrywide, 11-city tour engaging young people on the issue of precarious work faced by millennials.

Perhaps the strongest symbol of Ashton's boldness is her stance regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. After posting support for Palestinian independence she was, of course, subjected to the knee-jerk bullying from B'nai Brith which "demanded" an apology --which it never got. Under both Mulcair (a proud Zionist) and Layton, the party was terrified of the issue. As I detailed in this column a few months ago, Canadians' views on the conflict are clearly in line with Ashton's.

Jagmeet Singh might well be the ideal candidate to continue the party's centrist quest for power. He has charisma, he's a social media star, young people love him, and breaking the white-only barrier is a very attractive proposition and would be a huge step forward in Canadian politics. If the party wants to try for a quick comeback in 2019 they could certainly do worse.

But if the party wants to rebuild, return to its social democratic roots and show the boldness that will be required to seriously challenge climate change, inequality, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and peace in the Middle East they will need to take the long view and build a movement. That's Niki Ashton's pledge though she would have to take on the party establishment to do it.

We'll just have to wait to see what NDP members decide they want their party to be.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column.

Photos: Matt Jiggins/flickr; BGM Riding Association/Wikimedia Commons

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