Seeking the right NDP leader for now

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In the six-month run-up to the March 24 leadership selection, NDP members will be doing a lot of talking and thinking about who should succeed Jack Layton.

New Democrats expect a lot from a new leader: someone who can make the party a stronger force in Canadian political life; take on the difficult role of opposition leader; prepare the way to become the Government of Canada; and serve the country well as prime minister.

Rather than seek the impossible ideal candidate, it is more important for the party to find the right person for the position now, a leader who will be able to present a New Democratic vision of Canada, one that resonates with people unhappy with the Harper government, and what it has done to the country; someone who understands the expectations of Canadians, and is able to address their needs.

The first requirement, as Libby Davies recognized when she declined to run, is being able to speak the other official language very well. Bilingual means able to give a good account of yourself in either language on national television, or in negotiations with foreign leaders. It means always speaking French with Francophones, and English with Anglophones, and being able to chair a meeting in either language.

The second requirement is to recognize that speaking French (or English) well is not enough. To be successful in federal politics, a party leader has to understand the cultural character (and differences) of both national linguistic communities. To maintain its new standing in Quebec, New Democrats cannot afford to have a leader who (like Stephen Harper) fails this test.

These two requirements are a pre-requisite for the third, which is to be at ease with the complex regional dynamics of Canada. The right leader for the party is the one who can envisage building support in Ontario, and winning seats again on the Prairies, while solidifying the NDP position in Quebec, and creating new opportunities in Atlantic Canada.

The one-member-one-vote (OMOV) formula for choosing the next leader means candidates will have to run Canada-wide campaigns using the national and regional media to reach out to the party membership. This type of race should favour candidates used to thinking about the country as a whole, and able to raise the $500,000 maximum spending limit set out by the party for the leadership race.

It was Jack Layton the urban activist, with experience as president of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, who won the first OMOV campaign. Though he was untried as a parliamentary performer, he had a proven record winning elections to Toronto City Council. Importantly, he was able to raise more money than the other candidates. His skilled use of professional techniques familiar to people who try to influence public opinion, augured well for his direction of party election campaigns.

The right leader today will also be someone from an activist background, used to speaking out on social issues, and fighting for improvements to daily life. New Democrats want a leader who will never sell out Canadians on issues of jobs, incomes and social policy.

Only someone with a demonstrated commitment to working people will be able to build and strengthen the party. The public per-vote subsidy that goes to each party will be gone after the next election in 2015. The next leader must be able to rally the trade union movement to the party as never before. Otherwise, once the public subsidy is gone in four years time, the party will be starting over from scratch, and facing a massive rebuilding process.

A New Democratic leader has to be able to lead a massive membership drive -- Jack Layton wanted one million party members -- so that the party can take full advantage of the political tax credit (give the party $125, and get a credit against tax payable of $100) so as to compete with the Conservative fund raising machine.

For the first time in its existence, the NDP is preparing to choose not just a party leader but someone who Canadians will be consider as a serious alternative to the incumbent prime minister. The right candidate will be the one who can deliver a compelling narrative about what it means to be Canadian today, and what role government can play in improving the lives of Canadians.

The leadership campaign is about finding a candidate who is able to broaden the appeal of the party while articulating its basic values: Canada can only be strong in a world pursuing peace, and practicing global solidarity; individual freedom and social equality go together; and the political direction of the country must come from its citizens, not corporations.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column about politics and current affairs.

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