There are so many factors that NDP members have to look at when choosing who to vote for in their leadership race that I don’t envy them (I am not a member). How do you weigh the various elements: policies, philosophy, engaging personality, ability to take on Stephen Harper in the House, co-operation with the Liberals, and support for proportional representation? Are they likely to bring people together or cause divisions within the caucus and party? Are they their own person — do they have enough depth and self-confidence to stand on their own or are they too dependent on staff for their persona?
All of these factors are critical ones and all the potential winners — Peggy Nash, Brian Topp, Thomas Mulcair, Nathan Cullen, and Paul Dewar — have their strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, one of the reasons it is so difficult to predict a winner is that there are many good candidates in this race. Most have a good set of policies and all are committed to bringing in proportional representation. They are all smart.
But there are two other factors created by the current political moment which is dominated by a radical, right-wing libertarian with a majority in Parliament. The unprecedented threat to the country represented by Stephen Harper puts these two leadership traits at the top of the list to consider when NDPers mark their preferential ballots.
In my assessment only Nathan Cullen makes the grade and if I had a vote he would get it.
One of those traits is whether or not the candidate is stuck firmly in the old mould of the traditional politician. You know what I mean — calculating every word, dividing the audience into sectors to be massaged, being careful not to attract too much attention — or too little — by anything they say, saying the right things even if you know they aren’t committed to them, word-smithing to the point where they never say anything bold. And not saying things you know from other evidence that they believe. In short, all the things that contribute to Canadians’ cynicism about politics.
These traditional traits of politicians and those running for leadership arise primarily out of the culture of the party in question. Thousands of hours spent in hundreds of meetings with people equally dedicated to the party create these politicians. It is the source of excessive partisanship and it is reinforced by political staffers. In ordinary times these characteristics were not so problematic. Today, they could be fatal.
If the NDP is going to win on a political landscape characterized by Stephen Harper’s misanthropic politics at one end and the liberationist politics of the Occupy movement at the other, whoever wins the leadership had better be doing politics differently right out of the gate after March 24. If they don’t — and I would bet money on this — the NDP will fail to maintain its current status in the House of Commons and certainly will not move beyond it. The next NDP leader absolutely must be able rebuild ordinary Canadians’ trust in politics and government. If they can’t do that, it won’t matter a whit if they can “take on” Stephen Harper in question period or have great policies.
Canadians have developed an unerring instinct for flim-flam in politics. One whiff of phoniness or calculation and you’re off the bus. There is not a phony bone in Cullen’s body — he breaks the mould.
The second, and closely related trait whose absence should be a deal-breaker, is whether or not the candidate is willing to put the country first and the party second. Of course they all claim to do this but the proof is in the pudding and only Cullen is clearly and genuinely committed to this principle. The reason this is important should be obvious to anyone who paid attention to the last three elections and the rise of Stephen Harper. Hyper-partisan politics put Harper where he is today — a calculating, narrow politics that decided on when to pull the plug on Harper minority governments based almost exclusively on how many additional seats the NDP could win.
Watching the NDP make these calculations it was almost as if the possibility of Harper winning a majority never even entered into the calculation. The euphoria at NDP headquarters on election night last May when there should have been tears over a Harper majority demonstrated the price we pay for this kind of simplistic, almost cultish partisanship. We are losing our country as a result of it.
I happened to catch Nathan Cullen at his brief appearance in Powell River where I live. He talked about doing politics differently — building his campaign support at and among the grassroots, rejecting the traditional game of quickly getting MPs and other party luminaries lined up, being more NDP than the next candidate. It is apparently working — he has had the momentum in terms of member donations since mid-February. It took Jack Layton many years to develop the rapport with people that made him so popular. Cullen has it in spades without having to learn it — he is almost the anti-candidate.
It’s not just that he is instantly likable but when he speaks it is clear he has the country in mind and is acutely aware of the threat that Harper poses to the nation. He simply states: “We cannot have eight years of this man … who is not a conservative but a radical libertarian.” It took amazing courage to promote the idea of co-operating with the Liberals and Greens, pre-election, in a party that values loyalty almost more than anything else. It isn’t likely to happen — but the message was crystal clear: this time it’s different because the very existence of the country is at stake.
I was impressed by Cullen’s grasp of economic policy, the impact of trade deals and the change in corporate culture with the advent of globalization. But mostly I was just taken by how easy it seemed for him to be honest without having to try. On the partisan question he argued, I think correctly, that especially when it comes to young people, party loyalty just doesn’t matter the way it used to. Listening to him, with that perpetual optimistic grin, the thought came to me that this is perhaps the only candidate who could successfully engage with an Occupy crowd. When he speaks he is addressing all progressive Canadians, not just party members — and that’s contrary to convention, too.
Cullen — quick, witty and passionate — emphasizes the need to engage Canadians in a positive vision, saying he doesn’t want to just sit in a corner constantly going after the latest Harper outrage. And here, perhaps, he has the key to reviving Canadian democracy and politics. Harper has been nailed hard on several issues in recent weeks, from the email-snooping fiasco to the robocall scandal and his poll numbers have not budged an inch. People’s expectations of politicians are at a new and dangerous low. Politics as usual will get us the usual results. Doing it differently at least gives us a chance.
If that’s what you want, a chance to save the country and rebuild it, vote for Nathan Cullen.
Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble’s bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee. He is the curator of rabble’s Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons series.