Niki Ashton. Photo: Matt Jiggins/flickr

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For Niki Ashton, politics is, in many respects, her family’s business. Her father, Steve Ashton, has been an NDP member of the Manitoba Legislature since 1981, and held numerous senior cabinet positions in the Doer and Selinger NDP governments.

“My dad got elected off the picket line in 1981,” she recounts, but hastens to add that her mom, Hariklia Dimitrakopoulou, is also a political person: “She was a feminist activist involved with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and did school board politics, as well.”

Ashton comes from northern Manitoba, which for a long time has been good territory for the NDP and its predecessor party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).  In the first postwar election, in 1945, Roland Moore won it for the CCF. Later, in 1979, Rod Murphy won and then held the riding through four elections for the NDP. In the 2000s, Bev Desjarlais was the NDP MP, and it was her opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage that prodded Niki Ashton into running for federal office at the age of 23.

“We tried to get her to change her position but that didn’t work,” Aston relates. “She was not only taking a stand against party policy, but was falsely portraying this part of the country, with its large First Nations and blue-collar population, as being against human and LGBTQ rights.”

Party activists recruited Ashton to run for the nomination against Desjarlais in 2006. Ashton carried the NDP colours in that election, but Desjarlais ran as an independent, and the Liberals won the seat. Ashton tried again in 2008, and has held the seat ever since.

An intersectional feminist

Entering politics not merely to get into the family business, but to show that traditional working-class issues can be consistent with advocacy for equity-seeking groups, is typical of Ashton. She describes herself as an “intersectional feminist,” and does not worry what the voters of Thompson, The Pas, Cross Lake or Flin Flon might think.

In fact, Ashton tries to portray herself, quite deliberately, as the candidate of youth and of the left.

“What we need,” she says, “are bold progressive policies that tackle the challenges of our time, which are growing inequality and catastrophic climate change.” And she then adds: “Incremental change is not going to cut it. We will move forward only through bold, progressive politics.”

When it comes to policy, her ideas are not necessarily as radical as her rhetoric. For instance, she proposes a jobs program to help the millennial generation get away from the precarious work trap. Ashton has devoted considerable energy to the rise of the gig economy and what to do about it, but her jobs plan offers few tangible details.

Another of her policy proposals that might scare more pragmatic and moderate NDPers, is an inheritance tax. In principle, taxing inherited wealth should be a no-brainer for a social democratic party. However, whenever the NDP has flirted with the idea it has run up against the conundrum that imposing a levy on inheritances would entail taxing family homes when they are passed from one generation to the next.

Even a whisper of such a notion, especially in many big city ridings where homes have inflated cash values, can cost New Democratic MPs their seats. Voters do not like the idea of being forced to sell the family homes in order to pay tax, and do not appreciate the idea of being taxed on the only significant asset many families have.

Ashton also talks about ending privatizations, and goes further when she says she wants to revive the neglected instrument of public ownership. Here, again, the rhetoric might be bolder than the actual policy prescriptions.

Ashton does not propose anything like what Clement Attlee’s British Labour Party did when it took power immediately following the Second World War. They nationalized the steel, coal, electricity, gas, civil aviation and rail transport industries — a fifth of the British economy.

Niki Ashton proposes nationalizing the tiny, seasonal port of Churchill on Hudson’s Bay, mandating Canada Post to set up a postal bank of the sort they have in many countries (a suggestion the postal unions have been pushing), establishing a Crown corporation to direct federal investment in the green transition, and studying the idea of starting a public company to produce and distribute generic drugs, “in the context of pharmacare.”

They are all creative and probably quite useful ideas, but taken together they do not constitute a radical socialist program. Perhaps Ashton’s boldest idea is free tuition for post-secondary education. Of course, there many studies that show that universal, and not means-tested, free tuition would mostly benefit more affluent families. That does not deter Ashton, any more than it did Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. It certainly helped the latter two motivate the youth vote.

Inspired by Indigenous courage

The still-young northern Manitoba MP emphasizes that much of her inspiration comes from witnessing the courage and resilience of Indigenous peoples. Her riding has a great many First Nations communities, and she has invested considerable time and effort working with Indigenous Canadians. Today, Ashton argues that the current Liberal government is hypocritical in its rhetorical commitment to justice for Indigenous groups.  She points to pipelines and other resource projects, where the Trudeau government, she argues, has too often put corporate interests, and the pursuit of trade at any cost, against the wishes and needs of Indigenous communities.

“I represent many communities that have third-world living conditions,” she says, “and where people are doing incredible work to pull together what resources they have to make a difference in these communities, and the federal government is nowhere to be found.”

As for an overall strategy for the next election, Ashton starts out by arguing that in 2015 the NDP allowed the Liberals to “out-left” them. New Democrats, famously, promised to balance the federal budget, while Trudeau’s Liberals pledged that, if elected, they would make big investments in infrastructure, the deficit be damned.

But there was more to the Liberals’ success than the deficit issue alone, Ashton says.

“Trudeau did not get elected just because he has nice hair and nice clothes,” she points out. “He actually put forward a progressive vision that inspired many Canadians, including a great many young Canadians.”

Next time, she says, New Democrats must take note, and come up with a real progressive vision that can inspire Canadians, especially, she adds, as we have watched Trudeau break so many of his promises. On that front, Ashton points to pipelines, electoral reform and, especially, the Liberal promise to grow the middle class, which, she says, is actually shrinking rather than growing.

For Ashton, the most important political fact of life now is this: when the next election rolls around, the biggest voting bloc will be the millennial generation, at 37 per cent, not baby boomers, at 32 per cent. Millennials, she says, are not lured by the idea that unfettered markets and private initiative can solve everything. They are looking for a politics in Canada that echoes that of Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France.

Those three men all appealed to young voters, without being young themselves. In Canada, Ashton hopes a candidate who is herself part of the millennial generation can become the authentic progressive voice.

This article is part of a series profiling candidates in the 2017 NDP leadership race. Read the full series here.

Photo: Matt Jiggins/flickr

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...