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Zimmerman: The NDP Leadership Race: What’s Left?

March 13, 2012

By the end of March 24th we’ll find out who is going to lead the New Democratic Party of Canada into the post-Layton age.  New Democrats, having built themselves up from third (or fourth) party to the official opposition under Jack Layton’s leadership, are situated at a crucial point in not only their party’s history, but arguably in Canadian history as well.  The Liberal Party of Canada, traditionally the party of power and occasional opposition status, has been beaten into a form of submission, now occupying the NDP’s more familiar place of third party status.

The NDP may for the first time take power in the coming election.  With the Harper Conservatives busy battling the unfolding Robocall scandal and losing the confidence of Canadian voters with each new piece of evidence brought forward, many see this as the NDP’s golden opportunity to finally govern.  With Bob Rae’s generally strong leadership of the Liberals following the lackluster performances of Dion and Ignatieff nothing is quite so certain and many would argue that the result of March 24’s party vote will determine whether the NDP gets a leader who can defeat both Harper and Rae.

Let us start with the percieved frontrunner, Thomas Mulcair of the riding of Outremont.  I recall back in 2007 when I had received word via cellphone from an NDP organizer at York University that Mulcair had won in a by-election on the New Democratic ticket, having defected from what is largely considered a right-leaning Quebec provincial government (and apparently having flirted with the notion of joining the Harper Conservatives).  My NDP colleague at the time also stated that it would be likely that Thomas Mulcair would be the next leader of the NDP.  Another NDPer I knew at the time was advocating Mulcair take over from Jack Layton and even went so far as to vote against Layton’s leadership vote at the then most current convention.  In my opinion, someone who had to stop to think which party to join, particularly presented between two apparently diametrically opposed parties, the so-called Left-Wing NDP and the hard Right Harper Conservatives, should not be considered for the leadership of either party.  Someone who operates in such a way clearly operates on self-interest and personal self-aggrandizement rather than authentic beliefs.   Jack Layton always talked about the NDP

sticking to principles to differentiate the NDP from the Liberals.  With a leader like Mulcair will that claim stick?

A website has surfaced recently entitled kNOw Mulcair  that is run by anonymous members of the NDP who are concerned with his past stances.  These include his actions as a Quebec Minister, including his contracting out of public sector jobs, the cutting of $103 million in student aid, among other un-progressive moves.  One of the central criticisms he receives is his self-espoused ardent support for the state of Israel.  I don’t want to get too wrapped up in the Middle-East right now, as I do that quite enough, particularly with regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I will say that his now famous 2008 line: “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and all circumstances” is beyond worrying.  This line sounds like it could have come out of Jason Kenney’s mouth.   Even supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week would never say that they support every Palestinian organization in all situations.  No one in the movement, at least from my knowledge and experiences, supports Hamas or the sell-out Fateh organizations.  Mulcair’s position is extreme compared to everyone but the Israel-Right-or-Wrong Conservatives under Harper.  To finally see Harper’s Tories getting discredited for their own one-sided stances and scandals seems like a hollow victory for those on the Left when the NDP frontrunner has virtually the same positions when it comes to Israel/Palestine.  Despite Liberal support for Israel I could not picture Bob Rae or even Michael Ignatieff saying something so irresponsible.  Mulcair has since distanced himself from his past statements, invoking Jack Layton’s memory and maintaining that he supports the party’s 2-state solution policy.  If this were the case I am not sure why he said he supported Israel in “all situations and all contexts” though since settlement building nullifies the possibility of a 2-state solution.  It seems to me and many others that he is just saying this now in order to save face with the rank and file of the NDP which is largely sympathetic to the Palestinians.  It is just talk and talk is cheap.   Let me maintain the debate on the NDP leadership race though and leave the Middle-East for another day.

New Democrats on their way to vote in an Orange Cat.

On top of Mulcair’s irresponsible language and support for what is one of if not the most war-like nation on Earth, come the question of many of his backers.  The NDP traditionally has been a party of the underdog, being the party of labour and the poor rather than business oriented parties like the Conservatives and the Liberals.  As the party founder and father of universal healthcare always said, the NDP was the party for the mice run by the mice rather than by the two alternating parties of black cats and white cats.  The party always got its support typically from below not above.  When we see some of Thomas Mulcair’s donors are among Bay Street elites, including Peter Munk of Barrick Gold’s son Anthony Munk, it causes some concern.  Barrick Gold has a terrible track record for environmental degradation and it causes one to question: What avowed environmentalist would take money from such a source?  Why is Mulcair getting such support from such sources?  This is new to the NDP.  Could it be that certain corporate elites see the rising orange tide and are backing Mulcair so that there interests continue to be represented in Ottawa as opposed to the interests of the 99%?  Is this the direction Canada’s Left-leaning party should really be heading to?  For Bay Street backers it’s just business as usual and they are covering their asses as usual, making sure that whoever is in charge, their interests will be looked after.  The party of mice may elect a cat, maybe an orange tabby cat this time.  Mulcair’s bet may not pay off.  He may shift the NDP to the center as he openly plans to do but it may make the party irrelevant despite the fact that his intentions are the exact opposite.  If the electorate, many of whom are tired of politics as usual, sees two virtually identical centrist parties they may opt for the one they are used to.  Finally, does Mulcair and/or his supporters ever wonder if in this drive to bring the Center to the NDP  that he may completely alienate the Left, that is, the “traditional base” of the NDP?  We may have a Center divided between Liberals and New Democrats with no place for the Left to call its own in official partisan politics.

Upset by the focus on Mulcair another contender Paul Dewar of Ottawa has spoken out against the negativity.  He uses the word “defame” to describe the criticism of Thomas Mulcair, although I fail to see the defamation.  We have to remember the whole thing at the 2009 NDP Halifax Convention when people spoke of taking the ‘N’ (new) out of NDP.  It seems we should be focused on maintaining the ‘D’ (democratic) in NDP.  This is party democracy at its finest.  We, the voters within the NDP, ought to scrutinize every candidate and have a long debate before deciding who should be the next leader.  Dewar, to his credit, has taken a bottom-top approach to running the NDP.  He talks of engaging people at the grassroots in communities, getting people engage in politics and making politics relevant to people’s everyday lives.  This approach is completely lacking in the isolated Bubble of Ottawa where the government is typically tied to the will of capital rather than the people.  Perhaps such an approach can make the NDP, and politics as a whole, relevant once more in an age where people are looking for answers beyond the official ballot box?  Another theory also is that Dewar is telling everybody to keep the debate positive because he’s come under for his french, or lacktherof. 

Next we come to Brian Topp.  I remember early on in the race many people on the so-called more radical Left of the party saw Topp as the person to beat.  Mulcair was considered an underdog at this point.  Topp’s campaign has arguably gone under in the past few months though.  Topp is seen as belonging to the bureaucracy and being primarily a behind-the-scenes man having won no riding of his own or had much experience as a public leader in the party.  Topp has been on Mulcair’s case in debates asking the valid question of why Mulcair is so insistent on bringing the NDP to the center (or bringing the center to the NDP, same difference) when the NDP had gained the official opposition status by being the NDP rather than a party more akin to the centrist Liberals.  Bravo Topp for bringing this up, but he isn’t fooling those who consider themselves as part of the Left.  I mean, when we read about him praising the austerity measures of Papandreou.  He’s received extensive criticism for this.   The NDP Right-Wing Drift Watch discussion puts it in plain language.    It’s truly flabbergasting to see someone speaking of hope and progressive solutions when he is praising the works of a leader with a 15% approval rating.   In Greece the leader whose policies Mr. Topp praises is opposed by the majority of the population.  Do we need solutions like austerity measures done by the NDP?

We all feel it now.

Romeo Saganash dropped out of the race so I wont go much into detail about him.  He is a First Nations and the idea of a potential native Canadian Prime Minister was intriguing in itself, but of course there was much more to Saganash and his policies than just his heritage and identity.  There was something interesting about Martin Singh too being a Sihk candidate, the first candidate for party leader and potentially Prime Minister (correct me if I am mistaken).  Singh is a Canadian of European descent but converted to Sihkism.  Aside from identity matters, both his pro-business wording and “God Bless Canada” speech finishes may have turned some off.    His direct accusations of Brian Topp being a liar upset many within the party.   Can you picture Paul Dewar jumping between them to stop the negativity?  Some have theorized that Singh, who is widely seen as one of the less likely candidates to win, is doing Thomas Mulcair’s “dirty work”, acting like an attack dog in order for Mulcair’s campaign to appear more positive, but still cause havoc for Topp’s campaign.

Some claim Singh, expected to drop off  early in the ballots, is doing the dirty work for Thomas Mulcair.

The race has two women who are playing large roles in the leadership race.  Peggy Nash, Toronto Parkdale-High Park representative, has  a strong labour background and ample union support.   The labour credentials may lead labour-minded people within the NDP (um…would you believe there are many in the NDP?) to support her if scared off from Thomas Mulcair’s (and to some extent Topp’s) apparent Third-Wayism.  Nash’s strong and open support for electoral reform is positive news for those interested in more “thinking outside the box” in regards to making democracy more directly relevant.  It brings back memories to the early Jack Layton NDP years when proportional representation was one of his main stances.  Nash is also more internationalists arguably, having been to many places in the world, including Palestine and Lebanon (although she never said she was an “ardent supporter” of anyone in “all circumstances” and “all situations”).  Oh and she uses language from Occupy Wall Street: the 99% and the 1%. Hmmm…NDP tied to actual on-the-ground social justice movements?
Niki Ashton, partially due to her being the youngest (aged 29) although some see this as a sign that she is most connected to “our generation”, that is the one that is getting screwed right now., has been noted for her energy.  Ashton has received much praise from some.  She has much support from young New Democrats and some considered on the more Left edge of the party.  She has also had beef with Mulcair’s campaign apparently for spreading rumours that she planned to drop out earlier in the race.   Ashton and Nash are largely seen as the more left-leaning candidates, although it’s hard to say what the post-Layton political landscape will look like for the NDP.  The days of the Harper Government are seeming to be numbered, but once more we can’t predict exactly what will happen here.  The NDP is likely to play a large role in the coming in the future of this country, whether its as  a force for real change or another disappointment (Rae?)  is up in the air.  What happens on March 24th will play a key role in how things play out.

Sometimes I wonder about the Liberals and if things had played out differently had they not elected Stephane Dion that fateful night back in 2006.  Same with Michael Ignatieff’s coronation.  What if they had gone straight to Rae who is doing ok now actually?  This is particularly relevant in light of the Robocall scandal where he gets to play a leadership role as an opposition leader while a divided New Democratic Party turns to inner issues.  Jack Layton once said at the end of a leadership debate (2008) to “take a deep breath and vote for us.”  The NDP members can take a deep breath before March 24th.  Will the NDP, no matter who ends up leading it, be one for those on  “the Left” to feel justified in voting for?  We’ll have to see.  Some say yes, some say no, and many, like myself, say maybe.

Oh and Nathan Cullen’s also running!

Read here for his proposal!

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