NDP Leadership Race Gets Underway

The Peak speaks with SFU NDP President Jeff Hannah on his thoughts on the future of the NDP party

By: Benjamin Mussett

As the federal Conservative leadership race grows increasingly contentious with name-calling and allegations of cheating, the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) leadership contest has begun in somewhat more affable terms. On March 12, the NDP held their first debate, a bilingual affair, in the nation’s capital. Four competitors were present: Charlie Angus, Nikki Ashton, Guy Caron and Peter Julian, all current Members of Parliament (MPs) within the House of Commons. Indeed, it seemed like the four leadership hopefuls spent more time agreeing with each other than bitterly debating the party’s future. However, Jeff Hannah, a student at SFU studying Math and current president of the SFU NDP, was happy with what he saw.

“So far I would say that each of the four candidates would make an excellent leader, [though] at this point it is still very early on,” said Hannah.

The party, which currently has 44 seats in the 338-seat House, is looking to replace their current leader Thomas Mulcair after a 2015 election which saw the New Democrats lose 59 seats and give up their Official Opposition mantle to the Conservatives. Many in the media attributed the NDP’s disappointing showing to the party’s cautious campaign style as well as their decision to move the party rightward in hopes to gain greater support.

Eager to show that New Democrats were not wild-eyed spenders, the party embraced small-bore proposals based on a commitment to balance the budget,” wrote Evan Dyer of CBC News immediately following the election. The party’s promise to balance the budget indeed bore greater resemblance to the ruling Conservatives than to the party’s past proposals or the platform offered by the ultimately victorious Liberals.

“Ours is the most progressive platform in this election,” Justin Trudeau was often heard saying during the campaign. In fact, as Dyer points out, the Liberal leader had reason to say this. The Liberal platform “pitched a tax hike on the top one per cent of income earners, an aggressive infrastructure plan financed by deficits, means-tested child benefits and the legalization of marijuana.”

Hannah, too, expressed disappointment with how the 2015 campaign proceeded. “I think a lot of our campaign became lost in the balanced budget promise, and some of our more bold policies were forgotten,” said Hannah. “I think that the party needs to not be afraid of standing behind its bold ideas.” It is true that the NDP platform did feature some bold, progressive proposals including promises to “lower prescription drug costs by 30%” and repeal the controversial Bill C-51.

The NDP’s centrist approach in 2015 may help explain why the leadership candidates appear to be returning to the party’s leftist roots. At his campaign launch, Angus, a five-term MP from Timmins, Ontario, emphasized his working-class background offering a populist message although one that is decidedly inclusive and which touched on indigenous issues. Ashton, a young MP from Manitoba, has delivered a similarly populist vision. “We need strong leadership to stand up to the elites in Canada and the elite politics […] that are holding us back,” said Ashton at her own campaign lunch. A major advocate for indigenous and women’s issues, Ashton gained some notoriety after she personally campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic primary despite being a sitting MP.

Caron, a former labour economist and MP from Quebec, entered the fray with a promise to “replace social programs with a basic income for all Canadians.” It’s an unlikely fiscal policy for the Conservative party to get behind — however, it now appears that the NDP is again targeting those left-wing voters who were wooed by the Liberals in 2015. “Progressives recognize basic income as an important tool in fighting inequality and levelling the economic playing field,” said Caron.

Lastly Julian, the first to put his name in the race and an MP representing New Westminster, has said that, Canadians need a government that prioritizes inclusivity, clean energy, and education for all.” Julian has specifically proposed eliminating tuition at post-secondary institutions, phasing out Canada’s use of fossil fuels and a greater commitment to affordable housing. All proposals which would be welcomed by the country’s political progressives, many of whom have felt let down by the Liberal government’s broken promises on electoral reform, the environment, and Indigenous issues.

“It’s not enough to simply be left-wing. Our next leader has to be able to communicate to Canadians that the NDP’s platform is in their best interest, and that the NDP is the party that will have their backs,” said Hannah. This sentiment identified another weakness in the NDP’s 2015 showing: Mulcair had trouble connecting with voters. The current NDP leader thrives as a rousing debater in the House, yet Mulcair sometimes appeared awkward and stiff on the campaign trail. Trudeau, however, who has now reached international rockstar-dom, excels in these types of public situations.

There is a long time before party members go to vote for their new leader in the fall and the deadline for candidates to enter the race isn’t until July 3. Expect more to throw their hat in the ring. And while future debates won’t be as friendly as the first, it can be guaranteed that the main target of all competitors will likely be Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party. “We played it too safe. We let the Liberals out-left us,” Ashton said at the debate, in reference to the NDP’s 2015 campaign.

With files from CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Huffington Post, the National Post, Maclean’s Magazine, National Observer and Windsor Star.