It’s been a big year for federal leadership makeovers: First, the Conservatives sought out a fresh face to lead their party, eventually choosing Andrew Scheer from a list of 13 candidates last spring. Now, it’s the New Democratic Party’s turn:
NDP members will cast their ballots over the next few weeks for one of four hopefuls, each jockeying for a chance to inspire the left-leaning party towards a brighter future, after outgoing leader Thomas Mulcair lost a confidence vote at the party’s Edmonton convention in April, 2016. Here’s what you need to know:
What’s at stake?
The party is still rebuilding after the 2015 election, which was bad for the Conservatives, but arguably far worse for the NDP: Not only did the party get bumped from Opposition to third-party status, it lost many long-serving MPs and a lot of seats in downtown Toronto, which used to be an NDP stronghold. The party’s goal now is to return to prominence as the voice of the left, win back some power in the House of Commons in 2019 and ideally help knock the Liberals down to a minority government. It’s aiming to gain ground with young people, women and the LGBTQ community — votes that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals largely owned in 2015.
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Overall, members are looking for someone who can reinvigorate the NDP and develop policies Canadians can get behind in the next election, according to Ian Capstick, political commentator and founder of the communications firm MediaStyle. “What we’ve been trying to sell Canadians hasn’t been working,” says the former Jack Layton staffer. “There’s got to be some reasonableness to the policies, some interestingness to the leadership candidates.”
Whoever wins will face an uphill battle in Quebec, where the issues of religious accommodation and identity politics
proved to be a real tension point in 2015. (Mulcair said then that women should have a right to wear a veil at citizenship ceremonies, despite deep concerns it could cost the party votes. They dropped from 59 to 16 seats in that province during the last election.) Those tensions continued last weekend when Quebec NDP MP Pierre Nantel said he’d quit the party if whomever is elected leader doesn’t respect Quebec’s own decision making on this issue (there is a provincial bill in Quebec right now that would bar people from giving or receiving public services if their faces are covered).
Who’s in the running — and what are they promising?
The four candidates are talking about a wide range of issues on the campaign trail — everything from identity politics to racial injustice, reconciliation for Indigenous peoples, climate change, opposition to pipelines, and guaranteed basic income as well as plenty of talk about nationalizing minimum wage and policies to address violence against women.
Singh, an Ontario MPP, has garnered the most media attention so far, buoyed in early September by his calm response to a racist protester’s interruption at one of his “JagMeet & Greet” events. He’s got a slight lead in the latest polls, raised the most money (more in seven weeks than his competitors did in four months, according to an analysis by the CBC)
and the most endorsements (he’s been backed by a number of NDP caucus members including immigration, citizenship and refugees critic Jenny Kwan, ex-leadership candidate Peter Julian, and, more recently, veteran British Columbia NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who ran against Mulcair in 2012). He also claims to have sold more than 47,000 new memberships, mainly in Ontario, though competitors accused his camp of inflating the numbers. The criminal defence lawyer, who represents the riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton for the Ontario NDP, has a ton of support in Canada’s Sikh community and is the most vocal candidate on issues of racial inequality, announcing a plan to remove kids’ names from Canada’s no-fly list and a federal ban on racial profiling. He’s also working to shore up support in Quebec, where he released an ad that showed him listening to a Roch Voisine cassette (the ad was promptly pulled at Voisine’s request, because he didn’t give permission for his song to be used.)
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Singh, who has already earned comparisons to Trudeau after a widely-shared Q&A in GQ earlier this year, has said he wouldn’t try to become an MP if he won the leadership until the 2019 election, instead connecting with NDPers and potential supporters in the run-up to voting day, just like Layton did
Angus, a long-serving northern Ontario MP and former punk rocker/current alt-country band leader trailed Singh only slightly in a poll leading up to the first ballot, which he says he isn’t trying to sweep (“We want to win on the second ballot. We want to win by having support of people who support some of the other candidates,” the MP for Timmins-James Bay told reporters.) He’s the most experienced NDP candidate, with 13 years as an MP under his belt and deep roots in the NDP stronghold of Northern Ontario (he represents the Timmins-James Bay riding).
The activist and writer was the first of the existing hopefuls to throw his hat in the ring, saying he wants to represent the working class and fight Trump-style populism. His platform includes Indigenous rights advocacy (he’s been the NDP’s critic on that file) such as a pledge to “dismantle” the department of Indigenous Affairs and create an ombudsman to ensure action on Indigenous child welfare issues. He’s also been pushing a middle-class-first agenda and shoring up lots of support in the labour movement. In August, Angus scored a high-profile endorsement from environmentalist David Suzuki. He took some time off the leadership trail this summer, after the death of his sister, Kathleen.
Perhaps the most left-leaning candidate in the race, the Manitoba MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski is pushing a socialist agenda, and headed south of the border during last year’s U.S. election to campaign for Bernie Sanders. She describes herself as an intersectional feminist (“You can’t be a feminist prime minister and the second largest arms dealer in the Middle East, selling arms to the Saudi regime that targets women and LGBTQ folks,” she said of Trudeau in a recent interview with Jacobin Mag.) Vowing that the NDP will not be “out-lefted” by the Trudeau government, Ashton has promised a comprehensive LGBTQ2+ justice strategy, free post-secondary tuition and national action to tackle gender-based violence that’ll cost five times more than what the Liberals announced earlier this year. She’s got the support of Quebec MP Romeo Saganash and former Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan.
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Ashton ran into some controversy in late August, with prominent Jewish organization B’Nai Brith taking issue with her posing for a photo on the campaign trail with a known Holocaust denier. She released a statement saying “I completely reject any and all efforts to deny the Holocaust,” and said her own family members died during the Nazi occupation in Europe.
Caron is the only Quebecer in the running for NDP leader. The MP for Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques (he was elected in the 2011 “Orange Crush”) and former finance critic is pitching himself as a “progressive economist,” putting job creation at the centre of his campaign and pushing for an “economy for the people,” by proposing a basic income supplement that he says will lift thousands of Canadians out of poverty.
He garnered attention during the most recent debate in Montreal for first bringing up Quebec’s ongoing debate over religious accommodation, saying the province must fight racism and Islamophobia but be supported in its ability to make its own decisions. He also secured big endorsements from former NDP leader Alexa McDonough and “ultimate NDP insider” Brian Topp.
When and where the leader will be chosen?
There will be no splashy reception or convention for the NDP leadership decision. Instead, voting for a new leader will happen over the course of a few weeks, with the results rolled out between October 1 and October 15, with weekly events held for each ranked ballot.
How will a new, experimental voting process work?
Despite the chance of a two week-long voting process, some see the potential for this being a pretty exciting race. “Thanks to what is, for a political party, an audaciously daring experiment in direct, real-time virtual democracy, the NDP race could end up providing a full month of cliffhanger-punctuated ballot reveals,” political columnist Kady O’Malley wrote in July at TVO.org. Members (who had until August 17th to sign up) will get a ballot in the mail by early September. They can vote online or by mail.
There was a total of nine leadership debates, which included the final “showcase” in Hamilton, Ont. on September 17 in which each of the candidates got 22 minutes to make their final pitch to members before voting officially opened the next morning. Members have until Oct. 1 to rank their choices from first to fourth and submit their ballot online. (Paper ballots had to have been mailed in by September 18.) The results will be shared online later in the day.
If one of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the race is over. If not, members have another full week to vote on their second online ballot (and candidates have another week to campaign and convince members to make them their first pick). If nobody gets 50+ percent of the vote, the lowest ranked candidate drops off and the process repeats until Sunday, Oct. 15, when the new leader is announced.
How has the race been going?
“They’re being a lot nicer to each other,” than the candidates in the Conservative race, Capstick says. “None of them has accused anyone else of trying to destroy the very party they want to lead.” Overall, he says it’s a stronger pool of candidates than most NDP members expected, with an interesting mix of strengths and backgrounds. And he recommends Canadians be patient with the NDP after electing their new leader — they’re up against “some of the most complicated political calculus in the history of Canadian politics” when it comes to figuring out how to best Trudeau’s mass appeal with progressive voters. “Whoever [the new leader is] is going to have to have a couple of months to really clean house in the [senior ranks of the] NDP and really dig into some new policies of stuff that can actually be sold to Canadians.”