The contrasts can help the New Democrats rebuild their brand to the 20 per cent polling threshold they need to consider themselves back in the game.
It isn’t just New Democrats needing the NDP to get back to 20 per cent, of course. The Conservatives want them to be there, too, taking votes back from the Liberals, especially among the young people (18-24) and millennials (25-34) who flocked to Justin Trudeau in 2015 with 67 and 70 per cent turnouts, up from the mid-and-high 50s in 2011. These are the people who essentially delivered Trudeau’s majority government.
The NDP isn’t there yet. But from where it is now, it wouldn’t take much to get there.
The latest ThreeHundredEight.com poll of polls this week had the Liberals at 38.7 per cent, the Conservatives at 33.8 per cent, and the NDP at 15.7 per cent. Those numbers, given the margin of error, are likely in minority territory — probably for the Liberals, possibly for the Conservatives, with the NDP at least 10 seats shy of the 44 ridings they now hold in the House with the 20 per cent of the vote they won in 2015.
While the Conservative leadership campaign is a gong-show, with 14 candidates on stage during televised leadership debates, the NDP so far has just four, which makes for a much better race. Moreover, while many of the CPC candidates seem to be competing with each other to see who can look the most ridiculous, the NDP candidates appear to be congenial.
Maybe a little too congenial; they’ve been agreeing with each other too much in their two debates so far. But they’re still in a much better place than the Conservatives occupy, with their cringe-inducing race.
(The Conservatives’ latest bimbo eruption this week: Brad Trost’s spokesman said his candidate was not entirely comfortable “with the whole gay thing” and wouldn’t be marching in a Pride parade anytime soon. Quel moron. Fortunately for the Conservatives, Trost will not be one of the 10 candidates whose names go forward beyond the first round of their preferential ballot on May 27.)
Meanwhile, no one in the NDP leadership cohort has diminished (much less shamed) the party’s trademark so far. On the contrary — each of the first four candidates has contributed to two entertaining and informative debates.
And unlike the case with the Conservatives, all the anglophone NDP candidates speak serviceable to fluent French. The lone francophone contender, Guy Caron, speaks excellent English.
All agree the party lost its way in the 2015 election, spooked by its frontrunner status in the polls going into the campaign and stumbling as it tried to move to the centre while being outflanked by Trudeau on the left. They all say this can never happen again, and that the NDP must reclaim its place as the conscience of the left.
Charlie Angus, 54, has the most solid slogan. “I’ve got your back,” he says. That resonates not only in his riding of Timmins and in northern Ontario, but across the NDP heartland. He’s a guitar playing, foot-stomping populist who said in the first debate that his favourite beer was the one that was free. Who doesn’t get that? He’s been in the House since 2004, and knows his way around.
Right now, he’s regarded as the consensus second choice on the NDP’s preferential ballot in October, which is different from the Conservative one in that there will be a week between votes. This could be fun — almost like a delegated convention.
Peter Julian, also 54 and also from the parliamentary class of 2004, is the former NDP House leader from New Westminster-Burnaby on the lower B.C. mainland. He has an undergraduate degree in poli-sci from L’Université du Québec à Montréal, which may explain his excellent French.
Caron, 48, from the House class of 2011, begins as a favourite son of Quebec NDPers, the only one in the race. He tells a story of driving thousands of kilometres down Quebec roads to nowhere, before the Orange Wave of Jack Layton took him to Ottawa from the eastern Quebec riding of Rimouski in 2011. Nice narrative. (But he might want to stop pointing out that he’s an economist. Nobody cares about that.)
The field is rounded out by Niki Ashton, 34, from the Commons class of 2008, who ran against Tom Mulcair in the 2012 leadership and wants the party to take a hard left turn. She won’t win, but there’s no doubt of where the northern Manitoba MP wants the party to go.
Who else might join the race?
Jagmeet Singh, for sure. At 38, this former defence lawyer is the deputy leader of the NDP in the Ontario legislature. A snappy dresser, he’s certainly the only NDP leadership prospect ever to have been featured in the pages of GQ. He’s setting himself up to join the race after the Easter-Passover break, but before the next leadership debate in early May.
Is the country, and especially Quebec, ready for a Sikh — a brown guy with a long beard and a turban — to be a national party leader? Singh will have to confront that question early in his campaign by taking the Canadian issues of tolerance and diversity head-on in Quebec. His French is apparently quite adequate, since he studied it as a second language in school.
There will be other players, none of much consequence and some to be named later. But that’s the front five, the first line in the NDP leadership race.
As for the contrast with the Liberals, it begins with Justin Trudeau’s broken promise on electoral reform — that the 2015 election would be “the last under first-part-the-post.” NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen has rounded up 130,000 signatures on a petition calling on Trudeau to keep his promise and propose some kind of proportional representation. Those are 130,000 voters who won’t be marking their ballots for the Liberals in 2019.
The Liberals have taken a big hit on this because many millennials flocked to the Liberal colours based on this promise alone.
The Liberals also hurt themselves by rigging the rules in two Liberal nominations in Toronto and Montreal byelections in favour of candidates preferred by PMO. In Markham, the deadline for new memberships was retroactively backdated to a date before next Monday’s byelection was even called, to favour PMO appointments director Mary Ng. In St-Laurent, the party refused to green-light the candidacy of borough mayor Alan De Sousa, preferring to anoint former Quebec cabinet minister and TV commentator Yolande James. In the event, James finished third as the local Liberal members revolted and chose Emmanuella Lambropoulos, a 26-year-old high school teacher who will be getting a new job on Monday. But for the party hierarchy, her nomination was a stinging rebuke of old-style machine politics.
The current debate on changing the rules of the House also will cost the Liberals political capital if they follow through unilaterally.
Meanwhile, Trudeau has approved the TransMountain pipeline to Vancouver and strongly endorsed the Keystone XL project to the U.S., to the chagrin of environmental activists and other progressive voters. And while Canada needs pipelines to tidewater, the Liberals will pay a political price in B.C. at the next election.
Finally, some progressive voters see Trudeau and the Liberals as cozying up to Donald Trump and the Republicans in Washington. Trudeau is just doing his job, of course — managing Canada’s most important trade and security relationship — but some voters on the left will drift away from the Liberals, and back to the NDP, because of it.
Suddenly, the NDP leadership is a prize worth having after all.
Author: L. Ian MacDonald