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Canadiana, Federal Politics, NDP Leadership Race

The cautious politics of choosing a leader

NDP leadership candidates at the first debate held in December, 2011.

As the race to replace Jack Layton heats up, it was only a matter of time before the candidates began taking significant steps to differentiate themselves from their fellow candidates. Eight candidates remain in the race to lead the NDP and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, and the New Democrats should be proud of the field that vies to lead them.

It represents an engaging and representative swath of the population, increasing the likelihood that Canada’s New Democratic Party members will be able to identify with more leadership candidates than ever before. Candidates from coast-to-coast, saddened by the death of Jack Layton, who feel themselves capable fo carrying the party forward against a formidable political foe in Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Moreover, the Dippers are demonstrating that in Canada’s pre-eminent party of the Left, the political game is increasingly less likely to be seen primarily as a domain of older, white men.

Think about it: Martin Singh, a Sikh pharmacist and businessman from Nova Scotia is running against Romeo Saganash, a residential school survivor and former deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Cree with over 30 years political experience. And these men will square off against the multilingual Manitoba MP Nikki Ashton, the youngest woman elected in the 40th Parliament of Canada, and Peggy Nash, the Toronto-based activist and advocate for greater female representation in politics. She helped found Equal Voice in 1994.

And while eight candidates remain (the rest being Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair, Ontario MP Paul Dewar, former NDP president Brian Topp, and B.C. Nathan Cullen), only one will become the next leader of the New Democrats and move into Stornoway. Some of these candidates are likely to drop out in advance of the March meeting in Toronto, but with such a strong field of candidates left, it is unlikely the final tally going into the convention will be much lower than today.

Yet before the horse trading of the convention begins, where careers, promises, and alliances are made and broken with impunity, and the air hangs heavy with the weight of backroom deals, the remaining contenders must find compelling ways to show supporters and delegates how they can win the Prime Ministership, while their opponents can’t.

And this can get ugly.

Unlike general elections where the ideological divides between candidates often speak for themselves, internal party struggles are more delicate to navigate. How best to show yourself superior to your colleagues and – often, but not always – your friends, while not sounding overly hostile or arrogant? It’s a fine line, and one which candidates tread gingerly.

Go too hard at them, and you risk alienating potential supporters. Go hard enough, and you may win over delegates as a no-nonsense and strong leader. Go too soft, and you may seem weak, or uninformed – or you may end up sneaking up the middle like Stéphane Dion did at the Liberal convention did in 2006 and win.

So policy tends to be where candidates will seek to separate themselves. But this is far from foolproof. As I wrote about elsewhere, “the difference in Cullen’s approach to the environment can only be so different from Mulcair’s, or Dewar’s from Nash’s, when all belong to the same team. All support clean energy, sustainable development, environmental protection, and the like, so what separates them will only be degree, or emphasis.”

The same is likely as true of their approach to taxation or health care as it is to the environment. You won’t find a candidate stand up at the convention in Toronto and indicate their support for privatized health care – that is, unless they want to voluntarily throw themselves to the wolves, or intend on crossing the floor to the Conservatives in the next session of Parliament.

Policy announcements will come in handy as candidates scramble to target increasingly hard-to-find niche areas and audiences their competitors have failed to speak to. In some cases, external factors may impact voting: decisions based on geography, gender, religion, or other secondary affiliations may draw a voters attention away from policy or governance style and towards how a particular candidate is the most like them, looks the most like them, believes in the same G-d as them, or lives near them. These considerations often carry far more weight than policy considerations, thus ceasing to be secondary affiliations at all.

At the end of the day, Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment always comes into play during a leadership race – thou shall not speak ill of any fellow New Democrat (modified slightly) – despite the best efforts of its participants.

The NDP will not be immune, but perhaps they can rise above the tantalizing allure of fighting dirty.

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


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