By Jim Harding
March 30, 2012
I followed the leadership race as a sympathetic non-member. I was intensely involved in CCF-NDP politics in my youth and, being Saskatchewan born-and-raised, had the chance to see NDP governance up close. I was already becoming concerned about the gap between progressive rhetoric and actual governance when I attended the NDP founding convention 50 years ago. Though I took one run at parliament in a 1964 Saskatoon by-election, I steadily moved towards non-partisan community-based activism.
But with Harper so quickly taking Canada backwards I knew this leadership race mattered greatly. Was the NDP ready to do politics in a new way to inspire a reengagement of the public, especially youth, in working for a more equal and sustainable Canada? Was Mulcair going to see the forest for the trees?
The leadership race was presented as a clash between “staying the social democratic course” and “reaching out to a broader base”. This is a silly dualism, as the history of NDP electoral gains shows. It was in the wake of intense grass-roots activism that the CCF came close to federal power and won in Saskatchewan in the 1940s. It was in the 1980s that Ed Broadbent, an original signator to the Waffle’s nationalist manifesto, led the NDP to the top of the public opinion polls and had the most NDP MPs ever elected. It was Jack Layton, a sympathizer to the progressive New Politics Initiative (NPI) in the early 2000’s, who became the Leader of the Opposition.
There doesn’t need to be a clash between wisely understood principles and good governance if we are clear and strategic about achieving our objectives, which will be required to replace Harper.
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
This was the first time the NDP selected its leader using one-member-one-vote. (Past delegated conventions that gave unions disproportionate power, were more prone to brokerage politics which often served the not-so-progressive social democrats.) The increase to 130,000 members was encouraging, but that only half voted was not. Glitches in the on-line voting system stretched the 4-ballots to over 12 hours.
On the first ballot Mulcair was front runner with 30%, lower than many expected. Topp, touted as the “social democratic candidate”, followed 9% behind. The big surprise was B.C.’s Nathan Cullen’s third-place finish with 16%. The race was quickly down to four. Manitoba’s multi-talented Niki Ashton got the lowest vote and was dropped off. Martin Singh withdrew and endorsed Mulcair. Paul Dewar, who many thought would do better, voluntarily withdrew without endorsing anyone.
Speculation began about the final ballot being between Mulcair and Topp. Pundits conjectured that this reflected a deep party “split” between traditional social democrats and more liberal New Democrats wanting to reach out. Some union leaders encouraged 4th-place Peggy Nash to immediately drop out and endorse Topp. With the preferential voting system locking in 55,000 of the 65,000 votes, there was little room for maneuvering.
Some scenarios were ruled out by the second ballot. Mulcair made the most gains, moving to 38%. Topp notably gained the least but stayed in second place with 25%. Cullen didn’t make the breakthrough to “come up the middle”, but was still ahead of Nash, getting 20%. Nash dropped off without endorsing Topp, which surprised some. The crucial question going into the 3rd ballot was whether enough of Nash’s 10,000 votes would shift to Topp to bring him within striking distance. Or, would there be pressure on Cullen to endorse Mulcair to start reunifying the party.
Topp could only win with a scenario of unlikely “ifs”. Some speculated whether Cullen could replace Topp in second place, creating new opportunities for progressive party unity. But the die was cast.
On the third ballot Mulcair led with 44% and while Topp clearly gained the most votes from Nash he was only at 32%. Cullen came last, was dropped, and also refused to endorse anyone. Much of Cullen’s B.C. labour-environmental support would likely go to Topp, but would it be enough? Perhaps realizing what was coming Cullen said he didn’t want to play “backroom politics” and respected one-member-one-vote.
Going into the last ballot, Mulcair was positioned to become Leader of the Opposition. And he did! He ended with 57%, but if you do the math you find most (58%) of Cullen’s supporters went to Topp. The vote distribution hardly fits with the pundit’s notion of a party deeply divided between traditionalists and expansionists.
POLITICS OF REALIGNMENT
Will the NDP now be able to help build a majority realignment to replace Harper? Clearly Mulcair is more of a traditional “politico” and he may try to “go it alone”, without co-operating with the Liberals and Greens. This might bode well for Harper’s attackers, who will try to make Mulcair and not Canada’s future into the issue. But Cullen winning 25% support suggests that positive reaching out and strategic cooperation are intertwined. A recent poll even shows winning support for joint NDP-Liberal candidates, though it’s lower among NDP supporters. Cullen was also the most “Green” candidate, which bodes well for realignment embracing ecological sustainability as the foundation for democracy and justice.
But the vision of realignment remained obscure, though Ashton’s youthful “new politics” was a start. So a renewed progressive vision remains a work in progress. But it became clear that creating majority realignment is not about a left-right split in the NDP. Those wanting to stay the course with Topp clearly don’t have a monopoly on progressive alliance-building. Cullen’s campaign may help show the way.
Past leader Ed Broadbent’s interventions in support of Topp, as the only one carrying the social democratic banner, misread what is actually happening with the democratization and greening of the NDP, post-Jack Layton. It’s probably no accident that both Premiers Romanow and Calvert endorsed Topp. The historic crisis facing Canada under Harper’s rule, however, can’t be resolved by staying the course; certainly not along the lines of the longest-governing, Saskatchewan NDP.
GREENING THE NDP
The NDP has been slow to “green”. This in part results from social democratic ideology seeing social justice as simply redistributing the fruits of capitalist industrialization. There are serious matters of value and policy to resolve here if Canada is to become governed by a progressive majority. One example: though the federal NDP membership overwhelmingly supports phasing-out nuclear power, it was an NDP government using social democratic justifications like public ownership of resources that propelled Saskatchewan to be the largest uranium-exporting region on the planet. This was rationalized as “jobs and growth at any cost” much as Harper rationalizes the Northern Gateway pipeline. Another example: while NDP leadership candidates all attacked Harper’s science-denying on climate change, the highest per capita greenhouse gases in all Canada are in Saskatchewan where NDP governments for decades oversaw the crown expansion of coal plants and export of nuclear fuel.
NDP self-righteousness can itself be deceptive. And, yes, of course we can and should still take pride for being the founding province for Medicare. But that happened almost 50 years ago just after the NDP was formed. There remains much to sort out inside and outside the NDP if Mulcair’s victory is to be a step along the road to a majority-voting realignment.