Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Saskatchewan NDP chooses a new leader

FEBRUARY 19, 2013

The Saskatchewan NDP will meet in Saskatoon on March 9 to select a new leader. They are in dire straits.

Lorne Calvert's NDP government was defeated in the election in 2007 and received only 37 per cent of the vote. Under Dwaine Lingenfelter they were defeated in the 2011 election and received only 32 per cent of the vote. With the disappearance of the provincial Liberal Party, they now have to win close to 50 per cent of the votes to form a government.

Support for the party has dropped dramatically since Roy Romanow's NDP government moved steadily to the right to embrace the neoliberal agenda. Membership has fallen from 47,000 in 1991 to 11,000 in 2013. The vote for the NDP has fallen from 275,000 in 1991 to only 127,000 in 2011. In addition, the total vote in provincial elections has fallen from 540,000 in 1991 to 396,000 in 2011. The drop in vote has been greatest in the safest NDP ridings.

Following their major defeat in the 2007 election, the NDP had the opportunity to choose a new leader who supported a return to the progressive social democratic tradition of the past. The fact that the party caucus and a number of key trade unions backed Lingenfelter, Roy Romanow’s Deputy Leader, then from Nexen Corporation, and the majority of the remaining members chose him as the new leader, reveals a great deal about the state of the party.

The 2013 leadership candidates

Lingenfelter disappeared on election night in 2011. The party wisely took its time to select a new leader. In the end, four young men came forward. Not one woman stood for the job. Patriarchal traditions run deep in this province.

Trent Wotherspoon and Cam Broten are both elected members of the provincial legislature and are better known among NDP members. Ideologically, they have been in the mainstream of the party's caucus. They have been seen as the front runners.

The strength of these two candidates is demonstrated by the long list of supporters they both have, mainstream active members of the party, members of the caucus and former members of the caucus. The vote for the leadership by all members is by preferential ballot. If most of the voting members rank these two candidates as either their first or second choice, I feel certain one of them will emerge as the new leader.

Ryan Meili's energetic campaign

Ryan Meili is a progressive doctor from Saskatoon with a very good record of social justice activism. He has run a very good campaign with enthusiastic supporters. In the 2009 leadership race he finished second to Lingenfelter with 45 per cent of the vote. His friendly and sincere way of dealing with people has won him high praise. His policy position papers have been very good.

Meili has had the support of the progressive wing of the party, those who have backed Nettie Wiebe from the National Farmers Union in recent elections. However, I can't think of any case where the left in the NDP has received more than 45 per cent of the vote in any major contest. In the 2001 leadership campaign to replace Roy Romanow, Nettie Weibe was only able to win 33 per cent of the vote. Furthermore, as the vote in the 2009 leadership campaign demonstrated, the remaining NDP members are primarily the party loyalists. If Meili were to win, it would be a major upset.

The left and the NDP

Finally, there is Erin Weir. He has had the disadvantage of being the youngest candidate, and he has been working out of the province for a while. Weir is known as a progressive economist, has published excellent reports on natural resources, and is an impressive public speaker and debater. On the CBC and CTV, as well as in the print media, he has been a strong spokesperson for the United Steelworkers and the trade union movement. From the beginning it seemed to me his only hope for winning was to bring back the NDP members who had quit. That has not happened.

The trade union movement has supported the CCF-NDP since the beginning and formally became part of the NDP after 1962. But the movement has always been marginalized by the leadership of the party. In the past few years they have been preoccupied with the general attack on trade union rights by the Saskatchewan Party government. But in addition, the trade union movement has not been seriously involved in politics since the days of the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice. In the current leadership campaign, the unions divided their support among the four candidates.

It seems likely that with either Trent Wotherspoon or Cam Broten as leader, the NDP will be in the opposition for a long time. They may not ever form government again. Times are good, and the Saskatchewan Party government now has an approval rating in the polls of around 70 per cent, the highest in Canada.

A revival of the NDP would require the economy to collapse or for the Saskatchewan Party to be caught in some major scandal. But the NDP will not get support from the voters until they can present a clear alternative to the pro-business neoliberalism we have had since 1982.

John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and political activist. He is author of Saskatchewan: The Roots of Discontent and Protest.

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