Twists & Left-Right Turns on the Orange Brick Road:
NDP Leadership Race Yet To Fully Take Shape
October 15th, 2011
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[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
One month into the Federal NDP leadership contest, and the contours of the race have yet to really take shape in the eyes of veteran party-watchers.
The national media has tried on various narratives for size, but none to date have really fit all the facts. They've lurched from proclaiming a coronation, to a blood fight between the establishment and the outsiders, to a left-right split, to a Quebec-ROC battle, to who knows what next.
What is clear is that, unaccustomed as the media is to covering the NDP, the party itself is unaccustomed to thinking of its leadership contests as a race for prime minister, and moreover continues to work through the ten stages of grief for its beloved late leader, Jack Layton, gone not even two months now.
And the NDP, which was used to being either ignored or dismissed by the gallery in the past, has not always rushed to meet the media's insatiable demand for an instant story or easily digestible narrative, instead working to its own pace and meeting its own internal process requirements first. In this way, they are not exactly like the Conservative Party, which views its internal processes as largely private, but they're also unlike the Liberals, who after all have given so many leadership race models to follow, but who have traditionally placed a much higher premium on communicating with their members through the mass media.
Along with the numerous provincial elections which the party had a stake in over the past few weeks, this explains in part the early confusion about the second round of constitutional amendments which eliminated the 25% labour carve-out after Layton's selection in 2003, and also the longer decision-making horizons of some of the party's potentially strongest candidacies. Everyone has been taking their own good time, in a race that still has five and a half months to go.
That there was no obvious perfect successor to Layton at this stage was not a function of his lack of awareness of the need for succession planning, but more a result of his untimely passing. Brian Topp had not had a chance to run for office yet, Thomas Mulcair had not had a chance to travel the country and meet the rest of the party members yet, Paul Dewar and Robert Chisholm had not had time to work on their french, nor had some of the younger or newer members the chance to find their feet in the House of Commons, or the party put down some deeper organizational roots in Québec. This was to be the four-year term where all of that could happen, but timing was not the NDP's friend (though admittedly in some ways it could have been worse).
The culture of the NDP is a bit alien to outsiders, but here are a few pointers for newbies to consider:
- The party's membership views everything it's accomplished in rebuilding since 1993 to have come in spite of coverage by the national media, not because of it, and thus they do not feel any special need to cater to them now. This doesn't mean the race will unfold under a cone of silence, but following it will entail building a new set of contacts, and looking in non-traditional sources like the alternate press and social media (particularly Facebook). For most party members the mainstream media will be incidental to the race, not integral to it.
- While they will take note of high-profile endorsements by promiment party members, members do not feel the least bit bound by them, and have on occasion put the boots to choices viewed as being foisted on them. Paul Dewar won the nomination in Ottawa Centre, for example, over Layton's own director of communications at the time, Jamey Heath, who was widely supported by the centre. By the same token, the party centre has a reasonably good track record of gracefully accepting those decisions.
- Although there are certain regional loyalties and other cleavages with the party, its practice of sending organizers from one province or territory to another to gain experience also creates many other bonds of loyalty and friendship, and thus makes it much more difficult to predict which leadership candidate someone might support.
- It will be at least as important to leadership campaigns which organizers they get on board, as which endorsements from elected officials or luminaries.
- Changing fortunes and the political cycle have recently upended some members' relative commitment to their provincial section versus the federal section of the party. Often in western Canada (though less so in Manitoba), members identified more strongly with their provincial parties who were contenders for government, and rued the influence of the Ontario section over the affairs of federal office. The popularity of Jack Layton and the orange wave in Quebec, coupled with BC and Saskatchewan being out of power provincially and Ontario finally emerging from the shadow of Bob Rae, have changed all that now.
- Nevertheless, there are some identifiable camps within the party, with their unofficial leaders and a certain history behind each one.
- Labour is not a monolithic camp within the NDP either; besides which, it is often not found on the left-wing of the party in many if not most cases. The house of labour has its own east-west cleavages, Quebec-ROC cleavages, and internal differences in Ontario that date back to differing electoral strategies in the wake of the Rae government.
The first batch of leadership candidates heading down the orange brick road each have their own strengths: Topp his strategic brain and polyglot of knowledge, Dewar his bridge-building way with people and his mother's heart, and Mulcair his ministerial experience and "dah nerve". Cullen's specific offering is less clear to me at this stage though he has a strong record on the environment, while Saganash has a constituency even less tapped into the mainstream than most but potentially very large and of future strategic importance to the party, particularly in western Canada. Singh is unknown across the country but acquitted himself of a professional entry into the race, though he's been more quiet since.
Brian Topp is the candidate of many who have worked closely with him, and given his senior roles within the party naturally that would include many seen as its "establishment". However, it is hard to see Libby Davies as a member of the establishment of anything, and indeed as the unofficial leader of the party's progressive wing, many were surprised to see her endorsement of someone who – far from being seen as the "left-wing" candidate – had earlier been caricatured as a Romanow, third-way New Democrat. Perhaps he is playing against type, or has made certain strategic judgements about where the majority of the party can be found, but if anything Topp is demonstrating the breadth of his support across the left-right spectrum within the party, in the endorsements he's chosen to highlight in the early stages of his campaign.
And when you think about it, it's a surprise that Topp should be seen as the establishment candidate at all, when Thomas Mulcair would have been assumed to hold that mantle short months ago, both as Layton's Quebec lieutenant and co-Deputy Leader, and indeed the only other caucus member to have been featured in any party's election advertising during the May campaign. Any dispassionate analysis has to excise and dismiss the widely cultivated story spun by other parties that Mulcair had designs on pushing Layton out and assuming his throne – not least because he spent most of his long days working in Quebec and did very little travelling across the rest of Canada, and also given the length of time it took him to assemble a team of sufficient size to counter Topp's pre-emptive move.
Mulcair's selling proposition is that only he can defeat Harper, and while he has likewise attracted supporters from both the party's left and third-way niches, he has also picked up endorsements from the likes of BC environmentalist and former candidate Michael Byers and Toronto-based left-wing academic James Laxer. Clearly his being a former Liberal is not as much of a bugaboo to party members as some in the media have imagined. Moreover, the so-called "little-known provincial leader" who appeared at Mulcair's news conference, Dominic Cardy from New Brunswick, was in fact one of the key movers behind getting the party to adopt the One Member One Vote method of leadership selection prior to 2003. This provision was originally conceived of as a way to limit the influence of labour representatives at delegated leadership conventions, but succeeded in the first instance in electing Jack Layton (then the candidate of the more left-wing New Politics Initiative, but who had since oriented the party more towards its prairie traditions).
Meanwhile, the polish of Paul Dewar's entry into the race, followed right away by a tour of up-and-coming Ontario provincial campaigns, gives a lot of clues about where many of the party's experienced organizers have cast their lots. He can also count on heavyweight support from government insiders in Manitoba where his older brother Bob, who cut his teeth running the cross-partisan Ottawa mayoralty campaigns of their mother Marion, went on to serve as Gary Doer's chief of staff and now works for the Manitoba Federation of Labour. Dewar's watchword is "grassroots", and while that campaign will have caucus endorsements, for now their announcement is being accorded a lower priority than demonstrating Dewar's wider reach to party members. It's been Dewar who has led the early voting in the CBC's online poll – not a scientific measure of overall strength, but certainly an early indicator of organizational readiness and the lack of any enemies. He's evidently still building up to his Quebec introduction though, concentrating on getting his french up to snuff in the meantime.
The Saganash candidacy speaks to the yearning for a role model and focus to a newly and still very tentatively engaged group of young native leaders and other activists within the party. After an uncertain start, it is now showing signs of catching up to the general readiness states of the other campaigns.
Most of the remaining entries I expect to cover off regional and/or issue bases, such as Cullen on the environment, Chisholm as the candidate speaking to the party's gains and future potential in Atlantic Canada and an experienced campaigner from the leader's chair, and Ashton as the candidate of young people and the new west, where she's expected to receive the backing of the very energized digital organization who supported Ryan Meili's insurgent and nearly-successful leadership campaign against Dwayne Lingenfelter in Saskatchewan.
All, that is, with the exception of Finance Critic and former Party President Peggy Nash – who, if she does decide to enter the race as seems increasingly likely to happen between now and Hallowe'en, will help to shape up the race and finally permit many undecided party activists – particularly those looking for a more activist candidate to support like Libby Davies or Peter Julian – to decide where to settle in for the duration of the race.
I suspect that the contours of the race, once the field is established, will revolve around differing approaches to achieving government and what to do once in government, and differing emphases on environmentalism, foreign policy, fiscal prudence and populism. The members will want to see a lot of debates, and put the candidates through their paces, but will also be judging each one – for better or worse – against the standard set by Jack Layton in the last election campaign: namely who can inspire them to recommit to the fight, who can tap into their grief and turn it back into hope.
It is entirely possible – and the probability can only increase with time – that at least one of the two presumed front-runners now won't be in first or second place by the end of the race. And while the story-line of a third candidate coming up the middle against two presumed front-runners is one New Democrats can easily identify with, we shouldn't assume at this point who that might be, nor that the winner in that scenario would inevitably be the weaker for it.
It won't be the party's current membership that decides a One-Member-One-Vote race based on their first choices, this is to say. It will also be the new members, and the second and perhaps third choices of all party members, whether new or old.
A story, in other words, that defies easy description now, but which promises lots of interesting twists and turns along the way.
[For best access to all the latest developments in the leadership race, don't forget to regularly visit the Pundits' Guide NDP Leadership Portal at http://ndpldr.punditsguide.ca.]