A few thoughts on the federal NDP leadership race

A few thoughts on the federal NDP leadership race

This is not an attempt at a full assessment of the campaign or its outcome, only some initial thoughts mainly about Niki Ashton’s solid but disappointing result and what next for radicals who aren’t advocates of a parliamentary road to change but who voted for her.

  1. Ashton’s 17 percent is the best score for a left candidate since Svend Robinson in 1995, though I think her policies and approach were further to the left than Robinson’s, so a better comparison might be Steve Langdon’s 14.6 percent first-ballot score in 1989.
  2. Society in the Canadian state hasn’t been affected by the long post-2007 economic slump nearly as badly as some other places, including the US and UK. Although there are many young people who’re stuck in awful jobs, loaded with debt, and fearful about the future, the situation of young working-class people isn’t as dire here as in the US and UK.
  3. The federal Liberals under Trudeau haven’t been pushing aggressive austerity, presiding over a decline in real wages, and playing with racism to win votes, as the Tories have been doing in the UK. The Liberals’ version of neoliberalism is different from Harper’s, and many NDP supporters haven’t recognized that the NDP’s best response to the Liberals would be a smart left turn.
  4. Many NDP supporters were disappointed by Mulcair’s performance in the 2015 election, but none of the candidates to replace him were widely seen by NDPers as candidates who would continue to steer the NDP to the right and even deeper into the conventional way that official politics is now done (even though Jagmeet Singh and Charlie Angus were obviously such candidates), which is the course that Ashton challenged. Yes, Ashton faced sexism, but there’s a lot more to why she got 17 per cent of the votes cast than that. Now the NDP is headed by a leader who, as Dru Oja Jay put it, “represents a huge opportunity to hit the reset button on the unspoken whiteness of the NDP” but won’t “fire up the base and duke it out with the people who stand in the way of climate justice and economic equality.”
  5. Neither Singh nor Angus nor Caron were seen by NDP members in anything like the way many people in the US saw Hilary Clinton was when she was running for the Democratic Party nomination (as a candidate of continuity with eight years of job losses, falling living standards and racist killings under a president who embraced Wall St.). Nor were they seen like the contenders for Labour leader who were beaten by Corbyn (as more or less candidates of continuity with what the party had become—a party that advanced neoliberalism and went to war in Iraq when in government and promised milder austerity when in opposition). The dynamics around Ashton’s run were qualitatively less favourable than those around Sanders and Corbyn.
  6. The level of social protest is lower here than it was in the US prior to Trump’s election, and—except in Quebec—there hasn’t been anti-austerity mobilization of the kind seen in the UK in 2010-11. Without such experiences of collective action, and in the conditions noted under point 2, there hasn’t been a widespread left-wing politicization. This meant the potential base for a left challenge to the NDP establishment wasn’t that large.
  7. Ashton made anti-neoliberal and climate justice-oriented parliamentary reformism that opposes various forms of oppression, including the oppression of Palestine, more visible. That was welcome, since such ideas are outside the spectrum of what’s considered acceptable in official politics in Canada today. Her campaign probably gave some supporters a sense of confidence that there is a left to the left of the NDP establishment. But although I’d love to be wrong, I don’t think her campaign will probably have much of a lasting impact. This is both because she didn’t try to build an organized left current before she ran or during her run and because it doesn’t look like any significant organization is positioned to grow as a result of her campaign (I haven’t seen signs that Ashton supporters flocked to Courage or will do so now, though some will).
  8. With the race over, people who see social struggle—not electoral politics—as key to making change but who joined the NDP to vote for Ashton shouldn’t get involved in the party. Instead, they should devote their efforts to workplace, community and campus organizing and to trying to strengthen the non-sectarian radical left. Fellow Winnipegger Matthew Brett put it well: “we need to build a strong, vibrant, independent left that engages in grassroots struggle and strives to build mass movements.”

David Camfield is a member of Solidarity Winnipeg and the author of We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society.

Photo credit: thestar.com