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A message for pundits

The NDP leadership race matters

By Dennis Gruending

Soon, members of the New Democratic Party will begin electronic and mail-in voting to select their new leader. Featuring such competent and principled candidates as MPs Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron, as well Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, the race has become increasingly interesting. But the wider question is whether the NDP will be relevant in Canada’s political future? Having served as an NDP MP between 1999 and 2000 (although I no longer hold any party membership), I contend that it will be.

Since winning the 2015 federal election handily, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had a penchant for promising much and delivering less, while papering it all over with charisma and charm. That will wear thin. There are significant societal issues that the federal Liberals aren’t prepared to tackle at this time. For example, the price of prescription drugs has gotten out of control — the cost falling heavily on individual Canadians. In addition to national pharmacare, there’s a need for better childcare and affordable housing, a project abandoned by the Chretien Liberals. And it’s the NDP, not the Conservatives, that will likely bring these issues to the fore. 

Nonetheless, the party is often held to a different standard by pundits. In June, Globe and Mail Columnist Gary Mason wrote that this was “the most boring leadership race ever mounted, anywhere,” adding that “it has been variations on the same tired NDP tropes: income inequality; poverty reduction; the working-class poor; affordable housing; the homeless.” Actually, it’s Mason who deals in tired tropes. Nobel Prize winning U.S. economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have said repeatedly that persistent inequality has a crippling effect not only on individuals but upon democracy itself. That’s true in Canada also. 

Another of Mason’s flimsy claims is that the NDP continues to have an existential crisis: “Who are we?  A protest movement happy to advocate for progressive policies or a mainstream political party willing to compromise some of its beliefs in order to run a complicated, multifaceted country?” One would think that question was put to rest when Jack Layton led the NDP into official opposition in 2011.

In any event, the NDP leadership will be won by a principled pragmatist. The most established candidate is Angus, a veteran MP, although Caron and Ashton have served enough time in the House of Commons, themselves. Still, it’s Singh who has surprised and impressed NDP members. The 38-year-old from suburban Toronto was a criminal lawyer for six years prior to being elected to the Ontario legislature. And many believe that he represents the political future of a country that’s increasingly urbanized and ethnically diverse. Already, Singh has sold more memberships, raised more money and can boast of more endorsements than any other candidate.

For more than 85 years, the NDP and its forebear, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, have played a significant role in federal politics and have governed in six Canadian provinces. One shouldn’t write them off just yet.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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