Leadership

The NDP needs DiNovo in the race

Win or lose, she’s a standard bearer for ideas the party needs
Photo: United Steelworkers

I’ve never met Cheri DiNovo, but I think I’m starting to like her. This morning she announced her intention to seek the leadership of the NDP, and by noon her candidacy was already ruffling all the right feathers.

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For starters, she told the party brass to take their exorbitant entrance fee and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Since the United Church minister and Ontario MPP doesn’t have a cool $30k to drop, she says she’ll be running as an “unofficial candidate.”

“Money should not in any way be a barrier for the leadership of a democratic, socialist party,” DiNovo told reporters at a Toronto press conference to announce her candidacy.

And you know what? She’s absolutely right. I know, I know. The party is broker than a pauper right now and needs to harvest money wherever it can. And serious campaigns can raise serious money, so it’s a motivator for fundraising the party desperately needs. Not to mention a test of leadership candidates’ ability to fundraise — an essential skill in modern politics.

But those are inside baseball arguments. Canadians don’t care about the party’s finances, and if they see serious candidates being turned away for lack of funds they’ll turn away from the party. Doubly so from a party whose identity is staked on giving voice to the concerns of low and middle income Canadians.

Nothing screams “democratic socialism” like income-contingent barriers to entry.

In 2012, the entrance fee to run for leader of the NDP was set at the already steep price of $15,000. Is there any justification for doubling it beyond the party needing the money? Or perhaps they’re just trying to keep the riff-raff out. Because nothing screams “democratic socialism” like income-contingent barriers to entry.

In all likelihood she’s just making a point, and supporters will fundraise that $30,000 in no time, with some level of support or oversight from her campaign. But the thing is it’s a good point.

DiNovo is a maverick even within her own party, and she revels in telling emperors of every stripe that they forgot to get dressed this morning. Now she’s thrown down the gauntlet over an issue where grassroots sympathy will almost certainly be on her side.

Your move, NDP brass. Good luck defending that cash grab.

Policies matter

In launching her campaign, DiNovo articulated the four pillars she’ll be running on: Fighting climate change, social justice and human rights, justice for Canada’s minorities and social benefits for all.

"It sounds radical, but there's nothing radical about any of this," DiNovo told the press conference about her plan for social benefits like free university, "Paying for it is the least of our problems."

Again, and I’m starting to detect a pattern here, she’s absolutely right. We don’t lack the money to pay for social programs, we lack the political will to reverse decades of tax cuts on corporations and high-income earners that have been consciously, ideologically engineered to allow governments to plead poverty in the face of public demand for popular programs.

It’s no accident that inequality continues to skyrocket. We’ve allowed lobbyists and those with money to seize control of our political process and manipulate it for their own enrichment.

We’ll take a septuagenarian who reminds us of our cranky grandpa if we think he can’t be bought

And, for the first time in decades, ordinary people have started to figure out that this game is rigged. The popular momentum behind Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and European parties like Spain’s Podemos (which is currently in a near statistical tie for first in polls ahead of this month’s election) isn’t based on the magnetic appeal of these candidates. Far from it.

People the world over are fed up with rising inequality and exploitation and they want to fight back. We’ll take a septuagenarian who reminds us of our cranky grandpa if we think he can’t be bought.

Canada’s NDP under Tom Mulcair tried to copy the success of the Blairite “New Labour” model by moving the party to the centre. That might have been an effective strategy around a decade ago, but the ground has shifted and Mulcair and his advisors simply failed to notice, allowing themselves to be outflanked to the left by the Liberals.

Sure, the NDP platform was more progressive, as I’ve often heard from friends within the party, but the fact is that no one reads platforms. The NDP was so busy convincing everyone they were moderate centrists who wouldn’t run deficits that they forgot to mention the party’s long history of fighting for the exact causes which were suddenly popular, and consequently adopted (in the campaign if not in government) by the Liberals.

What happened in the last election is not as hard to decipher as some New Democrats would like us to believe: Canadians wanted to get rid of Harper, were largely agnostic about which colour to replace him with, and coalesced around the Liberals when they offered a grander vision than the NDP’s restrained budget-balancing.

The movement is what matters

Perhaps the most impressive element of DiNovo’s announcement was her expressed willingness to “happily step aside” if a stronger candidate emerged who articulated the same democratic and socialist policy vision.

It’s time to run on, and be proud of, what makes the NDP different

She feels, again correctly in my view, that the route to success for the NDP runs through their principles, not around them. The NDP missed the boat on this new wave of progressive sentiment in 2015, and next time around the party needs to consider the global context and return to its unabashedly socialist roots. Hiding the party’s light under a bushel has been tried, and it was a disaster. It’s time to run on, and be proud of, what makes the NDP different.

Will doing so guarantee victory? Of course not, and to what degree it would be a successful strategy in Canada remains to be seen. But the party is in the tank right now, hovering on the edge of single-digit support. The only space left to them on the political spectrum by a prime minister who is adept at being all things to all people is on the left. Their only play is to hope that the left can rapidly expand into the middle, as it has in the U.S., Britain and across Europe.

If the NDP repeat the errors of the Mulcair era, and select a leader who will campaign to the mushy middle, they’ll continue to get creamed by the Liberals. As Brian Topp was fond of saying in the 2012 race, if people see the NDP as a lighter shade of red, they’ll opt for the original.

DiNovo obviously agrees, and her interest in this leadership race seems less about ego and more about ensuring that this view of the party’s future finds a strong champion. If another is stronger, she’ll step aside, because the movement matters more than her career.

Damn if that isn’t a refreshing sentiment to hear from a politician.

I don’t know if DiNovo is the leader the NDP needs, among other things the caliber of her French certainly remains an open question, but I do know this: whether the party brass know it or not, she’s the candidate they desperately needed in the race at this point.

To remain relevant the NDP has to stoke the fires of the anti-inequality movement sweeping the western world here in Canada, and seek to represent that movement in parliament.

Anything less makes them a paler shade of Liberal, and that will consign them to marginality far more surely than a move to honest advocacy of democratic socialist principles.

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