NDP leadership

The NDP must choose between stylish centrism and a bold transformational left

Can Niki Ashton break away from the centre and forge a new NDP?
Photo: Matt Jiggins

The NDP leadership race is about to kick into high gear with only two months to go before the first round of voting. Can Niki Ashton break away from the centre and forge a new NDP?

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Editors’ note: As the NDP leadership race heats up, Ricochet will be making space available for NDP members and supporters to argue the merits of their preferred candidates in our opinion pages. Ricochet has not taken an editorial position in favour of any candidate.

It’s been more than a year since Tom Mulcair received a vote of no confidence at the NDP federal convention. Since then, five candidates — Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, Peter Julian and Jagmeet Singh — have been battling for the leadership, with Julian withdrawing from the race this week (one other candidate, Pat Stogran, participated in one debate but dropped out almost immediately).

A recent Mainstreet poll of NDP members found Angus leading with 22.6 per cent support, followed closely by Ashton at 20.4 per cent. Singh, Caron and Julian were all in single digits in the poll, although it should be noted that such polls of party members can be less reliable than polls of the general population.

The winner of the leadership competition will get to shape what the “left” in Canada looks like, but will have to do so under significant constraints. They will inherit a party that is heavily in debt, and whose national standing has gone from commanding the official opposition to now holding just 44 seats in the house — ironically still the second best showing in the party’s history.

Who’s left?

The leadership race is hardly just a matter of choosing a new captain for the arguably sinking ship; it has become about the image of the party as a whole.

Centrist policies have sometimes won support from party members but they’ve never rallied a critical mass of voters to the NDP, as demonstrated by Mulcair’s performance as leader. Thus a vote for these candidates may help save the party by attracting new members and installing a bureaucratic placeholder to rebuild it, but it will do nothing to motivate a mass movement similar to those that have carried left-wing politicians in other countries.

This has almost reduced the leadership race to a self-validating circle of centrist policy, as if there were an implicit agreement to not step on each other’s toes.

With two months to go before the casting of the first of four ballots in the NDP’s slightly confusing ranked-ballot system, many of the candidates have yet to release their full policy platforms. This makes the ideological differentiation between the candidates lacklustre at best.

Policy matters

Of the candidates, Guy Caron and Jagmeet Singh have released the most comprehensive policy platforms although several points remain to be elaborated.

Jagmeet Singh’s position on pipelines has shifted from wanting to consult with the governments of B.C. and Alberta, as he argued for during the Newfoundland debate, to the position he staked out in a recent environmental policy release, that pipelines must be opposed due to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That policy at the same time condemns the restriction of environmental discussion to the divisiveness of pipelines, a debate he argues is being used to divide Canadians. This change in stance, although welcome, highlights a concern over his ability to deal with pressure from various stakeholders. The UNDRIP makes it clear that pipelines must be opposed as a matter of principle and indigenous rights, and why Singh didn’t take that stance until being pressured by other candidates raises some questions.

Guy Caron, on the other hand, continues to tout his commitment to basic income as a comprehensive solution to poverty. However on closer inspection, his promise of basic income represents nothing more than a government assistance top up to those with incomes below the low income cut off (LICO) line, hardly a basic income by any measure.

Although it may be a short-term solution for those most stricken by poverty, the policy fails to address the systemic issues creating such poverty now and in the future. As a solution then, further subsidies could very well jeopardize current ones and politicize any future changes to the LICO line and how it’s set.

When it comes to tax policy, both Singh and Caron have promised to increase corporate taxes to just under 20 per cent (up from 15) and fight against tax evasion and offshoring. Caron has promised to impose a wealth tax on the top 10 per cent of income earners, set at one per cent of total net worth, and Singh has promised to introduce two new tax brackets at $350,000 and $500,000 of income, with marginal rates of 35 and 37 per cent respectively. Perhaps the most notable commitment is Singh’s promise to raise capital gains taxes from 50 to 75 per cent.

For his part Angus’s tax policy revolves around introducing one additional tax bracket starting at $250,000 with a marginal rate of 36 per cent. The monies raised would be reinvested into the working income tax benefit. Additionally, and like Singh, he has promised to fight for a $15 minimum wage.

Interestingly, unlike Caron and Singh, Angus has called for a renegotiation of NAFTA. He also has the most promising policy on reconciliation, including changes in justice jurisdiction and dismantling Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, making him the first to suggest serious systemic changes.

Straight up the middle

All the candidates have placed heavy emphasis on the economy, in both their policy papers and their remarks during debates. While their suggested changes would help stem growing inequality, they hardly qualify as leftist, falling closer to the Liberal-lite centre. To understand why these candidates would choose to emulate the Liberal Party requires consideration of the broader context in which the party finds itself.

With a faltering membership, the NDP needs to revamp its image, literally. With that consideration in mind, it’s easy to see how Singh has become the presumed party favourite. A newcomer to the federal scene, Singh could have a mobilization impact for minority demographics that have previously been alienated by the NDP. In some sense, Singh has been the NDP’s response to Trudeau’s fashionable style, a strategy that has served him well so far, but the idea that emulating that style would work on a national level come 2019 is highly doubtful.

A bolder left

Among the four remaining candidates, Ashton has presented the boldest ideas, touching on both social and economic issues without feeling the need to shy away from the “divisive positions.”

Throughout the debates, Ashton has made it clear that she intends to shake up the party and she has been vocal on issues much broader than economic policy. Her talking points have covered Canada’s increasingly interventionist role through NATO and the new military budget; the negative impact that NAFTA and other trade deals have had on job creation and stability; and immigration and settlement for those on temporary working visas. Additionally, she has spoken out for peace and justice in the Middle East, in contrast to the party’s attendance at AIPAC conferences and history of blocking candidates with anti-occupation stances.

Ashton’s economic policies are also significantly more aggressive than other candidates. She is proposing to remove the capital gains exemption as a whole, to restructure tax brackets while introducing two new ones — making the top brackets start at $150,000, $202,000 and $300,000 respectively with marginal rates of 32, 35 and 38 per cent. This is higher than Singh’s maximum tax rate of 37 per cent on earnings above $500,000. These new tax brackets would be coupled with a one per cent tax for those with a net worth above one million dollars.

On the topic of benefits, Ashton is promising to double the GST/HST tax credit, to introduce preventative dental and pharmacare health coverage along with a comprehensive mental health care plan, and to eliminate tuition fees for post-secondary education.

On the business front, Ashton proposes to raise the corporate tax rate to 21 per cent for “large” corporations. She’s also proposing a Financial Activities Tax of five per cent on bank profits and bonuses, as well as a 0.5 per cent Financial Transaction Tax on the purchase of stocks in order to create more stable financial markets.

While these are all welcome proposals, Ashton’s campaign remains lacking in several areas, including an absence of clear policy statements on her social and foreign policy stances along with costed changes to benefit programs (something no candidate has provided thus far). Her campaign was once consistent in its messaging, but an increase in on-the-ground efforts has led to crossed wires, with independently organized events appearing to lack central guidance. There are a number of independent support pages for Ashton, with often widely divergent messaging from her own, and the campaign seems not to be effectively reaching out to and organizing them.

While a surge in volunteers and external support is usually a good sign, one hopes that the campaign would coordinate with these supporters and present a united front. The current strategy is resulting in mixed communication styles and a lack of a consistent and targeted outreach strategy.

Nevertheless, Ashton’s platform and her presence on the debate stage continue to be the most comprehensive and transformational. The fact that she is also the MP for a riding with the largest percentage of Indigenous peoples nationwide ensures that her presence as the leader of the NDP would be inclusive of Indigenous concerns.

Red or Blue

The case can be easily made that Ashton should be the NDP candidate of choice for those of us on the left. The policies she has suggested have the potential to make real change and are by no means wild aspirations, though conservatives will surely be quick to dismiss them as such.

On the other hand, an argument in favour of putting the NDP’s short term bureaucratic needs ahead of a transformational agenda is also a potent one. With the rise of “sock diplomacy,” a polished image seems to be a winning ticket and certainly more engaging than a comprehensive policy platform. But would the NDP be able to beat the Liberals at their own game?

The question of bureaucracy versus bold strategy is one that will be determined by NDP members in September. Those interested in having their voice heard have until August 17 to join the party and be eligible to cast a vote.

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