Jagmeet Singh has become the eighth leader of the federal New Democratic Party and the first non-white leader of a major federal party in Canadian history. While the conventional wisdom was that Singh could expect a decent lead on the first ballot — and perhaps a challenge from Charlie Angus on subsequent ballots — he easily took the contest on the first ballot, with more than double the support of the second-placed Angus.
But what went relatively unnoticed, not just yesterday, but across this entire contest according to writer Nora Loreto, was the strong performance and influence of Niki Ashton — her presence, policies, and general effort to pull the contest leftward. Ashton finished a very strong third, nearly matching Angus’ support, and earned the backing of more than a sixth of voters.
On her presence alone, as a young woman running for a major party’s leadership while pregnant with twins, Ashton has continued blazing a trail of women in politics who have dealt with the formal and informal inequalities that surround child-rearing. One can’t and shouldn’t reduce Ashton’s campaign to her pregnancy, but neither can we quarantine it from “serious” policy discussions. Indeed, Ashton’s platform included an ambitious policy suite to deal with the multitude of issues surrounding childcare in Canada.
Going beyond the promises made in the 2015 federal NDP campaign, Ashton pledged the eventual elimination of fees for childcare, essentially declaring that early childhood education should be no less accessible than K-12 education and that only through such an approach could we ensure that women achieve equality and families obtain the support they need.
Echoes of Corbyn and Sanders
Beyond childcare, Ashton offered at least a partial return to the democratic socialist policies of former NDP leaders like Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, and Ed Broadbent. Specifically, her platform attacked the inequities in our tax system around welfare transfers and capital gains, questioned the notion that young people must come to embrace precarity, pushed back against the assertion that post-secondary education is a personal rather than a collective investment, and championed the idea that for Canada to be a democratic society Canadians must in a substantive sense control their economy.
At times, she echoed the general spirit of left leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. While many of us would have loved to see more specifics from Ashton on her roadmap to democratize the economy through a combination of public and cooperative ownership, she brought democratic socialist ideals back to the NDP’s mainstage, even after the 2013 debacle that removed from the NDP constitution a commitment to the socialist principles of social ownership, production for use, and abolition of poverty.
Left should not be ignored
On issues such as intergenerational justice, fair taxation, universal access to education, building ties to activist communities, and fighting for justice in Palestine, Ashton changed the game. This isn’t to say that the efforts of Singh to move leftward, in a way Tom Mulcair and Jack Layton failed to do, were cynical. But it is to say that without Ashton hammering on these concepts before and during her campaign, they would not have had the same mainstream prominence within the party’s debates and discussions.
Looking forward, Singh would be wise to offer a friendly hand to his three competitors, and it appeared from his victory speech that he’s preparing to do just that. Most newly-minted leaders work to include challengers in their circle, but this is especially vital for Singh who — due to his lack of a seat in Parliament — needs loyal and hardworking caucus leaders ready to implement his vision inside the House while he is building the party outside. This of course applies to both Angus and Guy Caron, but it relates specifically to Ashton’s success in representing the policies and hopes of the party’s left wing. Simply put, Ashton and her notable left base cannot and should not be ignored as the party builds its organizational and ideological infrastructure towards 2019.
Singh is a bright man, and has clearly assembled a world-class team of leaders ready to organize for victory. But they have to heed the lessons of the 2013 preamble change and the 2015 election. Ensuring that Ashton’s policies are incorporated into Singh’s broad vision is an essential step in offering to Canadians a platform that is loyal to the CCF-NDP’s venerable history, and can’t be mistaken for whatever the Trudeau Liberals promise in 2019.
Singh didn’t just win on Sunday — he scored a decisive triumph. So while this gives him a rock-solid mandate going forward, I know he is of the mindset that politics is a team sport. In my view, Ashton’s democratic socialist politics are essential to getting the NDP into the end zone.
Christo Aivalis is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is being published with UBC Press in early 2018. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, This Magazine, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.