When New Democrats choose their new leader on Saturday (March 24), it will be about more than just anointing a successor to Jack Layton. They’ll also be choosing the kind of NDP they want.
But defining the NDP may be as complicated as defining Layton’s legacy itself. It’s also the same legacy for which each of the seven aspirants professes to be the rightful heir.
These are questions that matter to the party’s grassroots thinkers, like Stephen Elliott-Buckley of Vancouver.
“It’s hard to really get a sense of what was Jack and what was the party,” Elliott-Buckley told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They’re very much intertwined, but it’s hard to know how much of it was him and how much of it was the whole movement.”
According to Elliott-Buckley, the NDP didn’t have enough time before Layton died to figure out how and why the party was catapulted for the first time in its history to the status of Official Opposition in last year’s federal election.
“With Jack Layton dying, there’s a necessity to define where we want to go,” Elliott-Buckley said. “And I think there’s lots of different visions from the different leaders. And how we define ourselves as a party has to link in to how we define ourselves as a movement across Canada, not just how many MPs we have in the House.”
According to James Lawson, a political-science professor at the University of Victoria, there are many facets to Layton’s legacy. There’s his genuine connection to various social movements. There’s that set of personal deal-making skills that he took to a high level. There’s the breakthrough in Quebec last year, with 59 NDP MPs from that province making up more than half of the party’s 103-seat haul.
“It would be wrong, for instance, to see the part of him that is pragmatic in how you present social democracy or whatever it is the NDP wants to see itself as,” Lawson told the Straight in a phone interview. “It would be wrong to see that pragmatic side of him as the whole story, because he’s not just about pulling the party to the centre. The social-movement side to his experience, the grassroots-movement side would belie that. Those ties continued throughout his time.”
So where is the NDP now? “That is a question that can’t be solved by observers,” Lawson said. “It’s actually something that’s being resolved in the course of this leadership campaign.”
However, Lawson noted that there are leadership candidates like Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar who “want to pull it further towards egalitarianism, an active state, pro-labour union, pro-worker, all those sorts of classical things that you’d associate with the NDP. And that includes environmentalism.”
And then there are those who want to “finesse things and really finish off the Liberals”, according to the UVic professor. Holding on to Quebec is key to this, and leadership aspirants Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair are deeply connected to this project.
Leadership hopeful Nathan Cullen—who is Elliott-Buckley’s choice for leader—wants the NDP to establish some form of electoral cooperation with other federalist parties to defeat the Conservatives. Lawson doesn’t regard this position as a move to
A group within the party, which calls itself the NDP Socialist Caucus, has endorsed Niki Ashton for leader. Another candidate, Martin Singh, describes himself as a “pro-business member of the NDP”.
Mulcair likes to tell a story about being told by a party activist that if New Democrats form government the next time around, it will mean that the NDP has completely sold out.
For now or at least until a new leader steers the party in another direction, the faithful should be reassured by what UBC political-science professor Richard Johnston thinks of the NDP.
“The NDP is pretty squarely on the left, and there are parts of each appeal that we tend to forget about,” Johnston told the Straight by phone. “It is a labour party for one thing…like parties called Labour or Social Democrats in other countries. It never has been a party that in the past at least has felt the need to cover the middle.”