It's no calamity for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh that Nathan Cullen and Murray Rankin won't run in 2019

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      Much hay is being made in the media about so many NDP MPs not seeking reelection.

      The latest two are Nathan Culllen and Murray Rankin, who represent Skeena–Bulkley Valley and Victoria, respectively.

      Both are well-regarded by the Ottawa establishment and journalists across the country.

      So it's no surprise that their looming departures are being portrayed by mainstream commentators as a serious blow to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

      But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

      Back in 2015, I wrote a column suggesting that the NDP lost the last federal election because it overlooked a new fault line in politics: the divide between establishment voices and those who felt dealt out by people in power.

      When the federal NDP was led by Tom Mulcair, it was a cautious party, unwilling to even countenance a deficit, promote cannabis legalization, or introduce meaningful personal tax increases on high-income earners.

      That created enough room for Justin Trudeau's Liberals to outflank the NDP on the left and win a majority.

      The reality is that for many years, the federal NDP has been dogged by an attitudinal conservatism, which thankfully doesn't apply to all of its MPs.

      This Third Way mindset—a reference to Tony Blair's somewhat neoliberal Labour government in the U.K.—has held it back.

      Contrast that with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, which nearly won power after unabashedly campaigning that it was for the many, not the few. Or the American Green New Deal Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a.k.a. AOC—from New York.

      Neoliberalism has created a larger gap between renters and homeowners, young and old, and many people of colour and whites. These whites are often unaware of the privileges that come with their skin colour, unaccented English, or having Anglo-Saxon-sounding names when they apply for jobs.

      If you're white, ask yourself how often you've been randomly stopped by police on the street and asked for identification. I can guarantee you that it happens far less often than to the sons of your black or Indigenous neighbours.

      I'm not going to deny the political skills of Cullen, Rankin, and some of the other NDP MPs who are going to sit out the 2019 election. Individually, they bring genuine strengths to the table.

      But their decision not to run again also creates some political room for Singh.

      For instance, the NDP could run an Indigenous candidate in Cullen's riding of Skeena—Bulkley Valley and try to appeal to the large number of Indigenous voters who were deeply offended by Justin Trudeau's treatment of the first Indigenous justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

      Birds of a feather? Could Nathan Cullen be the heir apparent to John Horgan as NDP leader?
      Stephen Hui

      Cullen could run provincially

      I also think Rankin and Cullen are two separate cases.

      Rankin is 69 years old and like many in his generation, he has acquired a great deal of knowledge and wisdom. But perhaps he's made the right move by stepping aside to create room for someone younger rather than hanging around.

      My guess is that Rankin isn't keen to spend four years flying back and forth between Ottawa and Victoria. He won by 6,731 votes over the Green candidate in 2015, with the Liberals much farther behind.

      The Greens are on the move in Victoria. Leader Elizabeth May's riding is next door to Rankin's. B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver is a Victoria-area MLA. And to be frank, Rankin is also pretty green.

      I'm sure he would be fine with either a New Democrat or a progressive Green winning in Victoria later this year. It's not essential that he stay in politics. The seat will never go Liberal or Conservative.

      Cullen is a different story altogether. He's 46 years old and what I call a "Joel Solomon New Democrat". Cullen was supported by former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson's political machine when he ran for party leader.

      There's a chance of a racist backlash against Singh in Cullen's riding of Skeena–Bulkley Valley, which was Reform Party territory in the 1990s. 

      The riding also has one of the highest percentages of Aboriginal people in the country, which helped Cullen retain the seat for 15 years. But there's no guarantee that he was going to hold his seat with Singh as leader, notwithstanding his large margins of victory in recent elections.

      But an Indigeous candidate might help increase turnout in Indigenous communities. Imagine, for example, if Grand Chief Stewart Phillip were to carry the party banner there. Or Dene lawyer and environmental activist Caleb Behn. That would certainly go a distance toward rebranding the NDP.

      Keep in mind that Cullen is more business-friendly and less beholden to unions than many New Democrats. In the 2012 leadership race, he wanted the NDP to work far more closely with the Greens and Liberals to kick out the Conservatives, even suggesting joint nomination meetings.

      He's not the type of New Democrat to take a hard swing to the left. But that's where the current political winds could be blowing the party in the wake of the success of the Green New Deal Democrats south of the border, as exemplified by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez in New York.

      The new face of the left in North America is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

      It's also hard to imagine Cullen feeling very comfortable in the same caucus as Svend Robinson, who's seeking to make a political comeback this year as the NDP candidate in Burnaby North–Seymour. If Robinson wins, he will become one of the major public faces of the NDP in the next term.

      It's conceivable that Cullen may be sitting out this election to see if Jagmeet Singh falls flat on his face, and then if does, return to seek the leadership. Or he might run provincially with the New Democrats, who desperately need MLAs outside of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

      The latter is a better bet. It would make Cullen a frontrunner in any race to succeed John Horgan as provincial party leader because he would be able to lock up the support of many constituencies in the 250 area code.

      Cullen could then count on the backing of the environmental movement to win over other constituencies in a leadership race.

      The reality is that Horgan never really aspired to be premier. He stepped forward to take the job somewhat reluctantly after Adrian Dix flamed out in the 2013 provincial election. Horgan might be happy to step down as premier after two terms.

      Horgan and his chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, would view Cullen as a useful tool to help blunt Weaver and the Greens because Cullen has been very green over the years. And this could help offset criticism of Horgan's support for liquefied natural gas projects and the $10.7-billion Site C hydroelectric dam along the Peace River.

      The Labour Party did exceptionally well in 2017 by appealing to those who felt dealt out by the establishment.

      Opportunity knocks for Jagmeet Singh

      So what does all of this mean for the federal New Democrats under Singh?

      The departure of these veterans clears the way for new blood to come in and redefine the party in the eyes of younger voters.

      Singh can attract more younger candidates of colour. They can learn from progressive NDP veterans—like Don Davies, Niki Ashton, Peter Julian, Jenny Kwan, Charlie Angus, and even Svend Robinson—who've been less afraid to shake up the status quo than some of their federal NDP colleagues.

      It's time for the NDP to stop pandering to the establishment in the Ottawa press gallery and start firing on all cylinders in communities. Singh already did this in Burnaby South, reportedly knocking on 30,000 doors during his recent by-election campaign.

      The federal New Democrats have a tremendous opportunity to forge a rainbow coalition that takes a harder line against privilege, racial profiling by the authorities, and the rigged game of politics that benefits the establishment.

      Many Canadians feel that corporations like SNC-Lavalin and Kinder Morgan receive special treatment when they need a favour from the prime minister's office. The current crop of NDP politicians in Ottawa, with a few exceptions, has not hammered that message home as aggressively as they could have.

      As a group, they've been too reasonable and too establishment-friendly, even in the face of a growing gap between rich and poor.

      The federal NDP has been slow to roll out innovative new ideas, like the Green New Deal, which would be funded with much higher taxes on the rich. It's looked upon the Leap Manifesto as something to fear rather than an idea worth embracing.

      Over the years, some federal New Democrats also haven't seemed overly bothered by bloated CEO pay. They need to show some anger over this on the campaign trail.

      How dare the CEO of General Motors, who made US$22 million in 2017, shut down a plant in Oshawa?

      The NDP also hasn't brought forth imaginative policies to address the hollowing out of communities created by U.S.-based online shopping behemoths like Amazon, Wayfair, and others.

      In doing this, the NDP might find that it will resonate more strongly with small businesses that are in the fight of their lives for survival against the the world's richest CEO, Jeff Bezos.

      To hell with kissing his ass like all those Conservatives, Liberals, and provincial New Democrats do.

      I give Charlie Angus credit. He fought the good fight for net neutrality when he was his party's communications critic. Another MP, Don Davies, has been a bulldog in pushing for more dramatic action to address the opioid crisis. The NDP needs to do more of this type of work.

      But still, the NDP hasn't even taken on the neoliberal think tanks, which have so much influence over the media and the Liberals and Conservatives. Why not propose legislation that shines more transparency over who's funding their "research"? 

      When these commentaries by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute or the Fraser Institute appear in national newspapers, why not require a tagline that says this article has been financed by the Weston family or the Koch Brothers or the Irving family? Let's shine more light on who's really employing these right-wing "policy experts" who advance the neoliberal agenda.

      Then there's housing. Singh made it a cornerstone of his recent by-election campaign in Burnaby South and won easily. This message can be replicated in urban and suburban ridings across the country to great effect.

      All is not lost for the federal New Democrats under Jagmeet Singh. Far from it.

      The Reform Party came out of nowhere in 1993 to nearly become the Official Opposition by advancing a hardline anti-establishment line, albeit from the right.

      An opportunity exists in this election for a more anti-establishment NDP to achieve similar or even better results by campaigning from the left and not worrying so much about the Ottawa press gallery. Most of them are establishment types employed by the beneficiaries of neoliberalism.

      Lots of Canadians are pro-immigrant, pro-tax reform, and pro-medicare, even if their national media regularly suggests otherwise.

      U.S. senator Bernie Sanders called for a political revolution in 2016 and very nearly won the presidency.

      There's a lesson in all of this for Jagmeet Singh and anyone else who carries his party's banner into the 2019 election.