The deadline to join the NDP in time to vote in the upcoming leadership election is August 17. Before the window closes on this crucial phase of the campaign, I want to let my friends and family know who I’m supporting and why, and to invite everyone who is eligible to sign up for the party and join me in supporting that candidate too. Just to cut the suspense, I’m supporting Jagmeet Singh. But before I explain why, I’m going to take stock of the other candidates, all of whom have considerable merit.
During this campaign, Niki Ashton has powerfully articulated the message that the NDP must preserve and strengthen its identity as a party of the left, embracing traditional social democratic policies such as expansion of the universal welfare state and a major role for socially owned enterprise in economic development. Beyond the specific policies it contains, her platform also demonstrates keen insight into the scale and diversity of the injustices and other problems facing Canada today. And as a campaigner, Ashton has clearly come a long way since the previous leadership contest.
Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that Ashton is in some sense fighting the 2012 leadership campaign all over again. In that election, Ashton was the only one to depart significantly from the moderate policy consensus among the other candidates and offer an openly socialist platform that made few concessions to conventional wisdom about the requirements of electability. But this time around, Ashton’s view that the NDP must provide a strong left-wing alternative does not distinguish her from the other candidates, all of whom have assembled impressive packages of progressive policy. This has not stopped her campaign from leaning heavily on the message that Ashton has a special claim to represent a progressive direction for the party. The effect is bewildering; it’s as though Ashton is paying no attention to the circumstances of the contest or the content of the other candidate’s campaigns. This does not bode well for Ashton’s prospects as leader of a campaign in a general election.
Ashton’s ability to lead effectively is also called into question by her failure to attract significant support from the party’s elected officeholders, despite having been an MP for nine years. Members of the federal caucus must work closely with and under the direction of the party leader, and their prospects for re-election depend on the leader’s ability more than any other single factor. This gives members of caucus a greater stake in the outcome of the race than almost anyone else, and their familiarity with the requirements of the job gives them unique insight into relative merits of the various candidates. While support from caucus is not a decisive factor, her shortcomings in this respect do contribute to my reluctance to support Ashton’s candidacy.
Finally, I am skeptical of Ashton’s interest in growing the party. Thus far, her appeal has been directed narrowly at people who identify strongly with the political left and are predisposed to support her platform. Identifying and mobilizing current supporters is an important part of a winning electoral strategy. But it cannot be the whole of a winning electoral strategy. People who do not thrill to the mention of socialism and are skeptical of certain policies must be brought on board. Ashton’s failure to reach out and broaden her message is the single most worrisome aspect of her campaign thus far. Taking all of these issues into consideration, I cannot support Ashton’s bid for leadership.
Of the four candidates still in the race, Charlie Angus is the longest-serving MP, having first been elected to office in 2004. His record in parliamentary politics reflects deep convictions nurtured by his roots in the Catholic Worker movement; his tenure has been especially noteworthy for his tireless advocacy for First Nations. Angus has a reputation as an excellent constituency MP, but he does not hide from the responsibility to exercise his own judgment in deciding how to cast his vote in the House. Among people who were members of the party before the start of the campaign, Angus is believed to have the highest level of support, and not without reason; he’s has been around for a long time, and he’s earned a lot of trust.
Considering Angus’s relatively long career in Parliament, however, it strikes me as worrisome that he has been able to attract so little support from his colleagues; Angus has the endorsement of only one current MP. Moreover, his platform has not left much of an impression. Angus would be my third choice for leader, more because his campaign has not given me any reason to rank him higher than because of any glaring defects.
Guy Caron has been the breakout star of this campaign. Like many people, I suppose, I was completely unaware of Caron before he declared that he was entering the race with introduction of a universal basic income as his flagship policy. He immediately made an impression on me as a charming, compassionate and intelligent person with an exciting policy agenda, which was lent extra credibility by his background in economics. Caron’s early entry into the contest helped set a high standard that other candidates’ policies would be expected to meet. But as the campaign has proceeded, Caron has shown that he’s not just a wonk; he has thrown himself into the work of organizing and carrying his message to people across the country, with special attention to neglected rural communities.
Considering his relatively low profile prior to launching his leadership bid, Caron’s difficulty in attracting support from politicians at other levels of government is not surprising, and it makes what success he has achieved in this regard (comparable to Ashton’s) all the more impressive. Despite some minor misgivings (particularly regarding his criticism of Jagmeet’s Singh’s proposed reforms to OAS), I would be happy to see Caron win, and if he doesn’t, I hope to see much more of him in national politics in the years ahead. Overall, Caron would be my second choice.
My first choice for leader is Jagmeet Singh. Singh was hyped as a possible candidate long before he entered the race, but I was skeptical that he’d step forward. Ontario will have a general election in the not too distant future; if the NDP won, Singh would be a shoo-in for a senior cabinet post, and if the NDP lost, Singh would be a shoo-in to replace Andrea Horwath. Staying put in provincial politics seemed like a better bet. Obviously, however, Singh did enter the race, and despite a shaky start, I think he’s more than lived up to expectations.
On the policy front, Singh has impressed me most with his commitment to building on proven antipoverty programs, including expansion of the Working Income Tax Benefit and increased benefits for low- and middle-income seniors and persons with disabilities. Transfers are the single most effective tool for cutting poverty and inequality, but with the exception of Caron, the other candidates have mostly neglected this option. Singh’s transfer programs have the edge over Caron’s, in my view, because they are phased out more gently. Caron’s basic income is only available to persons whose income falls below the Low Income Cut-off (LICO, a regional poverty measure defined by Statistics Canada). For every dollar earned above the LICO, the basic income payment is reduced by a dollar. In other words, people who fall below the LICO face a marginal tax rate of 100% on all employment income. A policy that imposes the highest taxes on those with the lowest incomes in the name of fighting poverty is perverse. It is also likely to discourage people from seeking paid employment. Singh’s transfer programs, on the other hand, are designed to be phased out gently. Under the new Working Canadian Guarantee, for example, full-time minimum wage earners will still have their incomes topped up.
Aside from paying for transfer programs, taxes can also help fight poverty and inequality directly. Singh has committed to a more progressive income tax system, higher taxes on capital gains, a new estate tax, an end to tax exemptions for expensive perks, and a new Royal Commission on tax fairness to recommend further reforms. These policies would reduce inequality by “levelling down” the top end of the distribution. But as Emmanuel Saez has argued, higher taxes on top earners weaken their bargaining power relative to lower earners and shareholders, encouraging downward redistribution and investment. The same measures that “level down” those at the top can also “level up” those at the bottom. There’s more to Singh’s platform than taxes and transfers, of course. But I think his policies in this area are representative of the thoughtfulness that pervades his entire agenda.
As noted above, it takes more than good policy to make a good leader. You also need the confidence of your colleagues. And Singh has this in spades. Compared to the other candidates, he has attracted the most support by far from New Democrats in provincial legislatures and the House of Commons.
A prospective leader should also be capable of growing the party in terms of both membership and electoral support. It goes without saying that the NDP cannot form government without dramatically increasing its share of the vote, and it can’t achieve this without the support of a huge number of volunteers. Generating enthusiasm among current members is important, but it’s not enough; we need to attract new members too. The historic winning coalition Singh built in Brampton — and his re-election with an increased plurality — speaks to his ability to draw support from beyond the ranks of party diehards. As Tom Parkin’s account of Singh’s advocacy for the reformed Ontario sex education curriculum demonstrates, Singh is ready and willing to step out of his comfort zone and make a sincere appeal even to an unfriendly audience. This is an indispensable quality for the next leader of the NDP.
So far, this race has made me feel excited and optimistic about the future of the party. No doubt this is partly because as long as the leadership contest is going on, the media and the public are paying an unusual amount of attention to the left-wing alternative. But this won’t last. The balloting will end, a winner will be named, and the left will no longer be able to count on the public’s attention. We need a leader who will make people take notice when we can’t just assume that people will take notice. We need a leader who can win the confidence of the country, not just the party. Jagmeet Singh is that leader.
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