Confounding the polls, Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh won a commanding first ballot victory in the 2017 NDP leadership race. He gained 35,266 votes, 53.8% of the total, compared with 12,705 (19.4%) for Charlie Angus, 11,374 (17.4%) for Niki Ashton, and 6,164 (9.4%) for Guy Caron. This is a disappointing result for the left who had hoped that a Niki Ashton victory would represent a continuation of the international Corbyn/Sanders movement in Canada. What does the victory of Singh mean going forward?
The NDP leadership race was kicked off in 2016 after 52% of NDP delegates voted no confidence in previous party leader Tom Mulcair. This occurred after the party suffered a drubbing in the 2015 elections when Mulcair ran a middle-of-the-road campaign, which many characterized as being to the right of the Trudeau Liberals. The international context also played a significant role in the rejection of Mulcair and the leadership election. The movements sparked off by Bernie Sanders in the USA, and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, were a constant point of reference and had an impact on all of the campaigns.
The leadership campaign that most closely expressed the sentiments of the international anti-austerity movement was that of Niki Ashton. The 35 year old MP said that she was a proud socialist, called for free education, extension of public ownership, and reached out to social movement activists including the Marxists of Fightback. Ashton was able to generate a good amount of energy and enthusiasm around her program, but a mass movement as seen in Britain and the US did not materialize. How do we explain this?
It is important to realize that not only the left learns from history. In Britain the Blairite apparatchiks at the top of the Labour Party continued completely oblivious to how much they were hated, and how out of touch they were with what people wanted. The party tops in the NDP viewed the enthusiasm around Corbyn and Sanders and decided that it was better to reform from above in order to head off a revolution from below. In this context none of the leadership candidates defended the politics of the Blairite right-wing, and nobody could be considered a Mulcair continuity candidate. All rejected austerity, and all proposed progressive taxation and wealth redistribution. This muddied the waters in the leadership debates which blunted the sharp contrasts seen in Britain and the US.
Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Jagmeet Singh was clearly the favoured candidate of the party establishment. The bourgeois media, especially the pro-Liberal Toronto Star, dedicated many column inches to promoting a Singh leadership. As deputy leader of the Ontario NDP he was silent during all the compromises under Andrea Horwath. However the bureaucracy was clearly not monolithic in its preference as a large number of prominent party figures came out for last place finisher Guy Caron and his plan for a guaranteed minimum income.
That being said, it is wrong to view Singh as a right-wing Blairite. His platform contained many points considerably to the left of NDP orthodoxy for the last 20 years. He proposes a number of measures such as increasing corporation tax from 15% to 19.5%, a 40% estate tax on assets above $4-million, and two new tax brackets above $350,000 and $500,000. Under pressure from Ashton he also came out against oil pipelines that are being forced through Indigenous communities, and expressed verbal support for free education.
Jagmeet Singh, a practicing Sikh whose parents were born in India, is notably the first non-white leader of a major political party in Canada. In and of itself this fact does not change much, as seen by the victory of Obama in the US. However, Singh has made a specific priority of raising the fight against racism, opposing “anti-terror” legislation that targets immigrants, and banning police carding linked to racial profiling. He also came out in favour of the immediate decriminalization of personal possession offenses for all drugs. He could potentially play a progressive role linking communities that are the target of racism with Canada’s labour party.
One of the reasons why the Singh victory was so decisive was his far superior level of on-the-ground organization. His campaign boasted signing up 47,000 new members, and looking at the final results it appears likely that his get-out-the-vote mechanism was far superior to the other campaigns. There have been some racist undertones in the criticism of his campaign’s mass sign ups amongst Sikh communities in the Toronto and Vancouver suburbs. However, it is a good thing that new communities are brought into the party. It is beholden on the new NDP leader to integrate the new members and energy going forward. The best way to do this is via socialist policies that can combat racism and the precarious conditions that many in these communities face.
Ashton is to be commended for pushing the entire leadership debate to the left. Some of the reasons why she was not able to spark off a mass movement are to be found in the objective situation. Canada is not facing the same political and economic context as Britain, the US, and many European countries. The 2008-2009 slump was less severe in Canada, and the subsequent austerity was milder than in other countries. While there was significant anger in British and American society, which Corbyn and Sanders tapped into, there are still significant illusions in the Trudeau Liberals in Canada. However, Canada could catch up with these countries very quickly. The next global recession will likely hit Canada very hard, given low oil, high personal debt, and the housing bubble. Mass opinion can radicalize far more rapidly than people expect.
In this context it is vital that those politicized by the Ashton leadership campaign do not lose hope and drop out of the movement. Conditions can change, and this leadership campaign has provided a great platform for the future growth of socialist politics in the party. It is also vital that people do not descend into the mindless “follow-the-leader” politics that have typified the NDP over the last period. Singh credited Ashton in his victory speech for raising free education, but only a critical movement from below can keep him to this commitment. Fightback activists have been consistent fighters for free education since our founding and we encourage all “Ashtonistas” to join us in fighting for such socialist demands. Ashton can also play a founding role in organizing an explicitly socialist wing within the party to keep up the leftward pressure on the leadership and preparing for the future.
Canada may be a very different place by the time of the 2019 election. It would be wrong to write off the NDP. Even under a Singh leadership the party could become a point of attraction. The NDP establishment has managed to keep control of the leadership, but at the cost of moving the party to the left. Singh is essentially an opportunist who has shown himself to bend to pressure. This can be from the right wing bureaucracy or the left wing base – as seen with pipelines and free education. Without pressure from below the tendency would be for the party machine to predominate.
In the short term it seems likely that the main avenue of the class struggle in Canada will be outside the NDP. But sooner or later the inability of capitalism to solve the problems of workers and youth will force millions to fight back. The ideas of revolutionary socialism will come forward as the most consistent alternative to the crisis of the status quo. It is essential that we build and educate today, so that we can organize the thousands who will come to revolutionary conclusions tomorrow.