Nine candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to replace Jack Layton. Robert Chisholm, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash, Romeo Saganash, Brian Topp, Martin Singh, and Niki Ashton are all in the race. This large field presents a challenge to workers and youth who look to the party when trying to decide how to cast their ballot. In this article, we will try to go over the candidates to help inform that choice and point a way forward for the NDP.

The corporate media have been falling over themselves to promote Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp as the supposed front-runners, even before all the other candidates had declared. However, it is far too early to make any such statement; moreover, there is a strong degree of ideological influence in their so-called commentary. The reality is that the NDP’s breakthrough in the last federal election caught the pundits completely by surprise. They neither predicted nor understood any of the developments that led to the collapse of the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois, and the rise of the NDP. Since then the journalistic coverage of the party has been superficial, at best. First of all, they declared that the NDP had a “ceiling” of about 20% support. Then, after the election, they stated that the NDP was supposedly “above their ceiling”, without the hint of understanding that this statement negates the very concept of ceilings! Now, they continue with the mantra that the NDP must move to the “centre” (in other words, the right) “as that is where the votes are”. This is despite the fact that the traditional party of the “centre”, the Liberals, was resolutely rejected in the last election. No, there is very little insight coming from the corporate press when it comes to understanding the dynamics within the NDP.

Let’s first look at the anointed “frontrunners”, Topp and Mulcair. Brian Topp came out of the gate with almost indecent haste and mustered a formidable array of party establishment figures behind him. Topp started with Ed Broadbent’s support, then proceeded to secure figures from the right of the party such as former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow and discredited former BC NDP leader Carole James. He then received the support of Libby Davies, the most prominently “left” MP, who was probably playing the old mistaken realpolitik of supporting the frontrunner in exchange for supposed freedom of movement down the road. Let us not forget that while Davies supported Layton for the federal leadership when he was an outsider, she also supported the BC NDP’s Carole James, who tried to cut the link with the unions, and even supported Ujjal Dosanjh, who eventually jumped ship to the Liberals! Nobody, probably not even Topp, can deny that he is the candidate of the party’s bureaucratic establishment —  although it is possible that he is regretting this label given the anti-establishment tendencies in the party rank-and-file.

The unelected, and mostly unheard of, back-room boy Brian Topp appeared to leapfrog the previous favourite, Thomas Mulcair. Rumours were circulated about how the NDP’s Quebec lieutenant was supposedly not a team player and had a terrible temper, etc. Somehow Mulcair had fallen out with the inner bureaucracy, which proceeded to sharpen the knives of the gossip mill. The rumours of Mulcair’s temper are likely true, but for this to be the main argument to base the decision around who should lead the parliamentary opposition just shows the petty personality politics that have come to dominate the top levels of the party establishment. For a socialist, politics and policy are primary — personality is merely a vehicle to present the issues that matter to the life of working class people.

When we look at the politics of Topp and Mulcair we do see differences, but both within the right of the party. Topp represents the opportunist bureaucracy that is willing to make alliances with the Liberals if they see the immediate benefit in terms of seats around a cabinet table and a larger office. Mulcair, on the other hand, represents the more ideological “Blairite” right-wing that wants to break the union link and, in essence, become Liberals. Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal, has gone out of his way to say he will not be “beholden” to the unions. It seems likely that in the event of a Mulcair victory, there would be a renewed attempt to break the link between the unions and the NDP. At his campaign launch, he was introduced by noted Blairites, Dominic Cardy from the New Brunswick NDP, and previously failed leadership candidate Lorne Nystrom. However, while Topp has the support of the United Steelworkers union and is the director of ACTRA (the union representing actors), he may well end up down the same path as Mulcair.

In a July 1st opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Topp wrote a surprisingly honest piece in support of then-Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. Calling him “a quietly inspiring figure”, Topp praised Papandreou’s “patriotic decisions to save [his] country.” Papandreou presided over the largest cuts and attacks on workers in Greek history — attacks not only of an economic kind but also severely limiting the democratic right of Greek unions to represent their members. This has not saved the country or stopped the inevitable default; instead, it has led to the discrediting of the social democracy, and has led to the far-right LAOS party’s entry into government. This is a warning to the future role the NDP establishment sees itself playing. They are desperately trying to present themselves as “good stewards” of capitalism, better than the Conservatives, when in fact it is the system itself that is fundamentally flawed. Inevitably they will be presented with the question: are you with the bosses (like Papendreou or Bob Rae), or are you with the workers fighting the austerity. The Greek bosses never trusted Papendreou, but they were happy to use him before throwing him aside; Topp appears to be auditioning for the same sad role.

Paul Dewar has yet to say anything that differentiates himself from Topp and Mulcair, and his limited French hampers him. However, as foreign affairs critic, he notably supported Canada’s imperialist intervention in Libya and distanced the NDP from its previous policy of taking Canada out of NATO and opposition to NAFTA. Nathan Cullen, on the other hand, has presented a genuinely new idea; unfortunately it is a terrible proposal for the NDP, Liberals, and Greens to hold joint nomination battles in Conservative-held ridings. This non-compete offer is merely the thin edge of the wedge to the eventual unification of the Liberals and NDP. It would be a disaster electorally, and promote the breaking of the union link and any commitment to socialism. Mulcair has this right-wing constituency sowed up so it is likely that Cullen, who appeared to be courting the soft-left greeny vote, will now go nowhere. Chisholm, Saganash, and Singh are likely to be also-rans.

There are two candidates that may represent a leftward turn for the party — however we have to strongly emphasize the word “may”. Former Canadian Autoworkers’ union negotiator Peggy Nash opened her campaign with the following lines supporting the Occupy movement:

“What an interesting time we’re living in.  On one hand everywhere we look we see precariousness instability, volatile change. Europe’s finances.  The American debt ceiling.  Humanitarian crises in Africa.  Here at home, small businesses are struggling, people are losing their jobs, and personal debt is higher than at any point in Canadian history.

“But on the other hand there’s all the hope, the energy, the appetite for reform, for engagement.  The Arab Spring spreads to Wall Street spreads to St. James Park here in Toronto and communities across the country.

“I’ve spoken to those gathered at St. James Park.  Their commitment is inspiring. Theirs are not vague and unfocused concerns.  They arise from very real crises that every one of us is facing.  Crises of social injustice, of wild inequality.  Crises of the ninety nine percent versus the one percent.

“This is a critical moment.  The choices we make matter.  The nature and quality of our leadership matters.  It could not matter more.”

This is encouraging, and Nash has been supportive of maintaining the union link and having a more activist orientation for the party. However, as yet there are very few details about her campaign and Nash has been wary of being labeled the “left” candidate.

The other candidate with potential is 29-year-old Manitoba MP Niki Ashton. Ashton has been a participant in the Occupy movement since the beginning, was supportive of the efforts to retain socialism in the NDP’s constitution, and has been the main opponent in Parliament to the Conservatives’ attempts to remove the Wheat Board. In her opening speech, Niki made numerous references to being in support of “New Politics” that works to bring people together as opposed to the divisive politics of the Conservatives. However, there are still few details, and branding yourself as “new” really is not very new.

We doubt that Ashton means this, but we shouldn’t forget that Tony Blair came to power under the slogan of new Labour. Even the idea of division could be presented in two different ways. If it means opposition to the Conservatives’ divide-and-rule tactics, then of course that is progressive. Workers need to identify the common enemy and forge class unity to promote the interests of all the oppressed. However, there are real divisions in society — class divisions — and any attempt to hide this reality merely aids the ruling layers. The power of the Occupy movement lies in identifying the division between the 1% and the rest of us. The right wing in social democracy has always promoted the idea that “we need to represent all Canadians” as an excuse for forgetting the demands of workers, youth, women, and immigrants while siding with the bankers and bosses.

All the above underlines the need for clarity from the leadership candidates. Ironically, from the perspective of clear policies presented, currently the most left-wing candidate is establishment darling Brian Topp who came out for taxing the rich. If Peggy Nash or Niki Ashton want to win this race and genuinely build an activist NDP, they need to adopt clear socialist policies that can enthuse people and build momentum around their campaigns. The longer they wait to do this, the more they temporize, the weaker will be their support.

A socialist leadership candidate that wanted to make real change for working people would start their campaign by identifying that capitalism is a failed system that cannot provide jobs or homes or an education for working class people. The current capitalist crisis is not an “accident” but a logical outcome of the system. Working people played no role in causing the crisis and therefore should not be forced to pay for it through austerity. Supporting workers’ resistance to austerity is the number one priority for anybody who wishes to improve conditions for the mass of the population.

Key reforms that would promote a socialist campaign could be:

  • Free education
  • A massive program to build public housing and end the housing crisis
  • Universal childcare
  • Free public transit
  • A plan to end unemployment by reducing the working week at no loss of pay, while investing in public services employing workers at union rates of pay.

The money exists to fund these reforms — the money is on Bay Street with the top 1%. For example, the cost of the first demand, “Free Education”, is less than the total given to Bay Street executives in bonuses in 2010. We don’t believe they deserve a cent in bonuses while they ruin the economy and attack workers and youth.

Within the NDP, a socialist candidate would disavow any talk of mergers, coalitions, non-compete pacts, or other deals with the Liberals. The Canadian people rejected this party for good reason. It was the party of the Afghan war, the party of massive corporate tax cuts, the party of the biggest austerity in Canadian history to date.

Finally, we need a candidate that will stand up and defend socialism within the NDP and oppose any attempt to water down the party’s constitution. Some may say that you can never win on this basis; we wholeheartedly disagree. We were very critical of the last ONDP election platform, but before she was swallowed up by the party machine, we shouldn’t forget that Andrea Horwath originally won the Ontario NDP leadership by saying, “We New Democrats won’t check our socialism at the door when it comes to building a better future.” To beat the right wing, you have to adopt clear ideas that will actually enthuse people and build a movement. Anybody who wants to win over the youth needs to bear this in mind. The NDP stands at a crossroads during this leadership race. Either it will turn right and face the same fate as the Greek PASOK or Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP. Or, it will turn to join the workers fighting against austerity and prepare a mass movement to end the crisis of capitalism.