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NDP Leadership race: can it magnify the movements?

November 20, 2011

Though the vote for the next leader of the NDP is not until March, the race to choose who will take over from Jack Layton after the historic “orange wave” is generating widespread interest. For socialists believing that change happens outside Parliament, the leadership race of the NDP is still an important matter, but the criteria are different. The question is not one of personality, but of ability to open up space for mass movements.

In 2003 Joe Comartin was not the most popular leadership candidate, nor did he promise the most radical platform. But he was the clearest of the leadership contenders to challenge Islamophobia and the looming war on Iraq—the key issues of the day. In that context, backing Comartin for leader opened up space for the anti-war movement and forced other leadership candidates to take the issue seriously. For Jack Layton to win the leadership race, he had to openly campaign against the Iraq War, with or without the UN, and this magnified the anti-war movement.

This year the “orange wave” catapulted the NDP into Official Opposition, as a result of events outside Parliament: the global economic crisis, anger at the Tories, disillusionment with the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, and inspiration from the Arab spring. Millions voted NDP not because of the details of their platform—which included continuing military spending—but out of a desire for a real alternative. Some of the candidates—such as aboriginal leader Romeo Saganash and 29-year old Niki Ashton—reflect the hopes of those who want the party to better represent the 99%. The question is whether a leadership candidate can open up space for mass movements to fight for this alternative.

The NDP bureaucracy is pushing in the opposite direction to accommodate to a system in crisis. The front-runner is Brian Topp, who wants to model the NDP on the British Labour Party (whose support for war and privatization allowed the Tories to return to power) and the Greek PASOK government (which is imposing brutal austerity measures). Former Liberal Thomas Mulcair is trying to sever the NDP’s connection to the labour movement, while Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar has avoided calling for troops out of Afghanistan.

Much of the left is turning to Toronto MP Peggy Nash, who has a history in the labour movement and an early supporter of the anti-war movement. If she takes a strong stand on fighting austerity, ending the war and respecting Quebec’s right to self-determination, she could provide a rallying point for progressive forces to magnify movements for a better world.

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