Over the past few years, the surging popularity of leftist politics has become impossible to ignore. The unanticipated successes of the Sanders campaign in the U.S., the Mélenchon campaign in France, and the Corbyn campaign in the U.K. have crystallized a growing support for socialist policies — each campaign galvanizing support from those who had previously been left out of the political process (particularly young and poor people). More importantly, these elections have highlighted a rejection of status quo neoliberalism.
Decades of a mainstream political landscape dominated by austerity, privatization, and corporate-centered trade deals espoused by the Clinton’s, May’s, and Macron’s of the world have left voters uninspired, resulting in historically low turnout rates and a growing distrust of the political establishment among the general public. This collapse of centrism is an opportunity for the left to reach out to an alienated working class. An opportunity that is both exciting and completely necessary considering the other side of the spectrum that stands to benefit. From Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, the terrifying wave of right wing populism has capitalized on the gradually deteriorating material conditions of the working class in order to push a reactionary, nationalist agenda. It’s a phenomenon that has seemed to gain significant traction in nearly all major western countries but Canada — not yet, anyway.
Situated conveniently right in the thick of this global context is the federal leadership race for the New Democratic Party; Canada’s social democratic party. While the NDP has clearly been paying attention to this international trend of voters rejecting centrism, the truth is they never had to look outside of their own country to recognize it. This leadership race follows a disastrous 2015 election for the NDP, in which they lost 51 of the 103 parliamentary seats they had held since 2011. In many ways, this election was similar to the 2008 U.S election — after two terms of fiscally austere conservative rule and a deepening economic uncertainty, voters were desperate for change. Heading into the election cycle, the NDP led opinion polls by impressive margins until, under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, they inexplicably ran a centrist platform and allowed Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party to brand themselves as the party of “real change” (mirroring the first Obama campaign). And, much like Obama’s Democratic Party, Trudeau’s Liberals smartly won an overwhelming majority due in large part to inspiring campaign rhetoric that would almost immediately be exposed as hollow.
After millions of Canadians voted for “real change,” Trudeau (behind the soundbites and photo ops) has delivered largely more of the same. A job-killing trade deal, a tax reformation that primarily benefits the well-off, an infrastructure privatization scheme; Trudeau has been able to quietly perpetuate neoliberal policies ironically by promising to fight for voters most afflicted by them. And he’s accomplished this fairly easily due to the NDP’s failure to provide voters with a genuine left-wing alternative.
The good news is that, in the final stretch of the NDP’s leadership race, all four candidates openly recognize this failure and are committed to reestablishing the party as the mainstream voice for the Canadian left. This leadership race is about much more than just choosing a new face of the party; it’s about seizing a historic opportunity to steer the party in a bold direction in solidarity with other global leftist movements. No candidate has better communicated this than Niki Ashton.
From the very beginning of the race, Ashton forcefully took control of the range of discourse and drove it hard left — wanting to return the NDP to its socialist roots. This includes a platform of tuition-free post-secondary education, a National Pharmacare program, curbing wealth inequality through progressive taxation, and standing against the privatization of public services. Most impressively, Ashton couples her unabashedly leftist platform with refreshingly authentic messaging that directly targets the root of economic inequality: neoliberalism.
It is necessary for the NDP to openly address in clear terms the policies that have resulted in decades of wage stagnation and job offshoring in order to appeal an increasingly anxious working class searching for answers. This kind of messaging is perhaps the most crucial step for the Canadian left moving forward — speaking directly to the concerns of voters by framing growing inequality as an issue of class conflict, and by offering popular material solutions. This will starkly separate the left from the empty platitudes of the Liberals and, more importantly, the predatory, divisive rhetoric of the populist right.
Canada’s supposed “immunity” to right-wing populism is unsustainable. Its resistance to the international trend to this point has been largely due to the fact that it hasn’t yet been subjected to an economic downturn to the severity of other western countries — namely the U.S and Greece. This clearly won’t last long. Soaring housing prices and household debt levels are just some of many rapidly emerging red flags warning that Canada could be heading toward a significant financial crisis that would worsen an already troubling wealth gap. The economic insecurity a crisis like this would present (combined with a mainstream political discourse that has increasingly been infected with xenophobic sentiments) could pave the way for a far-right populist figure to gain popularity among a Canadian electorate that has already recently rejected “traditional conservatism.”
The time is now for the NDP to build a truly leftist party that can challenge this right-wing populism when — not if — it emerges in Canada. It’s the only viable alternative in a modern political climate where centrism grows ever more unpopular as neoliberal policies continue to leave working people behind. If the Canadian left is serious in its concerns of a Donald Trump-like figure rising to power in our country, it needs to be prepared to confront the real reasons such a figure appeals to large swathes of the population, and to clearly communicate alternative solutions.