Jagmeet is the new Jack

The New Democratic Party’s frontrunner’s possibilities and limitations

The thing about which I most strongly disagree with most of my friends and colleagues in the New Democratic Party is the idea that the #1 goal for the NDP is to win a majority in the next election, or the one after that.

For me, the opposite is true; winning a majority under the current political conditions would mean one of two things. One, that the party had watered down its platform and made sufficient alliances with the ruling class that it was seen as a competent manager of the extractivist, militaristic, climate-doomsday status quo. Or two, that powerful mass movements that the party had aligned with fundamentally changed the terms of debate on several definitional issues, such that a mandate for irreversibly transforming the Canadian state and doing battle with a hostile economic elite was imminent.

I don’t see any of the current crop of candidates proposing option two (Niki Ashton seemed poised to go there, but seems to have held something back), so I have to assume that when we talk about majorities, people have option one in mind. History tells us that that option can have real benefits, but ultimately leads to demoralization and a collapse in support before the inevitable neoliberal counterattack begins. That how it has played out in BC, MB, SK, ON and NS, and I don’t see any reason to expect a much different result federally.

Meanwhile, candidates like Corbyn, Sanders and Melenchon have, whatever their faults, used electoral politics to massively expand the range of political debate in their respective countries.

Which brings me to the current leadership race. There are a lot of factors that go into picking a candidate, but at this political moment, I’ve decided that the #1 criterion for me is how we can break with the Jack Layton strategy (of suppressing the base with a smile while making as many compromises as are needed to get that majority) and use the party’s power to fundamentally shift the Canadian political spectrum and create space for movements to transform our social and economic order.

And that a difficult choice, because a major theme of the actual race has been, well, race. We’ve seen two progressive candidates get awfully close to the line of dog-whistle politics. They may well have crossed the line, but that’s not the point. In a left party, everyone should be so far away from the line that it’s over the horizon of possibility. What’s at stake is making left politics relevant and welcoming to the people who it is supposed to prioritize: the working class — all of it.

Jagmeet Singh represents a huge opportunity to hit the reset button on the unspoken whiteness of the NDP. His campaign has brought out idiotic right wing racists, for sure, but its real accomplishment is that it has unmasked a culture of “polite” racism among many party supporters. There are a lot of hard conversations that are going to have to happen in the next few years, as we tapdance around white guilt while holding up a mirror to a party membership — and leadership — that has fallen short of the very high standards it should be holding itself to.

The problem is that Jagmeet also represents Jack Laytonism 2.0. The NDP backroom types saw the future, and it was a charismatic, inexorably positive young politician, a fresh face who could assemble a new progressive coalition and win some seats… maybe even a majority. Jagmeet’s legendary charm hasn’t quite translated to the small screen the way we would expect, but one imagines it could be a matter of time.

Skin colour and religion notwithstanding, the approach is a familiar one. Singh’s campaign has tossed out just enough progressive rhetoric to keep people feeling progressive, but does anyone doubt that the party brain trust plans to pick up where Jack Layton left off? Does anyone seriously contend that Jagmeet Singh — and much more importantly, the people he will surround himself with — will fire up the base and duke it out with the people who stand in the way of climate justice and economic equality?

Singh’s pipeline stance is a crucial illustrator, here. He started out by equivocating, saying that some pipelines might be ok. But then he and his campaign team saw what a liability that position was, and changed course. If Singh is elected, we’ll get more of that kind of smart, pragmatic maneuvering, but this time in the other direction. The contradictions will — according to the plan — be papered over with charm and personality. Just like Jack did.

Jagmeet will make the NDP a (more) welcoming place for people who haven’t felt welcome there to date, and that’s a good thing and a necessary development. The price we will pay is to give up the party’s chance at catalyzing a transformative shift on the Canadian political landscape.

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