On eve of NDP federal convention: Policy, not Image, should be Focus of Leader

by Barry Weisleder

The honeymoon was over in record time. The business press that blatantly boosted Jagmeet Singh over his lackluster NDP leadership rivals turned away from him within weeks of his October 1, 2017 triumph. A burst of unfair media criticism quickly gave way to a studied disinterest. Singh was unjustly singled out for comment on the Air India bombing – which occurred when he was six years old. He was chided for not immediately seeking a seat in Parliament. And then, the NDP did very poorly in the six by-elections held on December 11. It now sits at a mere 17 per cent in opinion polls.

Singh gave a stirring speech to the B.C. NDP convention, but later dodged the Site C Dam decision. He has been nearly mute on a rising wave of issues including the future of NAFTA, the rebellion against electoral fraud in Honduras, Trump’s affront to Palestine on the status of Jerusalem, and Washington’s supply of lethal weapons to the reactionary regime in Kiev. Even on tax evasion by the rich and powerful, including by Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Singh has been out-hustled by Tories Andrew Scheer and Pierre Poilievre.

The problem now is not image, or timing, or electoral tactics. It is political. It is the lack of bold policies, and the absence of direct action.

Recall that Jagmeet Singh was the most conservative of the four aspirants who ran the last lap of the leadership race. The political up-side of his win was his positivity and pride as an articulate, equity-seeking racial minority person.
The thirty-eight year old turbaned Sikh lawyer from Brampton is the first Person of Colour to head a major Canadian political party. The significance of this was evident, long before the Terry Milewski CBC interview, when he was confronted by a racist woman in Peel who absurdly berated him for being a Muslim. Singh countered by simply repeating the words “We love you. We support you.” Bourgeois pundits lapped it up. The truth is that racism and incipient fascism must be countered by stressing the need for working class unity against the system that breeds racism, and by initiating mass actions to crush the racists. But to establishment politicos, that’s not ‘cool.’

Singh handily defeated his opponents for the NDP leadership by skillfully recruiting from his extensive social network. His election represented a doubling down on the party’s shift to the centre, to glamour politics, to trying to beat the Liberals at their game. Snazzy three-piece tailored suits, and his news conference engagement to an attractive South Asian woman, have failed to out-dazzle Justin Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’, his super-selfie persona. It is simply a losing proposition for the NDP to compete with Justin in a glamour gambit when the NDP base, the working class, needs system change that will not result from another personality contest. This is especially true when the political right wing, including the Liberal government, is moving ever more stridently against democratic rights, to condone criminal tax avoidance, to tighten the grip of imperialism on the world, and to put profit before the environment.

Sadly, the most left wing candidate for leader, Niki Ashton MP, squandered the opportunity to present a bold socialist policy platform, to integrate grassroots socialist activists into her campaign, and to turn it into a vehicle for mass action against capitalist austerity. She steered away from the radical path of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Jagmeet Singh, former Ontario NDP Deputy Leader, appointed leadership opponent and Quebec MP Guy Caron to be NDP House Leader until the 2019 election. Charlie Angus, who was praised by the Toronto Star for having “the most nuanced position on pipelines and energy projects”, is left out in the cold. Does this mean Singh will oppose pipelines, and fight for public ownership and for a rapid Green energy transition away from carbon dependency?

Maybe. But it would take enormous pressure from below to move him in that direction. Remember,Singh initially favoured the Energy East pipeline, then backed down under pressure from Niki Ashton and others.

When he last ran for public office, he initially opposed LGBTQI-positive sex education in Brampton schools. As an Ontario MPP he fully backed Leader Andrea Horwath’s failed 2014 Ontario election campaign opposing tax increases on corporations and the rich (a policy not unlike Tom Mulcair’s ‘Balanced budget, No matter what). As Horwath’s Consumer Affairs Critics, Singh did nothing to advocate public auto insurance, a longstanding Ontario NDP policy championed by beloved NDP MPPs Mel Swart and Peter Kormos.

During the 2017 federal leadership race Singh stunned members when he came out against universality in seniors’ benefits. He infamously toured Israel hosted by Zionist organizations, and he was backed by the openly pro-imperialist NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Helene Laverdiere. On post-secondary school fees and student debt he has been vague.

On the positive side, Singh has a visionary position on illegal drugs. He wants to de-criminalize all drugs and invest in the treatment of substance abuse as a health issue.

However, he never uses the word “socialist” to describe himself; he proposes only minimal changes to tax law; and offers not a word about striving for democratic control of the economy. He is silent on internal party affairs, particularly the need for greater democracy.

So, what is to be done? Party and labour leftists should press Singh sharply on Pharma-care, dental care, free post-secondary education, steep taxation of corporations and the super-rich, for BDS against Israeli apartheid and Canada Out of NATO, and for public ownership, particularly in the areas of energy, banking, telecommunications and transportation. We need a commitment to respect the local NDP candidate nomination process and for the Leader to actively campaign for the policies adopted at convention.

Instead of trying to revive a short-lived honeymoon for the new leader, working class activists need to set a militant tone at the February 2018 NDP federal convention. This should be done by advancing socialist policies and by demanding that Singh lead the fight for a Workers’ Agenda. He can do it, if we unite to demand it.