Why the NDP leadership race matters

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The empty podiums at the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa, Dec. 3, 2011. Photo: Chris Zacchia/www.forgetthebox.net

Ottawa is such a strange town. As of late it has really become a world unto itself, a sort of bubble where the elected few make plans that dictate the reality for so many, yet so few seem connected to it.

I am talking about the low voter turnout from the past few elections, but I'm also talking about something even more basic. Who in this country really feels connected to the national centre in Ottawa? How relevant is the political discourse of this country to the average person in their everyday lives? Obviously, what happens in Ottawa has an effect on everyone who lives in Canada, but how many Canadians can really say that they feel connected to this so-called "democratic" process? How well are people, the majority of people, really represented in federal politics in Canada?

We know we have a Prime Minister who has roughly 39 per cent of Canadians who voted behind him, yet somehow, in this current system, he has a majority government that can do virtually anything they want in practice without any opposing parties being able to put a block on them. We know Harper has autocratic tendencies that have been highlighted as of late, and this looks like it could be the mere tip of a gigantic iceberg in light of the unfolding "robocall" scandal. It appears that the unstoppable Stephen Harper has been snagged by his own contempt for authentic democracy, and may very well be soon paying for his attitude. The New Democrats, having managed to make themselves the opposition after the defeat of the Liberal Party of Canada, are poised and eager to fill the void that will be left after Harper's departure (whether that is in 2015 or in the next few months). Progressives and left-leaning Canadians have been waiting for such a moment for ages, yet it seems the NDP has a crisis of identity in this post-Layton period.

Historic identity of the NDP at stake

The New Democratic Party was once really quite a thing, an actual force, it is arguable, that strived to make life for working Canadians better, as opposed to the business-elite-backed Liberals and Conservatives. They began as a grassroots party that made a name for itself for its closeness to communities, labour organizations, and at times other people faced with marginalization. It was a party that was connected to the ordinary people, not to the elites of this society.

Over the years, the NDP as a party started to drift toward the centre as they purposely appealed to a party line that sought to cut ties with the NDP's more community- and labour-oriented past, embracing a line more committed to language more common in the business-oriented Liberal Party, little by little putting aside the rhetoric of the working class and the marginalized. Through the years of the Conservative retake of Canada's parliamentary system, the NDP sought to replace the Liberals as the Official Opposition and that dream came true in 2011. Something about the NDP resonated with more Canadians than usual and now that it's happened, where do New Democrats, party members and supporters, stand?

Activists who authentically work for a more egalitarian society can see the chance here for a serious democratic revitalization with a party that was once heavily connected to the people, take over from the two parties that have continually made their loyalty to capital over working people and the planet crystal clear.

Apathy and austerity

As a nation we have entered a new time unlike any before. It's a time of austerity, as the next generation is told to tighten their belts and we watch the remaining instruments of the welfare state disappear along with good jobs and pensions. People in general feel the disconnect between the Ottawa bubble and their everyday lives. In such an apathetic and disillusioned age, we have some potential leaders of the growing party wanting to make politics, their politics, relevant again.

Many of the NDP leadership candidates tend to speak the language of working Canadians, addressing the unfairness of corporate greed and the importance of connecting the NDP to the grassroots in communities -- sometimes talking about the 1 per cent of the population who have the greatest wealth at the expense of others and the need to reinvest in public infrastructure to benefit everyone, including the very marginalized. In other words, they talk about the need to go forward in a way connected to those outside of Ottawa's exclusive bubble.

Mulcair: Leadership choice of the 1 per cent

And then there's the current frontrunner, Thomas Mulcair. Mulcair's campaign is one that first and foremost has been defined by his commitment to bringing the centrists, consisting largely of Liberal supporters, to the NDP camp and moving forward with the NDP in this fashion. News has also come out about Mulcair's campaign for leadership being backed by Bay Street elites. This is an unprecedented departure from the norm, as most of the NDP's funding has typically come from its working-class base and civil society. This is a potential leader who is backed quite literally by the 1 per cent. Perhaps the Bay Street executives funding Mulcair see the writing on the wall. Perhaps they see the Liberal Party falling apart and the Conservative Party being revealed and embarrassed for their long list of ugly scandals. Perhaps, for them, the NDP is the next government in waiting and they wish to get in good with its leader so they can continue to maintain their privileged status and the economic status quo.

In the days of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Canada and global anti-poverty movements, can the one party that was once connected to the common people of this country really afford to change its orientation and its connections in such a way? People are waking up to the reality of our unequal society. Is it truly logical for the NDP to elect such a leader who seeks to sever the ties between the rest of the people and the nation's leadership in Ottawa? Should the NDP become another party much like the Conservatives and Liberals, in their quest to be seen as "legitimate"? Should Mulcair, who may very well become the leader of the NDP this weekend, trade in the party's roots among the marginalized and the impoverished for support from Bay Street and other elites? Is this really the right time to make such a shift?

It seems that a Mulcair-led NDP would entrench itself in that Ottawa bubble, where the decisions of government are made by those insulated from the real Canada and the real people who live without the elite privilege of the dominant parties and their backers. It seems Mulcair may want to simply fill that void and just take the power.

Will New Democrats elect to simply enter that bubble or could they be the ones who actually pop it? Is the historic dream of the NDP actually being responsible for great mobilization and immense change ever going to become a reality, or is it going to take the path of the other parties and find their way into irrelevance in the eyes of most Canadians behind the walls of the Ottawa bubble?

We'll start to get an answer to these questions this Saturday, March 24.

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