BACKSTAGE

The fight to lead the New Party is lopsided but real

Peter C. Newman March 11 1961
BACKSTAGE

The fight to lead the New Party is lopsided but real

Peter C. Newman March 11 1961

The fight to lead the New Party is lopsided but real

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

Peter C. Newman

The man who carries the mantle of leadership in any Canadian political party, even when it’s out of office, usually has an aura about him that bespeaks power and prestige and a disengagement from the grab and push of ordinary politics. He is, at least in theory, not just another politician, but only one long step away from statesmanship.

Hazen Robert Argue, the 40-year-old wheat farmer from Kayville. Sask., who has been national leader of the CCF for the past six months, falls somewhat short of this dignified idea. Argue is engaged in a sweaty, hectic struggle for political survival that could end in oblivion or in the leadership of the New Party.

While national attention is being increasingly focused on Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan premier, as prospective leader of the New Party, Argue continues —almost alone—to plot his own leadership campaign. His chances are small and getting smaller, but he shouldn’t be written off as a paper creation placed into the contest to give the appearance of a fight.

The third man to have led the CCF since its creation in Regina 28 years ago. Argue is a middle-sized man with a middle-sized paunch who looks as if he never combs his hair. He makes a pleasant companion, but gives the impression of being a tortured man. with great ideas exploding in his mind. When he’s asked a direct but touchy question in private conversation. he twists and grimaces as if he'd just taken a stomach powder. He smiles easily and with emotion, but he’s far too intense to have much humor. Until he became CCF leader, no one on Parliament Hill can remember ever having seen him in anything but an incredibly creased brown suit. Since his elevation he has bought a new dark grey outfit, which in its turn is now increasingly crumpled.

Argue knows as well as anyone else how heavy are the odds against him at the New Party convention. Tommy Douglas is an enormously able politician who has done for the CCF what no other socialist has ever accomplished in Canada: actually got into power. After five consecutive terms of fairly efficient government he offers living proof that every-

thing doesn’t automatically go to hell when a socialist takes over. He has had federal as well as provincial experience — two terms in the House of Commons before he became CCF leader in Saskatchewan. He is probably the best platform speaker and certainly the best rough-and-tumble hustings debater in all Canada. And to top all those natural advantages, Douglas also has the hearty support of the hierarchy in the CCF and the Canadian Labor Congress. David Lewis, the national president of the CCF, is as heartily a Douglas man as are Claude Jodoin and Stanley Knowles, president and executive vice-president of the CLC.

But in spite of this imposing opposition. Hazen Argue is still preparing quite soberly and seriously for a fight to a finish at the convention. One thought that comforts him is that the rank-and-file delegates do not always agree with the hierarchy, as he proved last year by winning election as CCF leader when Lewis, Knowles and company wanted the post left vacant. Another thought is less comforting either to Argue or to the New Party, but it makes more impression on an outside observer: no matter who wins the leadership race, the New Party’s chances in the next general election will be substantially the same.

Ottawa politicians who are close to the situation speculate that, with Douglas as its leader, the New Party might be able to get as much as 21% of the popular vote in the next general election. This maximum would probably be distributed into 10 seats in British Columbia, half a dozen each in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and possibly 17 constituencies in northern and industrial Ontario, with an outside chance of getting the Cape Breton South seat in Nova Scotia. That’s a total of 40 seats, but these guesses are of course the optimum possibilities.

The same forecasters predict that while Argue would get a considerably lower percentage of the popular vote, he might win almost as many seats. There seems to be a core of ridings in this country that are excellent prospects for the New Party, whoever its leader turns out to be.

Argue has been preparing himself for the leadership contest by significantly expanding the scope of his interests in House of Commons debates. He’s much more of an agrarian protester than a doctrinaire socialist, and in the past his contributions to debates were noted for repetition of the word “wheat” in various contexts, all tirades at the government for not doing more to help those who grow it. During the last session of parliament, Argue still made 108 pronouncements about wheat, but he also delivered an outstanding dissertation on the Bill of Rights and talked on such other topics as the excessive cost of false teeth in Canada, the Berlin situation, and this country’s atomic research program.

The CCF leader was once the child prodigy of parliament. That was in 1945, when at the age of 24 he beat nine more senior and more experienced opponents for the CCF nomination at Assiniboia, Sask., and won the seat, which had been held by a Liberal, to become the youngest MP ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons. He has held the riding ever since with a solidarity that was tested but found firm in the 1958 election, when he was the only opposition politician to survive the Tory sweep of the Prairies.

Because M. J. Coldwell, the CCF national leader, and Stanley Knowles, his deputy, both fell in that campaign, the CCF had to choose a new house leader. Argue was elected by his tiny band of eight surviving MPs on the third ballot. His main opponent was Bert Herridge, the veteran B. C. member who is a witty and often brilliant MP but certainly far from being a doctrinaire CCFer. Herridge sometimes describes himself as “a democratic anarchist.” Argue’s candidacy for house leader was supported by Knowles, Coldwell and Lewis, but they have since cooled considerably toward their candidate.

When Coldwell resigned as national leader at last summer’s CCF convention in Regina, Lewis tried to push through a resolution that would have left the leadership open until the new party’s founding convention. Argue would simply have remained parliamentary leader. Argue accepted the compromise, but his fellow MPs did not. They stirred the convention into a vote that confirmed his leadership.

The relationship between Argue, the national leader of the CCF, and Lewis, the party’s national president, has since become a bitter feud. Lewis and other party officials openly campaign against Argue for the New Party leadership, trying instead to stir up support for Douglas. Woodsworth House, the national headquarters of the CCF, is all but closed to Argue. He is being given no research assistance and recently even had to buy his own mimeograph machine to duplicate his press releases.

The revolt has spread right into Argue’s own caucus. Two CCF MPs, Erhärt Regier and Murdo Martin, have declared themselves Douglas supporters. Argue claims that, when the national committee for the New Party met in Ottawa recently, he was not invited to attend the press conference that followed. He went anyway, and found himself contradicted on just about everything he said.

At the same press conference, some political strategists thought they detected evidence of a manœuvre that would see Douglas withdraw from the race at the last minute and swing his support behind Lewis—the man he has already publicly named as his favorite among other potential candidates for New Party leadership.

When he was asked about his own ambitions, Lewis merely replied: “1 believe Premier Douglas is the best political leader in Canada today. 1 believe I’m the second best.”

Lewis is a Toronto labor lawyer who has been on the CCF’s national executive since 1937. Douglas has declared that he prefers Lewis to other potential contenders, because he is the only one who is bilingual. Argue, who leads the party that Lewis heads, isn't allowing that to go unchallenged. He now takes French lessons from a University of Ottawa professor three times a week. ^