AN INCONCLUSIVE NDP LEADERSHIP RACE HAS SET THE STAGE FOR A DRAMATIC CONVENTION
DOWN TO THE WIRE
AN INCONCLUSIVE NDP LEADERSHIP RACE HAS SET THE STAGE FOR A DRAMATIC CONVENTION
The campaign to succeed Edward Broadbent as the head of the New Democratic Party was a lackadaisical one, for the most part. No powerful
issues polarized debate among the six men and one woman seeking Broadbent’s job. But this week, when 2,200 convention delegates gather in the Winnipeg Convention Centre, the race will surge to life and become a high-tension political drama. For one thing, there is general agreement among workers for the various candidates that about half the delegates will arrive in Winnipeg not knowing whom they will support. As a result, any one of the seven names on the first ballot could emerge a winner. Observed Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin, widely considered to be leading the field: “It will come down to a crowd psychology that will build on the convention floor.”
For the contenders, the keys to creating that momentum will lie in the so-called bear-pit session on Thursday—when the candidates answer delegates’ questions—and in their wrap-up speeches on Friday evening. For her part, McLaughlin is buoyed by the support of women delegates as well as by a broader group of New Democrats who say that the NDP should be the first federal party in Canada to declare a woman as leader (page 18). But as the race drew to a close, McLaughlin found herself fighting to keep her place against David Barrett, the colorful and media-wise former premier of British Columbia who is now a Vancouver Island MP (page 21). But both carry political handicaps: critics attacked McLaughlin’s inexperience and Barrett’s apparent dismissal of Quebec’s constitutional demands.
As each camp prepared for the final 2Vi days of delegate pursuit in Winnipeg, most of the contenders for Broadbent’s mantle had set out their strategies for victory. MPs Howard McCurdy, 56, and Steven Langdon, 43, both from ridings near the auto-manufacturing centre of Windsor, Ont., said that they hoped to build on their support among the blocks of delegates from Ontario unions. Strategists for Regina MP Simon de Jong, 47, said they would base his run for the brass ring on the first-ballot support of up to half of Saskatchewan’s delegates—there may be as many as 405 from the province. Another MP, Ian Waddell, 47, from the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody-Coquitlam, would fight the Barrett legacy and claim favorite-son status among delegates from British Columbia—which returned 19 NDP MPs to
Ottawa last November. The seventh candidate, Roger Lagasse, 33, an unelected teacher from Sechelt, B.C., could argue that his bilingualism—he is the only candidate comfortable in French—qualifies him to be the delegates’ first choice.
Apart from anointing one of the challengers, the convention will also set the party’s course for the 1990s—still far removed from the ultimate goal of forming a government. Indeed,
despite tantalizing rises in its popularity between elections—in July, 1987, the party briefly topped the Liberals and Conservatives as the first choice of 41 per cent of Canadians—it has never attracted more than 20 per cent of the votes in a general election. Its current, 43-member federal caucus is the largest in its history.
For his part, Barrett declared that he would fortify the party by building on its strength in the West and attacking free trade. McLaughlin says that she will encourage more participation in the party with what she has described as “community leadership.” And McCurdy claims
a commitment to the oldtime populist socialism that generated the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the NDP’s predecessor. “I communicate the kind of message that reflects the roots of the old CCF and New Democratic Party,” he said. “I talk about the politics of the heart.”
Still, the campaign seemed drained of drama. “The campaign was disappointing,” acknowledged Yukon’s NDP government leader
Tony Penikett. “There was no intellectual ferment, and not that much excitement.” Most New Democrats expected a far more exciting race when Broadbent announced last March that he was retiring after two decades in Parliament—14 years as NDP leader. In the wings waited a string of celebrated potential heirs: Stephen Lewis, former leader of the Ontario NDP and former ambassador to the United Nations; Ontario NDP Opposition Leader Robert Rae; and Robert White, the powerful leader of the Canadian Auto Workers. But, one by one, they refused to run.
And those who did enter the fray never managed to display charisma. After a September all-candidates meeting in Toronto, the leaders of the influential United Steelworkers union, which traditionally controls the Ontario labor vote, refused to endorse any of the seven contenders. By contrast, Broadbent entered the party’s 1975 leadership convention with the backing of 10 major national unions. There were more bad reviews at a meeting in Saskatoon with the NDP’s governing federal council. By late September, key party activists—including White, Nova Scotia NDP Leader Alexa McDonough and Saskatchewan NDP
Leader Roy Romanow—were attempting to persuade Lewis and Rae to reconsider, without success.
But Barrett’s entry into the race drew more attention than even some of his supporters might have wished. At the news conference announcing his candidacy, Barrett criticized the country’s preoccupation with reaching a constitutional accord with Quebec and declared that he saw no need for the national leader of
the NDP to speak French. And last week, his organizers apologized to Quebec delegates to the convention for sending them literature in English only. Still, Barrett’s comments left him poised to attract western delegates, many of whom continued to bristle at the party’s support during late 1970s and early 1980s for federal energy and constitutional initiatives that they said favored Central Canada. Declared Wilf Hudson, retired president of the Manitoba Federation of Labor: “We need to establish our base in the West so we don’t drift.” But Barrett’s frankly western-based strategy has placed him in direct opposition to Broadbent’s strategy of courting support among Quebecers in an attempt to break out of the party’s historic third-place ghetto.
That, McLaughlin supporters argue, may have bolstered her credibility as a potential leader who will continue to reach out to Quebec and create a truly national party. While McLaughlin remains unable to conduct an interview in French, she is, unlike Barrett, studying the language. Said Alberta NDP provincial secretary Lyle Bleich: “People are looking to break new ground. They’ll go to Audrey. She has a national perspective.” She also has a
woman’s perspective. That was evident when all six major candidates attended the Saskatchewan NDP convention in Regina. McLaughlin was the only one who addressed the Saskatchewan NDP’s women’s association— which subsequently endorsed her candidacy.
For McCurdy and Langdon, the critical unknown is the reliability of the labor vote—25 to 30 per cent of eligible delegates to NDP conventions. Indeed, several labor insiders suggested that the two Ontario candidates could not count on union delegates’ support after the first of what is almost certain to be several rounds of balloting. Said one union delegate: “McLaughlin is everybody’s second choice.”
Whether that will prove true after the bear-pit session and the Dec. 1 speeches was up to the delegates to decide. But, for New Democrats who will be voting this weekend, the fear of electing an unknown leader is a fading is-
sue. Recalled Saskatchewan MP Leslie Benjamin: “In 1975, everybody said that it was a blah leadership campaign, that the candidates were all nobodies, that the NDP was in a slide. But Broadbent grew into the job.” Plainly, that will once again be the winner’s challenge.
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