Valerie Percival is an assistant professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a member of the New Democratic Party.
The long race to lead the federal New Democratic Party is over. Jagmeet Singh won on the first ballot, receiving 53.6 per cent of the vote, to become the first visible-minority leader of a federal party. Throughout the race, he worked to broaden the appeal of the party, signing up 47,000 new NDP members during the course of his campaign.
But despite serving loyally in the Ontario provincial arm of the NDP, Singh faced constant scrutiny of his commitment to NDP values in the open town-hall meetings—and in the anonymity of Facebook groups and comment pages. From his secularism to his three-piece suits, the NDP membership subjected Singh to the equivalent of an ideological frisking: he was accused of being a closeted Liberal, padding the party membership with fellow Sikhs, and being unable or unwilling to stand up against religion-based intolerance and defend secular values due to his own faith. Other candidates, meanwhile, did not experience the same degree of ideological interrogation.
Much has been said of the challenges Singh faces—raising money, improving party organization, ensuring up-to-date membership lists—but perhaps the biggest is party unity. Singh needs to ensure that the left wing of the party agrees with his efforts to “grow the tent.” And while the party will now enter a period of rebuilding and renewal, the race that led to his election has shown that the NDP also needs to do some self-reflection: Some members of the political left in Canada are not as progressive, tolerant and inclusive as they may think.
Finding the balance between the promotion of principles and the pursuit of power is never easy. The NDP members’ value-testing of Singh over the course of the leadership race in part reflects the charged political climate of the “age of Trump,” the infectiousness of the politics of fear and hate, and the fragility of our social consensus—that is, our shared understanding of our responsibilities to each other.
Many speak of the NDP as a social movement rather than a party, one that fights unflinchingly for social justice. The current state of our politics and our economy fuels the anger of some—but also the apathy of most—of the electorate. And in this context, NDP efforts to promote a shared sense of urgency for contemporary social and economic challenges are sorely needed.
Social movements conjure up images of protesters carrying placards, of sit-ins, of leaders holding megaphones encouraging their supporters to action. And such protest is essential for human progress. We depend on these movements to remind us of our social responsibilities, to educate and raise awareness of the experiences of others, when and where we are failing as a society, and to mobilize popular support for change. We join in protests and support these movements when we believe that their fight is our fight, and when we are moved to feel empathy and responsibility for the fate of others.
But in their drive to promote social change and mobilize their supporters, social movements can risk undermining this shared sense of responsibility. Their rhetoric often divides the world neatly into those who are with us and those who are against us. Analysis of complex political and socio-economic conditions is replaced by ideological sound bites—argument over facts, rhetoric over action. Walls are built, narrow perspectives perpetuated, and beliefs hardened.
Such appears to be the case with the NDP. Membership seems to require a loyalty test, rife with symbolism: what you wear, your education and your work history are all emblems of allegiance. In short, some members of the NDP do not always roll out the welcome mat for those perceived as outsiders.
As Singh moves forward as leader, he must encourage the party to embrace the best characteristics of social movements and leave the worst behind. Real change requires more than slogans and buzzwords. The NDP must better articulate a clear, realistic and inclusive vision for the world in which we want to live. Building a more just, equitable and sustainable Canada benefits everyone, but it is also not easy. The NDP must work to promote a shared sense of urgency and responsibility for that vision and articulate effective and efficient policies needed to achieve it.
It also means the NDP needs to break down walls, rather than build them. Evidence suggests that more open and inclusive groups are better problem-solvers. But being inclusive means the NDP needs to welcome, listen to, and empower others. The example of Charlie Angus, who gave the floor to members of the Indigenous community instead of speaking for them, is noteworthy. But equally important is the NDP listening to critics, ranging from those skeptical of the Leap Manifesto to entrepreneurs wanting to ensure that their contributions to the economy are welcome and valued.
And inherent in the NDP’s message and actions should be the values of understanding, compassion, tolerance and a belief in redemption. Public health research shows that people can recognize and change damaging behaviours. But the people that Hillary Clinton referred to as Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables” were not moved to self-reflection by her derision. Vilifying and shaming individuals and groups does not provide incentive for change; instead, it stigmatizes.
Parties of the centre follow social consensus—they “stick their finger in the wind” to test for politically expedient policies. At its best, the NDP works to build a social consensus, one that enables the development and implementation of progressive policies. But building a social consensus means bringing more people into the tent, not shrinking it. Working pragmatically with others does not mean giving up on progressive principles—it provides the possibility of realizing them.
In our charged political environment, the NDP has a critical role to promote and enable social justice—but only if Singh and the entire party acts as a unifying, rather than a dividing, force in Canadian politics.
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