New NDP leader could be picked as soon as Sunday

Guy Caron, from left to right, Charlie Angus, Jagmeet Singh and Niki Ashton, via satellite from Ottawa, participate in the final federal NDP leadership debate in Vancouver on September 10, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

OTTAWA – The federal New Democratic Party’s gruelling search for a new leader could finally come to an end Sunday as party faithful gather in Toronto to hear the long-awaited results of the initial round of voting.

One of four candidates – Ontario provincial politician Jagmeet Singh, northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton or Quebec MP Guy Caron – would have to claim more than 50 per cent of the vote for a first-ballot victory.

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Otherwise, the last-place candidate drops off the ballot and the suspense lingers for another week before the results of a second round of voting is announced Oct. 8 in Montreal.

Either way, it’s been a long time coming.

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For the past two years, the NDP has largely been irrelevant in Ottawa, said Kathleen Monk, who served as director of strategic communications to Jack Layton, the late leader who helped the party secure official Opposition status in 2011.

A new leader will allow the party to wipe the slate clean and begin re-energizing its base of support, motivate demoralized staff members and get back on the political map, Monk said in an interview.

“They will get to hire their own people,” she said. “It is a clear break from some of the inertia that has been happening.”

For many, the long goodbye from Tom Mulcair, who succeeded Layton after the former leader’s death in 2012, hasn’t helped matters.

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Despite a dismal election showing in 2015 that essentially erased the NDP’s hard-won traction under Layton, Mulcair opted to hang around to await a successor despite being soundly rejected at the party’s spring convention last year in Edmonton.

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“The reason I was able, with eyes wide open, to stay on after Edmonton is my profound belief that the NDP offers the only real hope for a progressive government in Canada,” he said in an interview.

Mulcair won’t be in attendance Sunday due to a previously scheduled parliamentary commitment, he added.

The race to replace him has largely come down to Singh versus Angus, said Monk, citing evidence that includes fundraising figures, the size of their teams of organizers and the number of confirmed voters who have already mailed in their ballots.

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“These are the two serious contenders, the two that are vying for that top spot.”

It’s a classic battle of age versus experience.

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Angus, 54, is a household name among party loyalists and a fixture in the House of Commons, where he is widely seen as a strong performer. Singh, 38, represents a younger, more suburban wing of the party, but lacks a federal resume.

Whoever wins, it’s high time the party stopped licking its wounds and got on with the business of building a united front in anticipation of the 2019 campaign, said former NDP national director Karl Belanger.

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“Hopefully that is what is going to happen,” Belanger said. “I think there’s lots of people who are still reeling and debating the reasons behind the defeat in 2015.”

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One of the most significant challenges in the immediate term is party unity, Belanger said – things were said and done during the leadership campaign that will leave lasting marks.

“The next leader needs to make sure that this party can move forward united,” he said. “There’s work that needs to be done to heal the wounds of the leadership campaign, which has been very long.”

Peggy Nash, a 2012 leadership candidate and former MP, said naming a new leader is the perfect time to turn to the myriad other significant challenges the party is facing – many of them financial.

According to Elections Canada, the NDP is carrying $5.5 million worth of debt, and its fundraising mojo has been virtually non-existent.

“Knit together the teams that may have supported different candidates,” Nash said. “Get out there and build the party and restore our voice as the legitimate voice of progressive Canadians.”

More than 124,000 card-carrying members are eligible to vote for the new leader, either online or by mail. The ballot is preferential, meaning voters rank all four candidates in their preferred order.

Members who voted online will be able to update their selection between ballots, which will make it difficult to handicap the race if it goes past Sunday.

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B.C. MP Peter Julian was the first to enter the race, but dropped out due to low fundraising numbers. Angus and Caron joined the fold in February, followed by Ashton in March and Singh in May.

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