Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ontario NDP Leadership

While the federal Liberals go through a leadership race, it is also important to note another leadership race going on right now, that of the Ontario NDP. The provincial NDP here in Ontario is an interesting organization. Since the end of the Rae government, the NDP has struggled to get back into the spotlight, and under Howard Hampton it has failed to reach it's traditional level of support. After the centrist Rae, Hampton brought and has kept the party firmly to the left, but also saw the party's fortunes damaged by strategic voting, and the rise of the Greens. Hampton's "left, best, and last" strategy stands as an interesting contrast to the NDP in other provinces in which it has formed government, (with the exception of BC) as the Manitoba and Saskatchewan NDP have been successful by sticking in the centre, and polarizing the electorate between them and the various conservative parties. Now, that the provincial Liberals are weak in both provinces (2 seats in Manitoba, none in Saskatchewan) probably helps this strategy a lot, but one of the main questions the provincial NDP is facing is one of direction.

With an economic downturn looming, the Ontario NDP is in an interesting position. With the Conservatives in power federally, and the Liberals provincially, the NDP has an opportunity to potentially make gains, if they can escape the Rae shadow which would inevitably be used against them in case of an economic downturn. It is notable that so far none of the declared candidates have any real ties to the Rae government (Gilles Bisson is the only one who was elected under Rae, and only served as a PA to a non-vital ministry).

Gilles Bisson seems to be running a fairly traditional campaign, talking about the same issues and style his fellow Northerner Hampton did, so I would assume that Bisson would probably maintain about the status-quo, not moving the party to the centre or taking it further left. He has experience, but status as a Northerner like Hampton and his party vet status might make it difficult for him to present himself as a leader of the future.

Andrea Howarth is an interesting candidate. A former Hamilton city councillor, and of course, a woman, Howarth has the potential to be able to both claim a connection to the NDP's working class roots, and present herself as a "change" candidate (on her website, she describes herself as a "community organizer") with possible appeal to Southern Ontario, an area the ONDP sees as a prime growth target. After Hampton announced he was stepping down, pundits and some within the NDP said the NDP needed a Toronto leader to broaden it's appeal past northern Ontario. However, with the two Toronto candidates (Tabuns and Prue) now being described as maybe being "too Toronto", (besides, Davenport is the only seat the city the ONDP has a shot at gaining) the focus has shifted to broader Southern Ontario. I can see Howarth gaining some big momentum, particularly if people are turned off the percieved front-runner Peter Tabuns.

Speaking of Tabuns, he is seen as the initial front runner, with a strong organization, close ties to Jack Layton, and the endorsement of Cheri Di Novo, who is widely popular amongst the parties grassroots. Tabuns has some environmental cred, serving as an executive director of Greenpeace, but when it comes to politics, his friendship with Jack Layton shows again, as he comes from the Jack Layton school of environmental politics; making grand annoucements and policies about how great the environment is, how governments must pay attention to it, etc, but then when a non-NDP party unveils an environmental plan, attack, attack, attack. From what I have heard, Tabuns also risks the potential of being the Ignatieff of this campaign, having the most support in a plurality, but perhaps having difficulties bringing people to his side (of course, that the NDP uses a non-delegate system might alleviate his problem somewhat). Tabuns apparently was actively campaigning for leader before Hampton officially announced he wasn't running again, which angered some. Tabuns would probably bring Jack Layton style rhetoric and policy, so expect to hear lots of talk about working families etc, and making a rhetorical play for the centre yet continuing left-wing policy. Given that while the federal NDP did gain seats in Ontario under Layton in the last election, but actually declined somewhat in share of the vote, it is unclear if the ONDP would want to follow that route.

Micheal Prue has the deepest political resume of the contenders, serving as a councillor and Mayor of East York, and a councillor in amalgamated Toronto. Prue raised eyebrows when he openly discussed rethinking the NDP's position on funding Catholic schools, as the NDP was unable to make any gains out of John Tory's faith-based funding debacle, with the Green Party's call for totally secular public funded schools giving them a big leg-up, and the Liberals positioning themselves as the defenders of the public system, while Hampton failed in his attempts to work around the issue, with the NDP's "status-quo" position not exactly galvanizing voters. This potential to take policy risks, and his political experience has somewhat given Prue the image of the centrist in the race.

Given that Prue and Tabuns have probably the highest profiles of the contenders, and have scooped up most of the early endorsements, they are probably the intial front-runners, with Howarth being an interesting dark horse and Bisson running decently, but not lighting things up. Prue vs. Tabuns is interesting, as if things develop as I have predicted, it could turn into a battle between the more leftist elements of the party rallying around Tabuns, and the centrists rallying around Prue, with Howarth perhaps having cross-appeal and being able to come up the middle. We'll see how things play out.

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