At the April 2016 NDP convention delegates decided the party needed a new leader. Thomas Mulcair was out; sometime in early October we will know who is in. There are four candidates: Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay; Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill-Keewatinak Aski; Guy Caron MP for Rimouski-Neigette-Temiscouata-Les Basques; and Jagmeet Singh, Ontario MPP for Bramela-Gore-Malton. Interestingly all but Singh are from rural ridings: Angus from northern Ontario, Ashton from northern Manitoba and Caron from the Gaspe area of Quebec.

There have been eight debates so far, with the last one to occur in Vancouver Sept. 10 before voting gets underway on the 18th. There is no convention. Voting will be done via the Internet or by mail. In order to vote you had to be a member as of Aug 18, 2017. Since the candidate has to receive over 50% of the vote there could be runoffs but there will be a result by Oct 15th at the latest.

So why should Canadians, other than NDP members, follow this race? Because whoever leads the NDP now, could be the Prime Minister following the 2019 federal election. That may seem overly ambitious as the NDP sits with only 44 seats in the House of Commons. However, consider the fact that the Conservatives have a new leader who is not all that different from their former leader Stephen Harper, and will not expand their base from what it is now. Trudeau and the Liberals, not surprisingly, have backtracked on many of their major election promises which will make any soft supporter gun shy in the future. Their economic policies, like a planned massive privatization of public infrastructure, weakening pensions, and more so-called “free” trade deals will disaffect a lot of people who voted for them in 2019. Trudeaumania, of the Pierre vintage, crashed after only four years in the 1972 election and the Liberals had to rely on the NDP to remain in government.

This will create an opening for a galvanized NDP under a new leader. But who will that leader be? All four candidates are highly qualified and each of them brings their own particular talents. They are NDPers so they have many policies in common but the debates have brought out some differing approaches.

Besides being elected representatives, all four come from different work experiences. Singh is a lawyer who did a lot of work around human rights and immigration issues. Caron is an economist and former journalist, who worked for the Council of Canadians and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP). Niki Ashton is an academic and a human rights activist. Charlie Angus is a community activist, musician and writer.

All the candidates support making it easier for workers to organize, legislating protections for pensions and ensuring better rights and support for workers in precarious jobs. They all envision some form of just transition for workers moving from fossil fuel industries into a green energy economy.

Making a decision about who to vote for will be difficult and as one of those voters I have struggled to decide who can best lead the New Democratic Party and also appeal to enough Canadians in the next election to form an NDP government.

Angus, Ashton and Caron all made stops in Courtenay to talk to people in the Comox Valley. There were good turnouts for all three meetings and good questions were asked.

Guy Caron was impressive when he spoke here. One of his main platforms is a variation on a guaranteed national income. It was well thought out and anticipated some of the problems that could arise in its’ implementation. His base is in Quebec and in order to form government any national party needs to be successful there. However I didn’t see him as a leader who could bring all the disparate parts of the NDP together. He would make an excellent finance minister though.

Jagmeet Singh never made it to the Comox Valley so I haven’t seen him up close but from video of the debates he looks to be charming, articulate and youthful. He is the only candidate who does not have a seat in Parliament but he has a lot of support in two areas where the NDP has to do well: Greater Toronto and the Lower Mainland. However, Singh made a misstep in the Toronto debate when he proposed that Old Age Security be means tested. Given that universality is a core principle of social programs for many NDPers it was either a brave move or a regressive step. He compounded the error by stating falsely that the Canada Pension is essentially means tested when that income is clawed back through taxes. There is a big difference between the two.

I had concerns that Niki Ashton, while having very progressive positions, was somewhat doctrinaire and rigid in her beliefs and her policies. After seeing her presentation and listening to her answer questions it was clear she is anything but. I find her call to reach out to community groups and social movements important though to be fair all the candidates have made a point of saying that the NDP has to be more grass roots oriented and not make decisions based on a few insiders’ opinions. My one concern with Ashton is that it seems her life experiences have been largely limited to living in an academic bubble.

I like Charlie Angus and one of the reasons is that when he was here he asked to be taken to Ginger Goodwin’s grave. He reminds me of Corky Evans and Nathan Cullen. As Christo Aivales stated in Canadian Dimension, Charlie “has the Jack Layton-like ability to not only tell a great story but to weave it into his political message and policy statements.” He is also a strong ally of First Nation communities and anyone who saw him in action during the Attawapiskat housing crisis knows he is a force to be reckoned with. Locally he has received former MLA’s Evelyn Gillespie’s endorsement: “He understands and supports the work we need to do together to strengthen the party – community by community.” So I will cast my vote for Charlie as the best all round choice of four good candidates.

We should remind ourselves that the leader is not the party. They may be the face of the party and have a fair bit of influence on policy decisions but it is the party’s members who do the work to build the party, who formulate policy and win elections. Hopefully we will not have to remind the new leader of that reality.