Lessons for the 2017 NDP Leadership Race from Past Leadership Conventions – Part II

David Blocker

Editors Note: This is the second post in a two-part series on the history of NDP leadership conventions. The first post in the series can be read here.

Today’s post continues an examination of past NDP leadership conventions as a means of looking for historical trends within the NDP leadership races. The two posts in this series aim to highlight how history can be used to interpret potential outcomes of the 2017 leadership race.

Setting the Stage for 1989

When Ed Broadbent resigned after fourteen years as leader of the federal NDP following the 1988 free trade election, the party’s circumstances had improved significantly from the last leadership contest in 1975.  Although no longer in provincial government, provincial parties in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario remained strong, and the federal caucus of forty-three was the largest the NDP had ever elected.  Despite this success, however, the 1988 federal election had proved disappointing for a party that had hopes of displacing the Liberals as Official Opposition.

The 1989 Candidates

Headshot of Audrey McLaughin wearing a green coat and glasses.

Audrey McLaughin in 2012. By Frank Saptel – Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

The constitutional debates of the 1980s had repeatedly driven a wedge between the federal and provincial NDP parties.  As a result, a large part of front-runner Audrey McLaughlin’s appeal as potential leader was her lack of “baggage” within the party.  McLaughlin, a former social worker, had first been elected as a MP from the Yukon in a 1987 by-election, and a sizeable portion of feminists in the party joined her campaign from the beginning.[1]  McLaughlin’s campaign emphasized a consensus-building, conciliatory “new politics” and many New Democrats were excited at the possibility of becoming the first federal party with a female leader.

Four other MPs entered the leadership race.  The campaign by Ian Waddell emphasized greater internal party democracy, while scientist and civil-rights activist Howard McCurdy called for a more inclusionary party.  Fellow Windsor MP Steven Langdon ran the most left-wing leadership campaign, calling for a “new radicalism” and Saskatchewan MP Simon de Jong argued for a special constitutional assembly and an electoral system based on proportional representation.

By the autumn of 1989 senior party and union leaders had become concerned.  Once again, none of the leading provincial party stars had come forward, and the field, led by McLaughlin, appeared uninspired.  Desperate, they turned first to former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, most recently Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a regular on the popular CBC program Morningside, who declined, and then to the former “wonder boy” of the federal caucus, Bob Rae, the intelligent, articulate and modern leader of the Ontario NDP.  However, despite great anticipation (the Toronto Star published an article mistakenly claiming that he was about to enter the race) and to the surprise of the Ontario caucus, Rae, unsure of support from western Canada, decided not to seek the federal leadership.

While Rae pondered, another provincial party stalwart stepped forward after the encouragement of party and union leaders – Dave Barrett, former Premier of British Columbia and leader of the B.C. NDP from 1969 to 1984.  Barrett had been elected as a MP in Esquimalt – Juan de Fuca in 1988, and despite Stephen Lewis’s urging him to remain out of the race in favour of Rae, Barrett chose to enter the race immediately before the start of a cross-country tour of all-candidates debates.  Barrett’s energetic, personable and populist style contrasted strongly with McLaughlin’s emphasis on consensus-building.  He also discounted the importance of accommodating Quebec in the constitutional debates of the period and dismissed the need for a federal leader to be bilingual, instead urging the party to focus on traditional areas of support in western Canada.[2]  Consequently, Phil Edmonston, a high-profile candidate for the NDP in Quebec, threatened to leave the party if Barrett became leader.  With few other options, many labour leaders endorsed McLaughlin, including Michael Lewis, Stephen’s brother and an influential official with the Steelworkers, Leo Gerard, the Steelworkers Canadian director, and Bob White, President of the Canadian Auto Workers.

Endorsements and Results

A disappointing speech by McLaughlin at the start of the convention did little to cement her support from undecided delegates, and on the first ballot her surprisingly low vote total gave hope to the other contenders.  The three candidates with the lowest votes dropped out of the race after the first ballot and each endorsed a different candidate.  In a move that proved controversial, Simon de Jong chose to endorse McLaughlin after being dropped from the second ballot.

It is worth noting that despite the emphasis the media placed on high-profile endorsements by leadership contestants, many delegates did not follow them – only 45% of McCurdy’s supporters moved with him to Langdon, only 37% of Waddell’s delegates accompanied his endorsement of Barrett, and de Jong’s high profile and controversial move to McLaughlin only brought 55% of his supporters along with him.[3]  McLaughlin’s election made her the first female leader of any major federal party in Canada and with support from both left and right wings of the party (B.C. MPs Svend Robinson and Nelson Riis had both supported her campaign, for example), she appeared in a strong position to unify the party ahead of the next federal election.

The 1995 Leadership Race

After the disastrous 1993 election, which left the NDP with only nine seats and without official-party status in the House of Commons, Audrey McLaughlin resigned in April 1994.  The federal NDP began a lengthy process of renewal, but the party faced another electoral setback when the Ontario NDP government was decimated in the 1995 provincial election, reduced from seventy-four to seventeen seats.

The 1995 Candidates

Svend Robinson was both the definition of a party maverick and the most credible and experienced left insurgent candidate for the federal NDP’s leadership.  He had repeatedly ruffled the feathers of his caucus mates since being elected as a twenty-seven year old MP for Burnaby in 1979.  Among the controversial issues Robinson received publicity was his support for the decriminalization of the solicitation of prostitution in 1982, his 1985 participation, with members of the Haida Nation, in a blockade resisting logging on Lyell Island in British Columbia, and his participation in the blockade against logging in Clayoquot Sound in the summer of 1993, this time in direct opposition to the provincial NDP government.  Perhaps most controversially, Robinson had advocated for Sue Rodriguez, an ALS patient seeking the right to die with dignity, and supported legalized euthanasia.  In February 1994 he sat beside her at her home in Victoria as a physician assisted her death and flew to Ottawa the next day to make a public statement.  When questioned on his responsibility as a MP to uphold the law of the land, Robinson responded, “the highest duty of a member of Parliament is love.”[4]  His outspoken nature and history of support for social movement activists attracted youth and leftists to Robinson’s candidacy, and he advocated for the NDP to adopt his ‘Rainbow Coalition’ approach, making feminists, environmentalists, LGBT activists, First Nations and youth the party’s focus.

Headshot of Lorne Nystrom in a suit.

Lorne Nystrom in 2012. By Matt Jiggins , CC BY 2.0.

Robinson’s leading challenger initially appeared to be veteran Saskatchewan MP Lorne Nystrom.  Nystrom’s campaign emphasized pocketbook economic issues to expand the party’s appeal as well as the importance of appealing to traditional NDP voters.  However, Nystrom’s candidacy was hindered by losing his seat in the 1993 election, and he failed to generate sufficient enthusiasm to emerge as the front-runner despite leading the field in the party’s ‘primaries’.

Alexa McDonough, the longtime leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, became the only New Democrat and woman in the Nova Scotia legislature when she was elected in Halifax Chebucto in 1981.  Although the Nova Scotia NDP failed to make a breakthrough under her leadership, and, in fact, lost its base on Cape Breton, McDonough developed a reputation as a conscientious politician and succeeded in winning support for the party on the province’s mainland.  Her campaign countered the notion that the party couldn’t afford to elect another female leader with the slogan “two is not too many” and focused on winning the crucial support of convention delegates rather than the primaries of all NDP members.

The Vote and The Results

By the convention, however, key McDonough and Nystrom supporters had realized that a Robinson victory was not out of the question – if McDonough finished third, enough of her delegates could move to Robinson instead of Nystrom on the second ballot.  As a result, Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae and other key McDonough supporters from Ontario urged Nystrom delegates either to vote for McDonough on the first ballot or not to vote at all in order to ensure that a Robinson-Nystrom showdown would not occur.  They were successful.  Although Robinson’s supporters cheered their candidates’ first-place showing on the first ballot with chants of “Sven-DP”, Robinson realized that with Nystrom in third place and, thus, dropped from the second ballot he stood little chance of being elected leader.

As Nystrom made his way over to McDonough to declare his support for her, Robinson met with a few key members of his campaign team and came to a quick decision to support McDonough as well.  Without informing his supporters, Robinson walked over to McDonough’s table and informed her amidst a gaggle of reporters, “Alexa, I’m telling you we don’t have to wait for a final ballot… I’m here to support you.  I want you to pull this party together, and you’ve done a superb job.  You’ll be a great leader, and I’ll be proud to work with you”.  Robinson and his closest advisers had concluded that it was preferable to try and unite the party, and, in so doing, avoid the divisions and acrimony that followed previous defeats of left insurgent candidates, by moving that McDonough’s election be made unanimous prior to a second ballot.  McDonough had also won Robinson’s respect by campaigning for same-sex spousal benefits and the inclusion of sexual orientation in the provincial human rights code while leader of the NS NDP in the 1980s.[1]  However, the decision angered his supporters, including Judy Rebick and Buzz Hargrove, and ultimately failed to overcome the belief of suspicious colleagues that Robinson was not a “team player”, and McDonough was elected leader as “everybody’s second choice”.

Historical Trends and the 2017 Leadership Race

As noted in the first post in this series there is a history of insurgent left-wing candidates fairing poorly in NDP leadership races.  Indeed, it was exactly this history that led Svend Robinson to choose not to contest a second ballot at the 1995 leadership convention.  Indeed, two of Robinson’s key Ontario supporters, Toronto city councilors Olivia Chow and Jack Layton, learned well the lessons from his failed leadership bid.  When Layton ran to succeed McDonough in 2003, he and Chow secured support from both leading left-wingers in the party such as Robinson and Libby Davies and, crucially, the party and union leaders in Ontario that had proved crucial to determining the outcome of previous leadership contests. None of the leadership candidates in 2017 appear to have bridged this divide as successfully as Layton, which could mean a first ballot victory is unlikely.

If no candidate succeeds in winning on the first ballot, the media will undoubtedly focus on which candidate(s) the third and fourth-place finishers endorse. However, the evidence from the 1989 leadership contest indicates that losing candidates have a limited capacity to bring supporters with them.  Indeed, the ability of the third and fourth place finishers to pull support on a second ballot could be further hampered by the ranked ballot system adopted for mail-in ballots in 2017.

Furthermore, the importance of accommodating Quebec in the constitution divided both the federal and provincial parties and the primary leadership contestants in the 1989 leadership race.  The question of accommodating Quebec’s distinctiveness has arisen again in the 2017 leadership contest as candidates have split over the issue of Quebec’s controversial Bill 62.  And, eerily reminiscent of Phil Edmontson’s threat to leave the NDP if Dave Barrett won the leadership in 1989, Quebec MP Pierre Nantel suggested that he might sit as an independent if the NDP elects a leader who fails to recognize Quebec’s distinctiveness and respect legislation passed by the National Assembly.

David Blocker is a PhD candidate at Western University studying “The Waffle, the NDP, and Canada’s New Left, 1965-1975”.

[1] Truelove, 193-4.

[1] McLeod, Under Siege, 29; Roberts, Giving Away a Miracle, 253-4.

[2] Graham Fraser, “NDP leadership picture still fuzzy as candidates conclude debates,” Globe and Mail, October 16, 1989, 10.

[3] Archer and Whitehorn, Political Activists, 215-7.

[4] Truelove, 170.

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