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
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. 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. 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. Continue reading