02/21/2018 16:31 EST | Updated 02/21/2018 16:44 EST

Is Jagmeet Singh’s NDP Prepared To Distinguish Itself?

If the NDP doesn't challenge Canadians with a distinct or transformative vision, it will struggle to reach beyond its loyal core.

Coming out of its first policy convention under the leadership of Jagmeet Singh, there are mixed signals about whether the NDP has the will to distinguish itself in Canada's political landscape. Squeezed by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's charm offensive from the political centre, Singh and his party will need to act decisively if they're ever going to have the electoral impact of Britain's Jeremy Corbyn or the U.S.' Bernie Sanders.

A delegate gives a standing ovation to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as he speaks during the Federal NDP Convention in Ottawa on Feb. 17, 2018.

As many have suggested, Corbyn and Sanders garnered massive popular support because their ideas were radical enough to inspire new hope. Becky Bond, an adviser to Sanders in 2016, argues, "When you can actually vote for the things you really believe in, then that really changes everything." By comparison, voters can be left flat when politicians suggest incremental solutions to vast global or national crises.

But while the NDP grassroots appeared ready to embrace some transformational new approaches in last weekend's convention, the NDP leadership seemed much less willing.

One global crisis that is in sore need of new ideas and leadership is the Israel-Palestine conflict — leadership that both Corbyn and Sanders offered. Even before U.S. President Donald Trump abdicated the U.S. role as mediator, it was increasingly painful to listen to the platitudes offered by Canada's politicians. Israel abandoned negotiations in 2014, and continues to seize Palestinian land for its illegal settlements, so when Canadian politicians make disingenuous appeals for a "negotiated two-state solution," they very much fail to inspire.

NDP delegates gather on the party convention floor in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018.

Coming into last weekend's convention, NDP delegates and riding associations were clearly ready to consider ideas to jumpstart this file. Almost one-third of the foreign policy resolutions coming into the NDP convention addressed Israel's human rights abuses against Palestinians. These resolutions recommended various substantive actions: arms embargoes, official recognition of Palestine, economic sanctions on Israel and other steps. Yet the NDP leadership blocked all but a tepid resolution which largely reiterated existing party policy.

The frustration on the convention floor was palpable as delegates denounced party maneuvering, and passed a subsequent resolution to democratize the resolutions process. Yazan Khader, an NDP delegate backing a more "principled stance" on Israel-Palestine, warned the NDP leadership: "To ignore [principles] is not just a problem politically, but it's a problem electorally now, too."

The NDP party leadership also dithered on the question of climate change. In 2018, it's hard for the average voter to pretend that climate change isn't happening, and the NDP has an opportunity to position itself strongly on this file. At the convention, the NDP grassroots was keen for movement, too: fully half of the resolutions under the convention's "Building a Clean and Sustainable Canada" rubric focused on renewable energy, fossil fuel dependency, carbon pricing and related climate change concerns.

It hardly sets the stage for transformative leadership.

Prof. Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University recently pointed out how successive Canadian leaders have repeatedly overestimated their ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Jaccard cites research showing that the Trudeau government is no different: its promise of a 30-per-cent reduction in emissions by 2030 is simply pie in the sky if tar sands development continues.

The last NDP policy convention in Edmonton in 2016 was vivified by the LEAP movement, resulting in a resolution calling riding associations to consider the LEAP proposal for climate change action. But at this convention, no LEAP resolutions made it to the convention floor. Former NDP national director Karl Bélanger suggested this was because convention delegates wanted to avoid issues that were "divisive or explosive." But the sentiment on the floor of the convention gave a much different impression. And LEAP leader Avi Lewis would disagree with Bélanger, arguing that LEAP is a "transformative" notion that could provide the NDP a "path to power."

NDP delegates show hands as they vote on resolutions in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018.

Ditto on the question of pipelines. With the provincial NDP governments of British Columbia and Alberta at loggerheads over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, the NDP convention leadership was clearly averse to highlighting the issue. In his convention speech, Singh failed to mention either LEAP or the Trans Mountain pipeline, and hardly even touched on the environment overall. This approach may be intended to avert internal bickering, but it hardly sets the stage for transformative leadership.

Singh was not without creative ideas: he suggested a national plan to provide pharmacare, dental care and eye care. Singh has also railed against tax havens for the rich and tax policies that do little to address inequality across society. But such ideas could be easily appropriated and advanced by the Trudeau government, albeit slightly less convincingly.

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For the many Canadians who traditionally vote either Liberal or Conservative, a vote for the NDP would be a gamble for something truly different. Corbyn and Sanders have shown that progressive leaders can tap into the angst felt by voters over climate change, international crises and other troubling forces plaguing our world. Since Corbyn and Sanders had their successes, the issues have only been compounded: inequality, #MeToo, Trump, natural disasters, fake news, the challenges of globalization and more. But if the NDP doesn't challenge Canadians with a distinct or transformative vision, it will struggle to reach beyond its loyal core.

Hovering near the centre might work for the NDP if it were facing a Liberal party under the leadership of Michael Ignatieff or Stephane Dion. But Singh and his party will not make inroads against a shapeshifter like Justin Trudeau without truly groundbreaking ideas for Canada's future.

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