Tuesday Feb 20

Northern Light: Membership Recruitment Equals Leadership Changes in Canadian Parties

Last month the Federal NDP elected ACORN’s Remittance Justice champion, the young and stylish Jagmeet Singh, to be Federal leader, and did so on the first ballot. The ease of the victory for Singh came as a surprise to most party members and observers, but not so much to the Singh campaign itself. The campaign signed up 47,000 members during a 13 week campaign, demolishing the numbers of their rivals.

The victory brings some firsts. First non-white leader of any Canadian party. First suburban leader of the NDP. First time an NDP leader focused a leadership campaign on singing up members instead of appealing to existing ones. First time the NDP has been led by anyone who has ever been called cool or hip.

The victory also keeps some level of status quo for the NDP. This was not an anti-establishment leadership bid like Corbyn in the United Kingdom or Sanders in the USA. While led by younger people - Singh himself is 38, his campaign manager Michal Hay around the same age - the party establishment was behind Singh. The same downtown Toronto people (elite?) who supported the late Jack Layton also supported Singh. Singh’s policies are not different in any tangible way.

The most significant change is that the Singh win forces the party establishment to understand it needs to win in suburbia to win overall. Be less urban, and in the end be less white. And, I think they have come around to that idea.

One thing is for certain is that Jagmeet’s focus on membership sign-ups will change how all NDP leadership campaigns are done moving forward.

The NDP historically used a convention system to elect its leader. Every local riding association was given certain number of delegates to attend the convention. So, signing up new members was a less rewarding task for leadership candidates. The winning strategy was to tour the country visiting the local riding associations and winning their support. This is what the other candidates did in this campaign, and they got embarrassed because of it.

To her credit, Niki Ashton attempted to run as the left candidate with hopes of catching lightning in a bottle much like Sanders had in the states. Problem is she still had to sign up members. While Singh was signing up an NDP member on every fourth door in Brampton, running a strong and well-organized field program, Ashton was not. Apparently, the strategy behind the Ashton campaign revolved around online sign-ups, hoping for a surge in populist support. In the end it was too much hoping, and not enough organizing.

Jagmeet signed up most of his members in Peel region, adjoining Toronto, and to a lesser extent in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver. Canadians of Sikh heritage are dominant in these areas, and part of Jagmeet’s success is due to their wanting a familiar face in power.

Ashton, even if she did run a real field program, was at a geographical disadvantage. Jagmeet could map where to go for memberships and blitz the neighbourhoods with canvassers, follow up with phone calls, texts, emails, and so on. Where was Ashton going to do that? She represents Churchill, Manitoba and the vast tundra on the Hudson Bay shores.

To put the NDP leadership campaign in perspective a friend of mine pointed out that if Jagmeet Singh had run in the Conservative leadership race he would have finished middle of the pack. The conservatives signed up 150,000 new members during their leadership campaign, dwarfing the NDP numbers.

The NDP was well served by Signh’s campaign schooling everyone on how to sign-up a lot of members, but the Conservatives already know how, and can do it better. Sad!

John Anderson is the Head Organizer of Toronto ACORN. Since 2004 John has helped to develop the ACORN Canada operations in Toronto, Ontario, and British Columbia. He is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg.

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