National Column: Why Charlie Angus might make the perfect NDP leader

Thomas Walkom Toronto Star

Charlie Angus is labouring under a burden.

At 54, the man who would be New Democratic Party leader is no longer the enfant terrible of left-wing politics in Canada.

Nor is this 13-year veteran of the Commons an outsider looking in.

Rather, he is a passionate yet experienced politician who knows that nothing is simple, that deals can and must be made and that compromises are sometimes necessary.

If his party were to choose him as leader in the next few weeks, he would probably make a good one.

Yet the NDP is at the point now where good may not be enough. Like the Liberals after the disastrous leaderships of StÈphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, it seeks a Messiah – a miracle worker.

It wants someone who can undo the humiliation New Democrats suffered at the hands of Justin Trudeau in the last federal election.

While few New Democrats are willing to admit it, many want their own Trudeau.

From this comes the fascination with Jagmeet Singh. Like Trudeau when he ran for his party’s leadership, the Brampton MPP doesn’t yet have many accomplishments under his belt. At 38, he is still young.

But like Trudeau, he has turned his stylish youthfulness into a formidable asset.

Singh is not just a pretty face. He promotes an extensive policy agenda ranging from tax reform (he would reintroduce an inheritance tax on the well-to-do) to pension reform (he would replace universal old-age security with a new means-tested program).

But the main pitch he makes to NDP members has nothing to do with policy. It is that he can win – that his charm, style and Sikh origins will allow the NDP to draw in voters, particularly from the suburbs, who have never before supported a left-leaning party.

For New Democrats anxious to regain the status they held under Jack Layton, it is an intoxicating idea.

For Charlie Angus, it must be galling.

The former rock musician is running a classic outsider’s campaign – against unnamed villains at the centre of the party who, he says, played it too cautiously during the 2015 election and on behalf of those who, as he put it in a meeting with the Star editorial board this week, are “left out of the game.”

He comes by this honestly. Angus was championing Indigenous issues in the Commons long before it became fashionable to do so.

In this race, he hasn’t focused on policy (although he has developed some). Even now, he is still cagey about specifics, noting that while he has “distinct views” on tax reform he doesn’t want to reveal them yet.

He is not afraid to use the old-fashioned language of the left, noting that class is the fundamental issue in Canada and economics the great divide.

And while modern New Democrats prefer the anodyne and poll-tested term “working families,” Angus – who hails from the old, hard-rock mining town of Cobalt – talks explicitly of the “working class.”

He notes that the gig economy has created a whole new working class dependent on insecure work, one that ranges from fast-food servers to university lecturers on perpetual six-month contracts.

While Trudeau promises to act on behalf of “the middle class and those attempting to join it,” Angus aims his appeal at those who, from no fault of their own, have been booted out of the middle class.

It is a populist pitch. And it is no surprise that Angus’s political heroes include left populists like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But like Sanders, Angus is also a practical politician. He opposes existing plans to build oil pipelines to service the Alberta tarsands. But he does not oppose all pipelines, noting that even in a low-carbon world, oil would be necessary.

He opposes a Quebec bill that would prevent those wearing face coverings from giving or receiving government services. But he wouldn’t risk a political backlash in Quebec by trying to do anything about it.

It’s up to aggrieved Quebecers, he said, not the federal NDP,

to mount a court challenge to any such law.

In normal times, Angus might be exactly the kind of leader the NDP wanted – principled but not impossibly so, leftish without being ultraleft, experienced yet at the same time a new face.

But these are not normal times. New Democrats have come tantalizingly close to tasting power. Many want as leader whoever can most quickly deliver that high again.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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