Braid: The NDP's syrup-sweet leadership campaign covers cracks the next leader will inherit

The NDP is understandably intent on harmony. This is a fragile moment for a party still recovering from last year’s election loss

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Some will remember Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the treacly kids show where everybody was so darn nice and never a hint of discord intruded on eternal harmony.

Watching NDP leadership debates is a bit like that. The four candidates bust themselves to compliment each other. They give friendly shoulder pats on the way to grab the mic.

Adorable to a point, but even maple syrup is too much in large doses.

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The final debate was held Sunday in Edmonton, ending just a couple of hours before the seismic Oilers-Dallas Stars game. Voting started Monday morning and on June 22 the party will announce the winner.

The NDP is understandably intent on harmony. This is a fragile moment for a party still recovering from last year’s election loss. Personal attacks and divisions might have blown it apart.

There could not be a sharper contrast with the UCP’s 2022 leadership race. All but one of Danielle Smith’s opponents slagged her sovereignty plan, coming close to naming her a threat to Canada, almost a traitor.

And yet, she won. Later, so did her party. Some of her fiercest opponents are now happily employed in her cabinet.

It was more proof of what conservatives have always believed — if they stay united in one party, they can survive almost anything they do to themselves.

The NDP has no such luxury. A negative, divisive leadership race could have shredded its support, which still stands at about 45 per cent, according to a poll directed by Janet Brown Opinion Research.

By that measure, the harmony offensive seems to be working. Success shows in membership sales, too. The party went from 16,000 members at the beginning of the year to more than 85,000 eligible to vote.

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Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s candidacy surely helped with that, but so did the absence of public acrimony.

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Calgary now has more NDP members (39,240) than Edmonton (21,253). Although the NDP owns Edmonton in seats, there appears to be more enthusiasm in Calgary.

That’s good news for Nenshi — but not so much for Sarah Hoffman, the former NDP minister.

She has tied her campaign to the traditional Edmonton base. Hoffman is the only candidate to say outright that the party should not cut its formal tie with the federal NDP and Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Nenshi says the Singh connection costs the Alberta NDP. Campaigners hear it on the doorsteps. Only by severing the link, he argues, can the party attract people who vote for any of the other national parties.

Calgary’s Kathleen Ganley and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, the second Edmontonian in the race, both play this central issue down the middle, saying it’s a question for the members to decide.

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Nenshi’s whole campaign revolved around that one aspiration. It’s an emotional issue within the party and crucial for the future.

Alberta NDP leadership debate
The Alberta NDP leadership debate at the Edmonton Convention Centre on June 2, 2024. On stage were candidates Kathleen Ganley, Naheed Nenshi, Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse and Sarah Hoffman. Shaughn Butts/Postmedia

Gil McGowan, the labour leader who left the leadership race when he couldn’t raise his final deposit money, touched on a sore point with the most perceptive comment of the whole campaign.

McGowan said the party doesn’t appeal to a great many working people it so often claims to represent (a problem also for union leaders who formally back the NDP).

On Sunday, Nenshi said: “Gil is right that as a membership base, we really are losing out on working people, particularly young men.”

He said the party is seen as elitist, convinced of its rectitude and unwilling to listen. He called on the NDP to become “not just a party of elites, not just a party of seniors, although we love them all.”

A touch of animosity came when Nenshi said some NDP campaigners, convinced of their cause, don’t really listen.

“I listen!” snapped Hoffman, who’d just finished talking about her experiences on the doorsteps.

The cracks are nicely papered over for now. They could open under the feet of the next leader.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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