Opinion: Singh must unite a fractious NDP

It’s a divided NDP family that will gather in Ottawa late next week for the party’s first national convention under leader Jagmeet Singh.

The last time the New Democrats got together, two years ago in Edmonton, the issue of Thomas Mulcair’s leadership split the convention down the middle. He resigned after having lost a confidence vote by two percentage points.

Since then, some of the fault lines that surfaced at the time have become deeper. Larger cracks have appeared in the party’s unity. One has to go back to constitutional debates of the Meech years in the late ’80s to find comparable ones. They are too large to be easily papered over.

The last convention featured friction between Alberta’s pro-pipeline NDP government and backers of the LEAP manifesto. Among other propositions, it calls for Canada’s fossil fuels to be left in the ground. A majority of delegates at the 2016 federal gathering voted to consider embracing the manifesto.

Between that convention and the upcoming one, the NDP formed a government in British Columbia. These days, the New Democrats in power in Edmonton and Victoria are engaged in a bitter feud over the plan to transport more Alberta oil to the Pacific Coast by expanding the capacity of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a taste of the passion the project inspires at a town hall on Vancouver Island last Friday. But while federal support for the Kinder Morgan project has become a lightning rod for its opponents, it is worth noting that the town hall was held in NDP/Green territory.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has staked the future of her government on the notion that carbon pricing and progress on the pipeline front go hand-in-hand. That’s the balance Trudeau also claims to be striking.

But B.C. Premier John Horgan came to power on the promise to do all he can to prevent the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

It is part of the glue that binds the Green Party to his minority government.

The majority of New Democrats come from Ontario, B.C. and Quebec. To varying degrees they are hostile to new pipelines. That puts them on a collision course with fellow New Democrats from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

As interim NDP leader in Saskatchewan, Trent Wotherspoon welcomed the approval of the Kinder Morgan project. He is one of two candidates vying for the permanent leadership of the party in a vote to be held March 3.

The Palestine/Israel issue has long been a divisive one for the NDP, with many of the party’s activists promoting a more militant pro-Palestinian stance.

They want the NDP to endorse the controversial Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

A year and a half ago, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May mused about resigning her position over the adoption of a pro-BDS party resolution. It was subsequently reworded.

Although the NDP voted against a parliamentary motion condemning the BDS campaign two years ago, Mulcair made it clear he was adamantly opposed to the movement.

There will be delegates at next week’s convention determined to revisit the issue.

The socialist caucus has been demanding the resignation of MP Hélène Laverdière as foreign affairs critic. The non-parliamentary group claims she adopted “reactionary” stances that go against NDP principles and is too close to pro-Israel groups.

Singh is unlikely to bow to that demand. The NDP caucus is already reeling from the events that led to an independent investigation into allegations of harassment against Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir last week.

The NDP is the latest federal party to be conducting such an investigation. But it stands alone in having decided to proceed absent an actual complainant. Singh took action after MP Christine Moore sent an email to her caucus colleagues voicing concerns about what she had been hearing about Weir’s conduct.

Mulcair navigated his party’s oft-tumultuous policy waters by keeping minds focused on the NDP’s election prospects and the opportunity to oust the Conservatives from office. It helped that he had poll numbers that showed federal power to potentially be within the reach of the New Democrats.

Singh can count on no public opinion crutch.

His party is running a distant third in national voting intentions, far behind the Liberals and the Conservatives in every province east of Manitoba. His first convention as federal leader is shaping up to be more challenging than his first-ballot climb to the top of the leadership ladder.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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