The selection of Wab Kinew as leader of the New Democratic Party of Manitoba represents a range of significant changes for the party and for political competition in the province. The changes are generational, social and ideological, and also relate to political communication style.
In terms of generational change, the leadership contest saw Wab Kinew, a 35-year-old freshman MLA, defeat Steve Ashton, a 61-year-old political veteran who served in the legislature from 1981 until losing the Thompson constituency in the 2016 election.
After 17 years in power, the leadership ranks of the NDP had been thinned by voluntary retirements and the reduction of its elected contingent to just 14 MLAs. Before that setback, the open revolt to displace former premier Greg Selinger as leader left deep divisions within the party and probably discouraged several high-profile New Democrats from entering the recent race.
In the present public mood of cynicism toward politics, experience in government no longer seems to be a requirement and may, in fact, be a liability. Ashton seemed to earn no points from the party faithful for having served in the legislature for 37 years and having held several ministerial posts in the cabinets of Gary Doer and Selinger. He was frequently described as a career politician, which has almost become an epithet. Also, long experience meant he brought political baggage from the past, including two previous failed leadership bids.
Ashton was a minister during the cabinet revolt against Selinger and did not enter the leadership race until the contest was officially underway. Still, there was resentment within the party that he was opportunistically putting his leadership ambitions ahead of party unity.
Kinew was not a member of the party or in government when the upheaval occurred. This made it easier for him to attract support from both sides of the lingering divide within the party. That divide is about leadership style, but also disagreements over what the party stands for and how power is distributed internally.
The social backgrounds of the two leadership candidates were strikingly different. Ashton was born in Surrey, England, and came to Manitoba as a child. To this day he carries the class-consciousness of his family background and his coming of age politically in the hardscrabble town of Thompson, where he worked for a time in a mine.
Kinew is Anishinaabe, was born in Kenora and came to Winnipeg for his schooling. After a period of rebellion and conflict with the law, Kinew became more proud of his Indigenous heritage and had a meteoric rise as a writer and broadcaster.
As New Democrats, both candidates had to incorporate issues of inequality and calls for progressive policies into their leadership appeals. There were, however, subtle differences in their messaging. Ashton uses more of the traditional ideological language of the left versus the right, to which he adds the need to address the concerns of women and the Indigenous and LGBTTQ+ communities.
He was uncomfortable with some aspects of the shift in the ideological orientation of the party to the pragmatic, moderate centre under former premier Doer. In contrast, Kinew acknowledges class divides, but his themes and words are more concentrated on the newer identity politics related to the place of First Nations peoples, women and ethnic minorities.
These differences between the two candidates could be seen in their speeches to the leadership convention. Kinew’s speech was personal, values-laden and lacking in specific policy commitments. At the outset, he confronted the discomforting allegations about his past violence towards women in both words and deeds.
As a talented communicator, his words carried an emotional, spiritual appeal. To this viewer, his presentation had the quality of authenticity — that leadership trait that is most prized today. In contrast, Ashton gave a competent and more conventional speech. It dwelled heavily on his past political service — there would be "no learning curve" required for him to go toe-to-toe with Brian Pallister. He talked a lot about the past accomplishments of NDP governments and laid out a number of specific policy commitments that a future government under his leadership would implement.
Considerations of winnability are always a big factor in leadership contests. This is especially true in a party such as the NDP, which has won more often than it has lost since its breakthrough victory in 1969. Recruited for the 2016 election as a star candidate in Fort Rouge, Kinew came to be seen as a political winner who could lead the party back to power.
In winning 75 per cent of the votes cast at the convention, he attracted strong support from caucus, organized labour, women and delegates from all regions of the province. His opponent was not seen to have winning leadership qualities. For Ashton, the NDP is a hybrid — not a just a political party that focuses exclusively on winning elections, but also a social movement that seeks to advance progressive reform ideas within society. This outlook makes him somewhat immune to defeat and likely means he will remain on the political scene.
There was barely any time for the broad coalition that had supported Kinew to savour his victory before the Progressive Conservatives launched a website containing highly offensive messages of sexual violence he had posted in the distant past. Then an article appeared in the Free Press containing vivid details of an alleged domestic assault situation from 14 years ago.
Kinew has apologized for his misogynistic words and denies the allegations of violence, but these, and potentially other, ongoing revelations cast a cloud over his leadership. Much will depend on whether Manitobans find him to be sincere and credible in his apologies and his expressing of regret for past actions. In more concrete terms, the allegations will make it difficult for him as leader to challenge the Pallister government on these sensitive topics.
Perceptions of leaders are always an important factor in voters’ choices, but their relative importance can vary depending on the context. The NDP hopes its new young leader will lead them to victory in 2020. If the Liberals choose one of the two younger contenders for their leadership, the next election could resemble a referendum on leadership.
It will depend, however, on whether economic conditions and/or actions of the government become top-of-mind issues for voters. In any case, the NDP faithful should not assume that a new leader guarantees success. There is still hard work to be done in healing divisions, finding credible, new policy ideas, recruiting talent, raising money and rebuilding the party organization on the constituency level.
In short: leaders matter, but they are not saviours.
Paul Thomas is a professor emeritus in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.