NDP hopefuls vow to defeat Stephen Harper. But how?

2011 NDP race: Nine leaders took the stage in Vancouver's NDP town hall. Which one will replace Jack Layton? 

Paul Dewar addresses the audience of 700 B.C. NDP members. Photo by David P. Ball

The quest for Jack Layton's successor took to the stage in Vancouver today, as the nine New Democratic Party (NDP) leadership hopefuls appealed for the support of B.C. members – a third of the NDP's membership.

No single candidate, however, emerged a clear winner. But audience response suggested that the expected front-runners – Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp, who have garnished many high-profile endorsements – may not have fared as well in this particular forum as Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash.
 
Northern B.C.'s Nathan Cullen drew vociferous applause and cheers in condemning the government's approach to First Nations.
 
“We exist under a racist act called the Indian Act,” he said. “We need to tear this act up.
 
“We will speak to each other with respect and integrity -- then Canada can finally reach its potential.”
 
Toronto's Peggy Nash drew applause for references to the Occupy movement against economic inequality.
 
“I'm a grassroots social activist,” she said. “I want to make Canada's economy work for all Canadians, not just the one per cent.”
 
“What I'm offering is I'm going to work as hard as I can to unite Canadians.”
 
Nathan Cullen drew table-thumping when he compared Prime Minister Stephen Harper to a schoolyard bully.
 
“My family taught me what to do with a bully,” he said. “You defeat that bully with integrity and a smile on your face.”
 
And though the 60-second answer format deterred direct interactions between candidates, Topp and Mulcair came closest to obliquely addressing each other's ability to confront the Conservatives.
 
“We stand poised to form the first NDP government,” Mulcair said. “The key to taking that next step is for our party to be able to defeat Stephen Harper's Conservatives – that's what I have to offer.
 
“Most Canadians share our goals and values, but sometimes aren't sure we can provide (...) real solutions for the future. That's the way to form the next government.”
 
Topp also talked strategy – also without many specifics.
 
“We're almost there, one small step away from winning the government of Canada,” he said. “It won't be worth it if we're just about managing the status quo. The good Lord created the Liberals to do that.
 
“We need to be bold in what we offer. If we do that, we have an excellent chance.”
 
The leadership town hall, which took place during the provincial party's fiftieth anniversary convention, saw economic inequality, child care, Indigenous rights, and the need to “defeat Stephen Harper's Conservatives” emerge as core issues.
 
While candidates avoided confrontation, some in the audience were undeterred from interacting. In his opening remarks, Brian Topp spoke for double his allotted time, despite two warnings from the moderator, and was finally booed by a small group of delegates – a blunder referenced by some audience members afterwards.
 
“Brian Topp -- when he ignored the moderator -- took the audience to boo him off stage,” delegate Matthew Laird said. “It was very much a turn-off.”

 
That Topp and Muclair, who have been labelled as “top-tier” in the media, have already built strident factions in the race is no surprise. But neither seemed to resonate as deeply as expected with many audience members surveyed by the Vancouver Observer, most of whom were still uncertain in their choice.
 
Among some we spoke with, Topp gained admiration among many for his economic equality platform and association with Jack Layton; Mulcair, meanwhile, earned praise for his relaxed but passionate style and appeal to broaden the NDP's base. But it might come as a surprise that many in the audience chose Niki Ashton as a “surprisingly successful” speaker and second-choice candidate – much as she had been in the first official debate last week in Ottawa by other candidates.
 
Many delegates were left, as yet, undecided.
 
“What I found was it is going to be a really tough decision,” said party member Sukh Jhangri. “I can't really say there was a clear winner.

“The playing field is still too close to coming out of the gate -- it's still neck and neck. It'll take a few months to find key differences between the candidates.”
 
 

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