“On the political spectrum, I’m somewhere between Tommy Douglas and Joe Strummer.” — Federal NDP leadership candidate Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus is a former punk rocker who formed the band L’Etranger after hearing The Clash; is recognized for his dedicated work with First Nations, and thinks unions are fundamental to a better society.
Plus, he has been elected as Member of Parliament to his northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay five times; worked with the homeless in Toronto; successfully fought a toxic waste incinerator; wrote seven books; and was elected NDP caucus chair.
That’s more than enough to make believe Angus will rock as the federal New Democratic Party leader — but there’s much more I like.
“There are a lot of people who don’t think politicians of any stripe are speaking to them,” Angus said in an interview Sunday. “I offer straight talk, an authentic voice that cuts through the spin.”
And that he does, not mincing words when asked about the NDP’s disastrous 2015 election campaign under outgoing leader Tom Mulcair, where the party lost over half its seats instead of contesting for power.
“I think 2015 is an example of the danger of the NDP getting disconnected from its base,” Angus says. “Because it was very much run with a centralized message that had lost touch with how people were feeling and didn’t sense the shifting desire for stronger, bolder harder messaging.
“But you only get that sense if you’re talking to people on the ground,” he adds.
“And then we came into 2015 with a very, very rigid centrally controlled machine that did not listen — ever — to the wisdom of the folks who’d been out in the field for years,” Angus said.
“And we had this situation where the party came to think that the best way to hire organizers was to hire people who lived and worked in Ottawa and they would represent Saskatchewan or B.C. or northern Ontario without in some cases even having gone to those places. That might work for Liberals — they might see the Prairies as fly-over provinces for their campaigns — but us, we have to be on the ground with organizers who are telling us what people are saying.”
“So I think that’s the shift that we have to make — that we can have a modern political machine ready to take on the Liberals, but as social democrats our strength comes from the ground,” he says.
And the potential leader of the NDP — who is running against contenders Guy Caron, an MP from Quebec; Niki Ashton, an MP from Manitoba; and Jagmeet Singh, an Ontario Member of the Provincial Parliament — poses a critical question for party members.
“Is social democracy going to be run by a small group with a spin message that hits up the base for money all the time and then tells the base to go pull the vote?” Angus asks. “Are we going to figure we can just spin and hype the Ottawa media to win?”
Ouch. That version of the federal NDP in recent years rings particularly true. Angus argues strongly for a better alternative.
“Or do we build teams on the ground and build a social democratic movement that inspires people to come out and participate? My feeling is that unless we are engaging people at the grassroots, we’re never going to win on the air war.”
“I’ve been hearing right across the country a real desire from our base that wants a real social democratic party,” Angus continued.
“One of the other disconnections is that blue collar people look at New Democrats and say: ‘Where were you? What party really truly has my back?’ Angus says. “I remember being told by the brain trust: ‘Don’t ever say the words working class — it doesn’t bring in enough people.’”
“People say: ‘Who’s speaking up on jobs? Who’s speaking up on our pensions being ripped off?”
The former punk rocker, who also includes jazz legend Chet Baker in his musical favourites, warns that the NDP must not fall into a trap of being too moderate.
“We want a clear vision that includes labour and includes environmentalists and brings it together with Indigenous people, a party that’s not afraid to talk about pushing back against what’s happening in this neo-liberal model of Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper or any so-called ‘third way’ of neo-liberal NDP,” Angus argues.
“And I think Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats are looking for someone who can speak clearly, speak for people who feel they’re outside the Ottawa bubble, because across the country when I talk to people they do not believe that Ottawa is interested at all in the reality they’re facing in terms of tougher and tougher economics.”
And Angus fears that some of the NDP’s traditional allies may not be in touch with working people’s realities.
“I see a real disconnect when I talk to the so-called progressive community in downtown Ottawa, you know who are NGOs [non-governmental organizations] — they’re great people, but I don’t know if they’re speaking to laid off mill workers or women working in stores where they’re getting only 15 hours a week and not able to get pensions.”
“There’s a lot of people out there who do not feel that politicians of any stripe speak for them, and I think New Democrats have to be a little more aware of the fact that the people we purport to speak for are not hearing it,” Angus said.
Angus warns that if the NDP doesn’t reach those disenfranchised voters, someone will like Donald Trump did in the U.S. election, instead of Democrats.
“When the progressive class thinks they’re too smart to speak to workers in Michigan or Ohio, we see what happens. And if New Democrats think we don’t need to speak to workers in Thunder Bay or Prince George, well, we’re not going to move forward in the way that we need to, and social democracy will not represent the people that it really should be representing,” Angus said.
“It’s really up to New Democrats to speak to people who really are being written off the political and economic map of Canada, to channel their frustrations,” he says.
“We have a prime minister who is pretty much like a young Ronald Reagan — Justin — his sunny ways are so much like ‘Morning in America,’” Angus said, referring to the Republican’s campaign ad and theme in the 1984 election.
“Trudeau talked about a progressive, hopeful vision for the country and then he walked away on it, and the biggest danger we could have right now in the Canadian political realm right now is cynicism — because people are going to be cynical about what he did,” Angus said.
And the ex-punk rocker knows how to address that.
“There are times in our history when you need a stronger, more radical, harder vision to re-establish equilibrium. Look at the early 1960s with Tommy Douglas and the fight for public healthcare, pensions, the push to have fair wages and good union benefits — that set the model for the next 50 years, and we’ve seen it undermined and deregulated and frayed to the point where we are now living with an incredible level of insecurity.”
“That’s why this leadership race is so vital. If the New Democrats are not going to come forward with a really clear plan about how we’re going to bring people together and win, then we’re ceding the ground to two very complementary visions between the Liberals and the Conservatives in terms of their economic policies,” he says.
Angus also doesn’t hide his strong support for unions or their role with the NDP.
“Labour has been a fundamental of my understanding of how to make a better society,” Angus says. “We saw what labour gave the working class in terms of security and pensions and a decent life. And to see this relentless attack on labour now is very worrisome.”
“You need a party who knows who its friends are and is willing to go to bat for them, because if we don’t stand up for all the precarious workers, and the contract workers and the temp workers — they’re taking it in the teeth and labour is one of the few bulwarks we have. So we have to work very closely with labour and build with them to start bringing a larger level of economic fairness in this country.”
But Angus isn’t simply a nostalgic New Democrat looking backwards. He uses Facebook almost exclusively to raise money but to engage members at the same time, while still door knocking and calling voters the old school way.
Angus has also staked out different ground than his leadership rivals on the challenging issue of oil pipelines.
“I’ve been really concerned that we not divide the BC NDP from the Alberta NDP,” Angus says. “There are some fundamental issues that have to be addressed — I get that. But as leader, I am committed to making sure that [Alberta Premier] Rachel Notley is the greatest success possible and that [B.C.] Premier John Horgan is the greatest success that we can have.”
“It’s always flashpoint politics, this pipeline or that pipeline. What I’ve called for is to legislate the hard caps, put the limits on production of greenhouse gases. I’m the only one calling for legislation — I’m from mining country — I know how it works.”
Angus says Canada needs to look at the United Kingdom’s Carbon Budget Council, which sets targets scientifically and will reduce 1990 emissions by 57 per cent by 2030 and at least 80 per cent by 2050.
“I certainly love the work that the Rachel Notley government is doing on their climate action plan — the most aggressive in the country. So where is the federal government on this?” he asks.
“And I have been the only candidate who has gone in to Alberta to meet with energy workers, to see the efforts they’re taking, to start doing training, to start calling for a new, diversified energy strategy,” Angus says. “I’ve been meeting with organized labour, who are trying to lead that struggle, so here’s an opportunity.”
“Rather than picking fights over the flashpoints, how do we move ahead? That’s why I’m in Alberta talking with labour and with environmentalists — we can do this,” he says.
Angus has three themes to his campaign: economic, environmental and indigenous justice, adding: “And we can’t get one unless we get all three.”
But Angus doesn’t want an NDP that still sits in third place in Parliament: “We have to be focused on winning — that’s why I’m in this.”
Win power with tougher, smarter politics and not simply spin? That rocks.