Charlie Angus is no Bernie Sanders

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Charlie Angus has a formidable challenge. He was quoted last week as saying he wants to build a bridge between the dreamers and the doers in his party. That will be no mean feat because the hard-core NDP membership is bound together by the ideology of socialism.


Published in The Hill Times on Monday, November 28, 2016.

OTTAWA—Charlie Angus is being heralded as the Canadian Bernie Sanders.

His decision to resign as chair of the New Democratic Party caucus to explore his leadership ambitions was wise and welcome.

Angus is a solid parliamentary performer who is well-respected for his understanding of rural, northern and aboriginal issues. He stands up for the marginalized, which puts him in sync with Sanders’ Democratic primary campaign message, but the comparison stops there.

There are two key reasons why the political gulf between Sanders and Angus is so wide.

First, the urban-rural split in the United States is quite different, and the bizarre electoral college system proffers disproportionate influence to certain states, which happen to have more small town voters.

Canada is a more urban country. In the most recent Statistics Canada data, more than 80 per cent lived in urban centres. Similar American statistics put the number of their urban dwellers at 70 per cent. Ten per cent doesn’t seem like a lot but a comparison of the two systems of voting will yield more clues as to why the Sanders-Angus comparison will not fly.

In Senator Sanders home state of Vermont, the capital city boasts a population of 7,855 which swells to 21000 during the day because of an influx of government workers from neighbouring bedroom communities.

Angus lives in Cobalt, Ontario’s most historic town, with a population of 1,133.

His Timmins-James Bay riding includes 83,104 people. The riding represents one seat in a House of Commons with 338 members.

Sanders’ state of Vermont has a population of 626,042, the second smallest in the union, and get three electoral college votes. With only 278 electoral college votes determining the presidency, the relative importance of Vermont voting patterns looms much larger in the race for the presidency.

The United States has more rural and small town voters, but most important, the electoral college system skews the influence of votes disproportionately toward those voters.

The second major difference between Angus and Sanders is that Sanders voting base exists within a party that has formed government. During the primary, Sanders’ message appealed directly to disaffected Democrats who felt they were being left behind by globalization and international trade deals.

From the rust belt through to the Midwest, Sanders attracted a swathe of voters similar to those who ultimately switched to Donald Trump. They included disaffected union members, the less educated and the kind of Flint, Michigan working-class voter documentarized by filmmaker Michael Moore.

For the most part, Angus’ New Democratic Party is already the home of that demographic. The leadership of the majority of Canadian public and private sector unions is formally, constitutionally tied to the NDP, with specific voting privileges at national and regional conventions.

Unlike American unions, Canadian labour leaders have sacrificed leverage by supporting only the NDP at a national level.

Some provincial trade unions have broken from that tradition.

The Working Families coalition in Ontario was formed to fight anti-union policies from any party. In the lead up to the provincial election that elected Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, they waged a vocal anti-Conservative campaign. The group including teachers, nurses, and construction workers, campaigned to vote strategically in ridings to defeat anti-union candidates.

The result had the effect of driving New Democrat voters over to the Liberals to stop Tim Hudak.

In the United States, labour unions can decide elections. In a few Canadian provinces, Quebec and British Columbia to be precise, labour plays a similar role. But those examples are rare, and generally flourish in two-party provinces.

Angus has a formidable challenge. He was quoted last week as saying he wants to build a bridge between the dreamers and the doers in his party. That will be no mean feat because the hard-core NDP membership is bound together by the ideology of socialism.

An ideologically based party is much harder to shift than a party shaped by the art of the possible. The historical strength of the Canadian Liberal Party has been based on a guiding set of principles tempered by political realism.

Governing has an abrupt way of snuffing out ideology. That doesn’t mean cabinets don’t care, but rather they are influenced more by what is done than what is dreamed. If the possibility of defeat looms, it has a way of focusing your attention. If a party has never actually formed government, it is much easier to promote idealistically unachievable goals.

Angus’ potential candidacy is good news for the NDP. But he is no Bernie Sanders.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.