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Is the NDP ready for change?

Former federal NDP candidate Jennifer Hollett makes the case that the party is ready to move ahead to whatever comes next
Jennifer Hollett
Jennifer Hollett at the NDP Convention in Edmonton on April 9, 2016. (Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)
Jennifer Hollett at the NDP Convention in Edmonton on April 9, 2016. (Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)

Jennifer Hollett, a former TV personality, was the New Democratic Party’s candidate in the riding of University–Rosedale in the 2015 federal election.

The last time I was in Edmonton, strangers were honking horns, welcoming me into their apartment buildings, and hugging me with glee. It was a year ago. Like many New Democrats across the country, I had made my way to Alberta to help get out the vote in a provincial election where the NDP was likely to win. Not only did we win, we went from four seats to a majority government in “Wild Rose country.”

The next day I was back in Toronto, knocking on doors as a federal NDP candidate while pundits were trying to make sense of this unthinkable win, assuring Canadians that provincial politics have little impact on federal politics. At the doors in University–Rosedale, people were smiling—smirking, really, with pride. While it was too early in 2015 for people to say whom they planned to vote for federally (other than not voting for Harper, I was repeatedly assured), the conversation would end with a heartfelt congrats. The belief gap was shrinking. If Alberta could vote NDP, maybe the rest of the country could too.

So it felt good to be back in Alberta for the NDP’s 2016 convention. Friends of mine who work in the legislature offered me a personal tour over lunch on the first day. The building was breathtaking, the history humbling, and it was ours. Even a year later, I needed to touch it to believe it. And while I hope someone is writing a case study, thesis, or book on how the hell it happened, simply put, Albertans were fed up. They wanted change, so they voted for the only party that truly represented change: the NDP.

Related: How the Alberta NDP won

Change is a funny word. The federal Liberals campaigned on “real change” and the NDP on “ready for change.” Like any talking point repeated ad nauseam, it became meaningless jibber-jabber. But 2015 was indeed a change campaign, and the Liberals managed to out-change the party that’s supposed to represent change (that’s the NDP, in case you forgot).

As a candidate, you need to know why you’re running. It’s the most frequent question asked at the doors, and by the media. It’s also what you come home to and confront during your 14-hour day after 14-hour day. I entered politics to change it. Growing up in St. Catharines, Ont., in a non-political family, raised by a single mom, I didn’t feel politics was a part of my life. Like many, if not most Canadians, government felt like something floating above my life, happening to me. I decided to run with the core belief that if I could insert myself into the democratic process, hopefully I could change it, making it real and accessible to more people—especially women and youth—in the process. I was hoping to humanize politics, with a party that puts people first. I remain dedicated to this pursuit.

Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair waves to the crowd after his speech during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alta, on Sunday, April 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair waves to the crowd after his speech during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alta, on Sunday, April 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Political conventions are usually predictable, if not boring. Party faithful come together, show off their knowledge of the rules of procedure, wonk out over policy, have a few too many drinks and remember campaigns of elections past.

This year was different.

While New Democrats often joke that we’re used to losing, 2015 was colossal. Forming government was within reach, and we were serious contenders. We ran an incredible slate of candidates, with a progressive and principled platform. Heading into the election, momentum was on our side. But the national campaign failed to make the case for the NDP. Instead, supporters were left holding signs to “Stop Harper” and we did just that, by sending voters to the Liberals. Despite this, I have yet to meet a New Democrat or a Canadian who doesn’t say, “I like Tom.” Tom Mulcair’s performance as leader of the official Opposition gained him and our party a lot of admiration and respect. One can only imagine this loss probably hit him the hardest. So New Democrats headed into the convention with mixed emotions. A group of delegates publicly supported Tom; others campaigned for a leadership review. The majority of us politely heard both sides out with tender hearts, saying nothing.

Related: Inside the NDP’s hard-left turn into an existential crisis

Party members in Toronto were particularly sensitive to the failures of the federal campaign. For us, it was a three-peat. In 2014, we were part of a provincial and mayoral race that played it safe. We campaigned by watering down our leaders and language, writing ballot-box questions that other candidates could answer. As we tried to grow, we lost our authenticity. We can’t afford to do this again.

So there was a large soft vote at the convention that wanted to know how Tom and the NDP were going to change moving forward. Surely there must be lessons learned from the federal campaign, good and bad. There was a big appetite for some real talk—the type of no-nonsense, no-apologies speeches and ideas that have drawn many NDP volunteers down south to work on Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

The best moment in Tom’s speech was the opening line. “No pressure,” he joked. It was real, honest and in the moment. Unfortunately, most of the speech morphed into a script, memories of the federal campaign that lacked feeling. He made the case for the NDP, and earned several standing ovations by tapping into our shared values, but failed to make a strong enough case for why him, and offered no plan or vision for moving forward.

Searching for change, delegates were excited when they saw an opportunity for grassroots dialogue around working toward a non-polluting economy as proposed in the Leap Manifesto, while equally ecstatic when Rachel Notley made her case for workers, health care, and education in Alberta. This is the work of New Democrats—figuring out how we can come together, fighting for workers and the environment.

Related: Avi Lewis defends the Leap Manifesto

Delegates were looking for change in Edmonton. When they couldn’t find it in Tom, they took it upon themselves to be that change, voting for a leadership race.

What comes next, no one knows. Not even the pundits. But it will be something new—and New Democrats are ready for it.