I feel like “no political experience, little money, and only the slimmest chance of winning” describes the majority of NDP election campaigns.
Noah Richler’s improbable Toronto – St. Paul’s run in the 2015 federal election is self-described as just that in his book, “The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail”.
In it, Richler details the 2015 election, beginning with his initial interest in formal politics, the party-politicking of declaring your candidacy, the inner-workings of an on-the-ground election campaign, election day itself, and the brutal aftermath of electoral defeat.
From conversations with voters at the door, to made-up accounts of what life would’ve been like had he won, Richler’s account of the election is humorous and hopeful – words I don’t usually use to describe the 2015 election, yet he invokes those feelings with ease in this ode to democracy-making.
About a week after reading the book, I decided on a whim to message Richler over Twitter and ask for an interview. We’d had a couple of interactions on the site and though I considered it to be a long shot, I figured there was no harm in asking.
To my surprise, Richler agreed, and after moving some things around in our schedules, we set a date.
Jonathan Rotsztain “The Candidate on the campaign trail” http://rotsztain.com/comics/candidate/candidate.html
I arrive at his pleasant house in Cabbagetown one evening after work, and am greeted by his rather large dog with a growl. His front door is sitting ajar and he peeks out of it, quieting his dog and telling me to come on in through the gate.
If I didn’t already know from reading his book, I can tell he’s not a politician by the lack of a handshake as I greet him at the door. After five years in Ottawa though, this kind of relaxed casualness is refreshing, and I end up feeling more welcome stepping into his home than I have at most political functions.
He offers me a tea and lets me pick out the mug. After a bit of small talk, about families and work life and such, we get down to the real reason I’m here.
For those of you who don’t know, or don’t remember, Noah Richler – son of notable Montreal author, Mordecai Richler – ran for the NDP in the 2015 election in the riding of Toronto-St. Pauls. Known for its above-average income earners, and 18-year incumbent Member of Parliament, Carolyn Bennett.
Richler made an impression on voters by releasing a series of short, humorous videos that parodied the Liberal and Conservative political advertisements. Branding himself “The Candidate” worked to make himself stand out against the crowd.
When not preoccupied with the other two campaigns I was working and volunteering on, I followed Richler’s campaign closely, equally amused and intrigued by its unique tactics.
The first question I ask ends up being a stylistic question about his work.
At the beginning of the book, everything seems rather large and imposing, especially the people he talks to. Richler is brushing shoulders with Margaret Atwood and calling up Tom Mulcair. Towards the end, however, the focus of the book becomes smaller. He talks more about the people he meets along the way, the small people. The volunteers, the folks he meets at the door, and all the smaller details that were missing from the beginning.
I ask if this was intentional. Richler notes that I’m the first person to point this out, and admits that it was partly natural, and partly intentional. “I wanted to be honest about my social position, and the people that I know. And then to show that the loftiness that I had at the beginning of the story slowly gets taken away. The experience humbled me, and it made me tender towards the people I was leading.”
In fact there is a part of the book that explains just that, and it’s one of the parts of the book I’ve set aside to ask Richler about.
The book details how once he had accepted electoral defeat, his most important job was then to put on a good face for his volunteers and campaign workers.
I ask him what advice he has for people who find themselves in positions of leadership, such as the one he was in.
“You have to convince yourself why. If you don’t know and understand why you’re doing something, and how you’re going do it, then no one that’s following you is going to either.
“You have to feel inspiration, and believe in what you’re doing, in order to be able to pass it on to others.”
Richler illustrates this to me by using the example of when he figures out how to ask for money. He found it extremely difficult at first to work out the wording and reasoning behind why he was asking people to donate to the campaign, and explaining why they should. It was only once he figured it out for himself that it was easier.
“Take care of the people that work under you,” Richler continues. “Make sure their time isn’t wasted. Understand that they’re not really there for you, they’re there for something bigger.”
I make a mental note to one day write a blog post about ‘founder syndrome’, the very thing Richer, who is only very new to politics, has already figured out not to do.
Before we go any further in the interview, I ask him a question that has puzzled me since the day I picked his book up off the shelf in Chapters:
“What possibly possessed you to write this book?”
Richler laughs and says “Come on, it’s not all bad.”
He’s right. In many ways, the book is a celebration of democracy, including all the horrid, partisan, frustrating and infuriating things about our democracy. That said, the 2015 election is a good example of most of the bad things about democracy, and not a lot of the good stuff.
“Well I didn’t want to write a book about myself, I wanted to write about something else.” Richler explains. “Writing this was cathartic. I couldn’t have written it if I didn’t feel good, if I hadn’t come to peace with everything that happened.”
Richler makes a good point. It’s by no means a bitter tale – frankly it’s more often hilarious than it is upsetting. Yet as someone who also lived through a Toronto NDP campaign during the 2015 election, for me it did call up old feelings about that October.
The book is written chronologically, and the closer and closer Richler’s countdown gets to that dreadful October 19th date, the more I felt the anxiety and sadness rising, just like I felt during the election. However, being able to read it through someone else’s eyes was cathartic for me, in the same way it must have been for Richler to write it all out.
Now that this burning question is out of the way, our interview returns to its regular flow.
I note that throughout his book, the idea of youth involvement in politics comes up a lot, which I note is something that has always interested me.
Richler says that what he liked about his campaign team was that it was very diverse. It brought together the experienced and the new. “The new” he tells me, “doesn’t have to mean ‘young’”.
“Politics should be open to those who have no experience or connections. Convincing youth to vote our way is good for today and tomorrow. Youth are also important to hear from on campaigns. We develop most of our formative experiences that shape our lives when we’re young, so it’s good to stay connected with what matters to the youth of the day.”
Richler also says that “In many ways, young people are having more sophisticated conversations about complicated topics today than anyone else, especially with regards to white privilege, cultural appropriation and the like.”
As for the role of young people in politics, Richler says to anyone thinking about running:
“Go for it, do it. We’re always fighting for greater participation in politics.”
It leads us to talk a little bit about what groups are fighting for proper representation in politics. It leads us into a conversation about accessibility in politics. It’s something he mentions quite heavily in the book, especially with regards to Caroline Bennett.
He expresses frustration that Bennett is still taking home an MP salary while campaigning. This gives incumbents an incredible advantage over their opponents, who usually have to take a leave of absence from their jobs for the duration of the campaign.
“Not everyone can do it.” Richler points out. “Financially, my wife and I were able, but it was tough. In most part because of the length of the campaign.
“The financial burden is something that needs addressing, especially when we talk so much about needing a more diverse Parliament. The economic barrier is what we need to look at.”
One of my favourite and yet most infuriating scenes in the book is when Richler is invited to attend the Munk debate. Here is just a small excerpt from page 226:
“In the stands were Liberal and Conservative barons baying in the league like bloodthirsty Romans for the end of the Orange Pretender. “Change” was what the day’s patricians knew was coming – they could sense its inevitability in the angry faces of the plebs outside – so “change” would happen, but not so much change that they’d be out of pocket, or the order that had served them be threatened. If there needed to be a change of costume, then its finery would be red, not orange.”
In the book, Richler counts the Munk debate as the moment he realized the NDP was not going to win, that the odds were too stacked against us, and that the establishment would never capitulate to the demands of the “plebs” – to use Richler’s word.
This moment of the book is probably the number one thing I wanted to talk to Richler about when we sat down, and his answers to my questions do not disappoint.
“Canada is a consensual society because its establishment is completely unthreatened.” Richler begins his first and only rant of the evening. “It’s been shocking how after 2015, the establishment are unthreatened by the changing of the guard.
“Wealthy people who were never in danger of losing their status, still are not, so they don’t care that Trudeau is in power. Trudeau’s “middle class” talk is a sham, an act of deception.
“If ever I came close to being bitter, it was realizing that the majority of people with means are completely disinclined to lend a hand.”
Jonathan Rotsztain “The Candidate at home” http://rotsztain.com/comics/candidate/candidate.html
Unprompted, Richler starts to talk about the NDP.
“In context of NDP leadership race, the number one thing the next leader needs to say, is that they won’t be signing off on candidate’s nomination papers. That to me is even more important than electoral reform, that’s what needs to change in the NDP. It’s the only way we’ll uphold not just the grassroots, but also the only way to protect the elected representative. To allow them to properly do their job, to be true to their beliefs and constituents.”
Now that Richler’s brought it up, I start to question him more on the NDP. I note that there are times in the book when he’s quite critical of the NDP, and ask him to speak on it a bit more.
“I like Tom Mulcair, in fact I think he’s the best MP in the whole House of Commons, and that’s why I feel comfortable criticizing the campaign the way I do in the book.”
Indeed, Richler does have significant criticisms of the 2015 campaign. In the book he discusses things like focusing on the wrong ridings, not letting the local campaigns have much of a voice, and the lack of responsiveness to what the local campaigns were telling central office.
To me, he talks about an interesting recommendation.
“If I was the leader” he says almost jokingly “I would’ve run the campaign completely inverted. Instead of making it a leader-focused campaign I would’ve gone to every riding and put the candidate first. I would have said to people: ‘Look at this awesome person running for us. This is you, Canada.’ Because the NDP is a great, diverse party. And we should show that more.”
It’s clear to me that while Richler has a lot of problems with the NDP – and particularly with how the 2015 campaign was run, he also has a lot of respect for the party. He admits that at times he considered going “rogue”, and been even more risky with his own campaign, but held back out of respect for the central campaign.
One thing I am intensely curious about are his ties to the NDP before the election, and he admits he had none really.
“But now?” I ask.
“Yeah, now I’m a dipper.”
Richler says at some point he realized that the Liberal Party of Canada stands against absolutely everything he believes in. “Some people would call me sacrilegious for saying this” he proceeds cautiously, “but historically, the NDP and the Tories have had a lot more in common.
I interrupt him briefly to quash his worries that he’s set me off by saying that. “Don’t worry,” I joke, “I know my George Grant.” He laughs a little, mostly getting the joke I think, and continues.
“I think it’s better to enable people to equalize their communities, and there’s many ways we can do that. Small-l liberals have failed miserably.” He counts himself among them, “When it comes to Brexit, to Trump, and we have to examine why we failed.”
The penultimate question I have for Richler is in regards to a rather controversial part of the book. Richler is at a Labour Day parade and while watching hundreds of union works marching by with their Locals, reflects on how he thinks the NDP’s electoral base has changed:
“What bygone world was the NDP living in, that it thought people voted in blocs and organized labour was its bedrock? Why was it assuming the allegiance of groups of highly paid carpenters, nurses, and teachers, et cetera, who, their revenue guaranteed, were surely as likely as anyone to choose the party that taxed them the least… Disorganized labour – part-time and “precarious” workers – I could see. But this long line of workers in closed shops with eighty-inch TVs and home cinemas and gas-guzzling trucks, these teachers with pensions – would they be voting our way?” p.183
I ask Richler directly – what do you think the role of unions still is within the NDP?
“Yes, we are still the party of labour? Do they vote for us? No. And certainly not as a block.”
“Who is the working person anymore?” Richler questions me, “A union’s incentive is to protect their privilege. There’s no base allegiance anymore, and to assume they all vote as a block, and vote for the NDP, is wrong.”
“What we should start doing more is fight for labour rights abroad.”
On that, we certainly agree. For the rest, I’m not entirely sure I buy Richler’s pessimistic view of unions though. Certainly there are some elections one can point to of labour abandoning the NDP en masse – the 2014 Ontario Provincial election being one of them.
But I’ve organized with labour before, and been to a handful of NDP conventions, all of which have had significant labour representation. The idealist in me believes firmly in the social solidarity that unions bring. That it’s because those unionized workers have been able to climb the social ladder that they’re willing to reach a hand down to help those below them up.
Maybe there is another side to the story, but it’s not one I’ve been privy to. At least not yet.
It’s nearing 6:00 now and Richler several far more important things to do before the night is up, and so I ask him for five more minutes for just one more question.
Early on in the book, when Richler talks about why he wants to run, he says he realizes that his vision of Canada is not a fiction, and it’s not dead, it’s just laying dormant.
I ask him, when Trudeau stands up and says “Canada is back” does that speak to the same sentiment?
It seems to catch him off guard slightly, which is fair. It’s a bit of an underhanded question to ask, and I feel bad posing it to him, but he appeases me nonetheless.
“There the part of the book where I say my fake campaign speech to voters, and sometimes I feel like those words could’ve been ripped right from Trudeau’s mouth. That’s probably just because there are obvious things to be said. Yes, we are living in a better, more equitable country. But as you and I know, mostly that’s just tone. The big issues, the environment, economic policies, trade, these things are all completely unaltered. So no, Trudeau and I are saying some things differently. And “Canada is back” rang hollow for me.”
Could the NDP have restored his vision of Canada? “Oh yeah.”
His confidence in that statement makes me smile.
“It was so tough to see capable, bright people that had slogged away in opposition for so long get turfed” Richler says, “they’re the ones that would’ve really made the role their own, and truly taken back Canada. But we would have had a tougher time than Trudeau.
“The Liberal party is an ideology. You can’t criticize one part without being seen to criticize the whole. After ten years of living under Harper, you can see why. People want to like their government. But still.”
Jonathan Rotszain “The Candidate is stunned” http://rotsztain.com/comics/candidate/candidate.html
Richler’s “The Candidate” is a catharsis, and a wake up call.
For those who lived through the 2015 election as an NDP candidate, campaign staffer, or volunteer, this book is a shoulder to cry on, and a friend to vent to. It speaks aloud every fear and every dream that all of us felt in those few months.
For those of us still living in that past, and still re-living every terrible moment of the 2015 election, it’s a bucket of cold water in the face, shaking you out of a stupor. Life goes on. Elections come and go. Sometimes you win, most times you lose.
The left has a lot of work to do to be taken seriously in this country. As many on the left point out – a lot of that work is done in between election time. But all of that work builds to the next election cycle. Gaining political power is the key to building a more socially democratic society, which is the end goal of all left-wing activists.
Considering the kind of elections we want to run, and the types of campaigns we know we can be proud of, is a conversation we all need to have.
Richler’s book is a fantastic start.