On March 9, Saskatchewan New Democrats will vote to elect their next leader. Whichever candidate ends up taking the reins will face an uphill battle to restore the provincial party’s fortunes. Far from the glory days of Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan NDP now finds itself in electoral dire straits. The party suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party in the 2011 provincial election, winning a paltry nine seats out of 58 — the party’s worst showing in 30 years.

Three candidates now remain in the provincial NDP leadership contest, following the departure of United Steelworkers economist Erin Weir from the race in February. Polls at the time put Weir at a distant fourth behind the other candidates — Saskatoon Massey Place MLA Cam Broten, Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon, and family physician Dr. Ryan Meili. Weir has since endorsed Meili, solidifying the latter’s status as the de facto “left” candidate. But despite Meili’s strong second-place showing in the 2009 leader race, recent polls show that the field remains wide open.

The decline of the Saskatchewan NDP can be traced to the rightward shift of the party that began under Roy Romanow in the 1990s. Previously, NDP premier Allan Blakeney dramatically increased state intervention in the economy during the 1970s through the creation of Crown corporations such as PotashCorp and SaskOil, but the intervening years saw the privatization of some of these Crown corporations and an explosion of the provincial debt as Conservative premier Grant Devine cut taxes in the face of declining natural resource prices. By the time Romanow took over as premier in 1991, the provincial debt was approaching $14-billion.

Romanow, a proponent of the same “Third Way” policies championed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, finally eliminated the deficit through a combination of tax hikes and service cuts. But his policies were highly unpopular with the working class of Saskatchewan. After winning two massive majority governments, the NDP took a beating in the 1999 election. Emerging with a minority of seats, Romanow clung to power only by forming a coalition with the provincial Liberal Party.

As the NDP’s rightward shift alienated its traditional base, Romanow’s successor Lorne Calvert attempted to balance competing interests with increased social spending, financed through government restructuring and higher taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. But the disillusionment of working class voters, combined with a slick campaign by Brad Wall that skillfully obscured his ruthless anti-worker agenda, led to a defeat for the NDP in the 2007 election in which the party won a mere 20 seats, compared to 38 for the Saskatchewan Party.

Rather than return to their left-wing roots, the Sask NDP chose Romanow’s deputy premier Dwain Lingenfelter as their next leader. Lingenfelter, then vice-president of government relations for Calgary-based energy giant Nexen, secured the support of the party caucus and major trade unions in part due to a perception, encouraged by the party establishment, that he was the most popular and “electable” candidate. Lingenfelter’s appeal faded after the NDP’s humiliating 2011 general election loss, following a bland campaign characterized by its lack of bold opposition to Sask Party policies. The supposedly safe, experienced candidate lost his own seat in Regina Douglas Park and immediately resigned the party leadership thereafter.

Since then, the NDP has indulged in much soul-searching. Premier Brad Wall enjoys the highest approval ratings of any premier in Canada but this is largely due to the resources boom that the province is enjoying. The rise in global prices for natural resources such as potash, uranium, and oil — resources that are particularly abundant in Saskatchewan, has meant that the province is doing quite well economically in contrast to the rest of Canada. The Wall government has shamelessly taken credit for this thriving economy, which is based on forces largely outside its control.

Despite Saskatchewan’s resource boom, the Saskatchewan Party has ensured that the spoils remain accumulated at the top of society. The right-wing policies of the Wall government have led to a growing gulf between rich and poor in Saskatchewan, as working families increasingly find themselves caught between ever-higher housing prices and wages which have increased but hardly match the massive profit increases being pocketed by the bosses. It is no coincidence that each of the current Sask NDP leadership candidates has promised to raise the minimum wage and index it to future increases in the cost of living.

At the same time, the Wall government has increased its attacks on the labour movement. The new Saskatchewan Employment Act, introduced last December, unleashes a range of punitive measures against trade unions. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) has said that the proposed changes would “undermine the 8-hour workday, restrict strikes, interfere with dues remittance, allow for the decertification of a union at any time, and exclude employees with some supervisory duties from being part of the same bargaining unit.” The law would also eliminate successor rights for unionized employees in government-owned buildings, meaning workers’ contractually-secured wages and benefits would not carry over under new contractors.

Wall’s offensive against workers heightens the stakes in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race. Although the provincial economy may be booming, this has not lessened the ruling class’ attacks on the working class. In fact, Wall’s government is at the forefront of the attack on working-class rights in Canada; Wall’s employment laws, for example, have served as an inspiration to Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak and his proposals for right-to-work legislation. While all three leadership candidates have put forward similar platforms that promise action on income inequality, climate change, and other key issues for party supporters, the new leader of the Sask NDP will need to be able to challenge capital and put forward a program that defends the province’s workers from the bosses’ attacks.

Two of the candidates in the leadership race, Cam Broten and Trent Wotherspoon, are sitting MLAs and have attracted the support of the party’s establishment.  Both have also attracted a degree of support from Saskatchewan labour; Broten has secured the endorsement of the United Steelworkers while Wotherspoon can point to endorsements from Iron Workers Local 771 — which represents more than 650 iron workers across the province — as well as from the Saskatchewan Building Trades Council.  Both candidates have pledged to strengthen collective bargaining rights and to repeal anti-union legislation, but Wotherspoon has also specifically pledged to repeal Bills 5, 6, 43, and 80, as well as to constitutionalize labour rights.  Wotherspoon has further promised to review the standing of “employer dominant unions and pseudo unions.”

Unfortunately, another one of Wotherspoon’s positions on labour clouds the differences between workers and the bosses, and may only serve to undermine the Sask NDP as labour’s political voice. As a means of redressing what he correctly refers to as “the Sask Party’s one-sided and regressive model of labour-business relations,” Wotherspoon proposes the creation of a Labour-Business Council, similar to the Saskatchewan Labour Market Commission abolished by the Wall government, which would bring together leaders from labour, business, and government to help craft public policy. Unfortunately, this proposal overlooks the sad reality that the interests of workers and management are mutually opposed. We only need to look at Saskatchewan’s own history to see how the NDP has had to battle the province’s business interests time and time again.  What is needed now, more than ever, is an NDP that promises to defend and protect the province’s workers.

In opposition to the two establishment candidates, we have the practicing physician Ryan Meili (who has subsequently been endorsed by labour economist Erin Weir). In endorsing Meili, Weir co-authored a joint “statement of shared principles” with Meili where the two focused on five key proposals: raising revenue from natural resources by changes to royalty rates and subsidies; regulating industries that produce heavy carbon emissions and investing in clean energy; increasing funding for early childhood development; raising the minimum wage and indexing it to the cost of living; and expanding retirement plans.

In addition to proposing new Crown corporations such as SaskPharm, which would produce cheap generic drugs for provincial residents, Meili has taken a somewhat bolder stance on labour relations than Broten and Wotherspoon. Noting that recent labour struggles have focused on defending the historical gains of workers, Meili actually stresses the need to work for new gains, expanding and improving workers’ rights. Meili has obtained the endorsement of the Union of Commercial and Food Workers (UFCW), Saskatchewan’s largest private-sector union representing 8,000 workers across the province. He has also secured endorsements by figures such as Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, long viewed as the left standard-bearer in the federal NDP.

Saskatchewan’s thriving economy renders the dynamics of the provincial NDP leadership race different than might be the case in the rest of Canada. Nevertheless, rank-and-file members can draw some clear lessons from the recent history of the NDP, starting with the fact that the party’s historical nosedive in popularity began with the betrayals of the right-wing Romanow government and only continued under successive leaders who exhibited similar tendencies. The Sask NDP’s shift towards the right in recent years has not gone unnoticed by candidates such as Weir, who before leaving the race emphasized the need to offer a real alternative to the Saskatchewan Party’s anti-worker agenda.

The resource boom of recent years has brought vast riches to Saskatchewan, but as wages stagnate and income inequality rises, the restriction of most gains to the top tiers of society will become increasingly evident. The province’s economic boom has not prevented the right-wing Sask Party government from ramming through some of the harshest anti-worker legislation in the country.  This should remind NDPers that the interests of the bosses and labour are unavoidably antagonistic and that workers need a party that will represent them, not the ruling class.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates have yet presented a socialist platform that truly answers the demands of Saskatchewan workers and youth, and that promises to break with the capitalist system that continues to attack and assault us. The necessity of this distinction may be less obvious during good economic times, but sooner or later, the resource boom will come to an end and the question of restoring profitability to the system will arise. However, Ryan Meili’s candidature does present the possibilities of an organized expression of the left coming out within the Sask NDP, and his platform best reflecting the desire of workers and youth for an alternative.

Although the worst effects of the capitalist crisis may not be immediately evident in Saskatchewan, the province’s working class has not been immune from attack. We need a party, and a leadership, that isn’t afraid to answer that age-old question: “Which side are you on?”