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Saskatoon Meewasin MLA Ryan Meili is the new leader of the Saskatchewan NDP after winning 55 per cent of the vote in the party leadership race. A practicing physician, Meili beat out his sole rival, Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon, with a campaign in which he pledged to take only individual donations—ultimately raising more money than Wotherspoon despite the latter’s support from the party establishment. Perceived as the most “left” candidate in his two previous bids for the party leadership in 2009 and 2013, Meili’s victory reflected a widespread desire for change among NDP supporters.

Heading into the vote on March 3, Wotherspoon boasted greater support from the party establishment, having gained endorsements from six sitting MLAs in the NDP caucus compared to one for Meili. In the wake of Meili’s win, Tom McIntosh, head of the political studies department at the University of Regina, called the result “a vote from the grassroots of the party” and a “modest turn to the left”. However, he acknowledged that his commentary would have been much the same had Wotherspoon won! “It's a modest turn to the left, but I think you would have a modest turn to the left with Wotherspoon as well,” McIntosh said in an interview with CBC News.

That general leftward shift reflected pressure from the NDP grassroots. During the leadership race, Meili and Wotherspoon ran on broadly similar platforms, even making light of this fact during a debate at the party convention in October. Both candidates supported policies such as bringing back the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, protecting Crown corporations, finding workers within the province for infrastructure projects, and providing a plan for climate change that includes developing renewables and reducing carbon emissions through carbon pricing.

Voters, however, saw Meili and Wotherspoon as representing two distinct directions for the once-dominant Sask. NDP, which has suffered repeated electoral humiliations in recent years at the hands of the ruling Saskatchewan Party. The NDP currently holds only 12 of the 61 seats in the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan. Declining support for the Saskatchewan NDP in recent decades can be traced in part to the unpopular austerity measures enacted in the 1990s under former NDP Premier Roy Romanow, as well as the right-wing policies of his successors.

Following the defeat of former Sask. NDP Leader Cam Broten in the 2016 provincial election, Wotherspoon took on the role of interim leader. During his tenure, the NDP won a by-election and saw a rise in the polls that coincided with a sharp drop in support for the Saskatchewan Party, which was suffering from a popular backlash after pushing through brutal austerity measures in response to exploding provincial debt caused by lower resource prices. In light of these developments, Wotherspoon, during the October debate at the party convention, made the case for continuing on the NDP’s current trajectory and to “build on that momentum”. His platform also included some progressive measures, most notably his call for universal $15-per-day child care.

Meanwhile, Meili positioned himself as the “change” candidate. At the convention debate, he reminded voters of the crushing defeat that the NDP suffered in the 2016 election and offered a stark warning: “If we get more of the same, we’ll get more of the same results.” Throughout Meili’s political career, he has centred his policies around the idea of a “healthy society”, and his latest leadership bid similarly presented the idea of health as his primary political goal by addressing issues such as lack of income, housing, and education that can contribute to poor health. His campaign promises included significant progressive reforms, such as establishing universal pharmacare and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. For a majority of NDP voters, reeling from past defeats and yearning for progressive change at a time of austerity, Meili ultimately edged out Wotherspoon as their favoured candidate to achieve this goal.

Unfortunately, Meili’s platform also suggested a significant degree of political confusion. Having refused to accept donations from corporations or unions during his campaign, he pledged that in the event of becoming Premier of Saskatchewan, his first act of legislation would be to eliminate corporate and union donations to political parties. Meili’s lumping together of corporations and unions represents a peculiar form of horseshoe theory, one that equates individual capitalists with associations of workers.

Since the leadership election, Meili has taken steps to emphasize continuity with the party’s recent history rather than change. In announcing his shadow cabinet, he retained nearly all NDP MLAs in their current positions. Among the exceptions was Wotherspoon, whom Meili named as critic for social services in a clear effort to unify the party behind him. These moves indicate Meili is currently preoccupied with shoring up support and finding his footing as leader.

Dissatisfaction with the Saskatchewan Party and Premier Moe will likely continue to grow in the runup to the next provincial election in 2020. Even so, victory for the Sask. NDP that year is hardly assured, given its low starting point and current seat count. Success for the NDP in the coming years will be based on whether the party is able to articulate and put forward bold socialist policies that provide an alternative to capitalist austerity.

The ranks of the Saskatchewan NDP voted for Meili because they want a left turn. However, there are powerful bureaucracies within the movement that are resisting this change. It is vital that the grassroots of the NDP and the trade unions do not let up on the pressure. On his own it looks like Meili is heading in the direction of being sucked into the bureaucratic machine. If this occurs then the party will fail in providing a real alternative to the austerity of the Saskatchewan Party. This cannot be allowed to happen.

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