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The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

by Noah Richler

Noah Richler’s latest book is meant to be the story of one unlikely politician’s doomed campaign as a candidate for the federal New Democratic Party. But this enjoyable, albeit uneven, memoir also provides some insight into what’s wrong with the NDP and political left in Canada.

NovemberReviews_TheCandidate_CoverA noted journalist and author (of books such as This Is My Country, What’s Yours? and What We Talk About When We Talk About War), Richler explains that he’d been thinking about making some sort of foray into politics long before he actually put his name on the ballot. In 2013, he called up Chrystia Freeland, another former journalist and now Liberal cabinet minister, to talk about her move into politics. “We were loosely of the same generation and our social circles intersected on occasion,” Richler writes. His flirtation with the then third-place Liberals led nowhere, so he landed with the NDP under the guidance of Toronto MP Craig Scott, who was captain of the University of Oxford hockey team during Richler’s time there.

Richler initially wanted to run in the Nova Scotia riding where he maintains a second home, but accepted the nomination in Toronto–St. Paul’s, a riding long held by Liberal Carolyn Bennett, across town from Richler’s Toronto residence in Cabbagetown. Aside from an abiding distaste for Stephen Harper and a general support for social programs, Richler’s connection to the NDP and its traditional constituency seems minimal. He expresses outright disdain about participating in Toronto’s Labour Day parade. “It was around about the time when the IAMAW Local 2323 – or was it Local 128 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, or maybe the United Steelworkers, or was it the Workers United of Brockville or Belleville or Oshawa or Orangeville? – marched past in duck-hunting camouflage shirts, that some part of me wondered what was the 1950s drama in which the NDP imagined it was the star.”

That Richler was wondering this around the time that Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the U.S. Democratic primary was beginning to gain momentum, and a few days before Jeremy Corbyn swept to the leadership of the U.K.’s Labour Party on a wave of popular support, suggests that it was Richler – along with the federal NDP and its leader, Thomas Mulcair – who were misreading the public mood and the potential appeal of a traditional left-wing, even socialist-tinged, platform. (Bennett handily defeated Richler at the ballot box.)

Despite the considerable flaws of Richler the candidate, The Candidate is as engaging  as any book written about Canadian politics in a long time. Unsurprisingly, the quality of Richler’s writing far surpasses that of the typical Canadian political memoir, which helps keep the reader interested even when the book’s conclusion is in no doubt.

Although it is impossible to judge the extent of his candour, one is left with the impression that Richler has shared much of himself in the pages of this book. He doesn’t seem to be holding anything back, including his displeasure with other local politicians and his dissatisfaction with the people managing the national campaign. Even when the archness of Richler’s commentary proves troubling – he complains, for example, about the unpleasant odours emanating from the halls of some of the riding’s public housing – it’s possible to grudgingly respect his honesty.

For the most part, the book is structured as a chronological account of the run-up to the campaign and the campaign itself. But Richler
keeps readers on their toes by employing a variety of stylistic approaches. Not all of these are successful: failed devices include a group of fantasy sequences in which Richler imagines himself as a cabinet minister, and a passage in which he mimics Shakespeare while recounting a debate at a local church. What works especially well are Richler’s descriptions of dealing with the political class in the NDP, the city, and the riding. His interactions with other politicians, most of whom have been playing the game for a long time, at public events and private fundraisers are even more unpleasant than you would expect. The party’s national campaign staff come off as humourless and gutless.

When you witness how difficult the political sphere is to breach, even for a well-known writer with an Oxford pedigree and a famous family, it is easy to understand how distant this world must appear to just about anyone else. This also explains why, as Richler states, many of the people whose doors he knocked on were keen to deliver what almost seemed like a prepared speech of complaint on the rare instance they had a politician on their turf. The lesson, if there is one, is that leftists vying for public office need to listen harder to the public who are yearning to be heard, instead of banking on support among the country’s cultural, political, and economic elite.