Can Wab Kinew rise to the challenge of leadership?

Leadership contests are supposed to mark new beginnings for parties.

Newly elected leader of the Manitoba NDP comes with baggage, but strengths too

New NDP Leader Wab Kinew will be subject to more scrutiny than ever. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

There is little doubt that recent accusations against new NDP leader Wab Kinew have tainted his victory in this leadership election. Leadership contests are supposed to mark new beginnings for parties. But Kinew takes on the role of leader with both new baggage and scars from what turned out to be a nasty leadership race.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate either the NDP or Kinew in the months and years ahead.

Let's start with the NDP. Kinew has assumed the leadership of a party that has been generally successful in recent Manitoba history. After the watershed 1969 election, the party went on to win seven out of the next 12 elections. This is not a record of overwhelming success, but should reassure Kinew that he is leading a party that has regularly held power in Manitoba.

Further, despite years of internal division in the NDP, its loss in the 2016 provincial election was far from a blowout. Instead, the party receded to its core: 14 out of 57 provincial seats.

What about his strengths?

With respect to Kinew: like all new leaders, he brings both weaknesses and strengths to his new role. We now know more about his weaknesses. But what about his strengths?

First, despite the recent revelations, Kinew won this leadership race convincingly: he clinched 728 votes to competitor Steve Ashton's 253. This wide margin of victory equips Kinew with a strong mandate to both lead and impose his own vision on the party. Kinew now has political capital to spend.

Even before his impressive win, Kinew enjoyed support from figures in the party who had taken opposite sides in the party's previous long-running civil war between former premier Greg Selinger and the "Gang of Five" ministers who resigned from Selinger's cabinet in 2014. Kinew's victory marks the end of that civil war, and means that he will never have to cope with its fallout in the same way that Selinger had to.
Wab Kinew's ability to speak authentically to Indigenous concerns constitutes a substantial strength, says Royce Koop. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

Kinew's ability to speak authentically to Indigenous concerns constitutes a substantial strength. In the wake of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many Manitobans are ready to move forward in a spirit of reconciliation with Indigenous Manitobans. The prospect of an Indigenous premier who can both speak to and work toward reconciliation will be a tantalizing prospect for Manitobans hoping to embrace the Commission's goals. Kinew will aim to transform himself into a public figure who can embody those aspirations of reconciliation.

All this is in addition to promising personal characteristics: Kinew is relatively young and can be a charismatic speaker. Just minutes after his leadership win, the Tories unveiled a website dedicated exclusively to attacking Kinew. While such websites are now common fare in politics, it does suggest that the Conservatives are at least somewhat concerned  about Kinew.

Choose advisors carefully

What is next for Kinew? I think the new NDP leader has three immediate challenges.

First, Kinew needs good advice. As a relatively green politician and a brand new leader, Kinew will need to choose his advisors carefully and, having done so, follow their advice meticulously. There is a substantial network of Manitoban New Democrats with experience in both campaigning and governing. Kinew will have to find the right balance between experienced old hands and new voices, and between long-time loyalists and newcomers to his inner circle. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Kinew, to his credit, is willing to both solicit and listen to advice.

Second, Kinew should aim to solidify support in the NDP caucus. Kinew and Ashton both garnered the support of five MLAs in this race. Kinew will need to quickly soothe the egos of the five MLAs who supported Ashton. A fractious caucus will be hellish for the new leader. In contrast, a unified caucus will make life easier and allow him to focus on other goals. Further, if Kinew loses the next election, he will draw on the support of his caucus in order to survive as leader.

Finally, with the leadership secured, Kinew now must turn his focus from the NDP's traditional hard-core supporters to other more fickle voters that the party needs to attract in order to return to government. Sometimes, Kinew and his loyalists give the impression they are hoping to beef up NDP support in party strongholds like St. John's and Point Douglas. But Kinew needs to turn his attention to more hostile territory such as suburban Riel and Southdale, both seats previously held by NDP ministers but now represented by Tory MLAs.

Accordingly, the themes Kinew broaches while speaking publicly should address Manitobans' broad concerns. His policy focus on jobs and health care, and his quick promise to abolish any prospective health care premiums, both show that Kinew can speak to suburban and other voters about the issues that concern them.

The NDP has its new leader, warts and all. Can Kinew rise to the challenges ahead? It would be foolish to think he can't.

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