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What beef do NDP MPs have with Charlie Angus?

Charlie Angus was supposed to be the leadership candidate with the federal NDP roots. He mounted an everyman's campaign that was meant to update the New Democrats worker-advocacy traditions. He's a veteran MP. Those were key advantages in fending off the brash campaign of Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, a newcomer to the federal party.

But Mr. Angus's colleagues in the federal parliamentary caucus have all but shunned him.

Only two of the 44 NDP MPs are endorsing him. That's not an automatic campaign-killer, but it's a sign that something has gone wrong. Last January, those New Democratic MPs had elected Mr. Angus as their caucus chair.

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Mr. Angus had a pretty good narrative for an NDP leadership contestant: He is a former rocker-turned-social-advocate in Northern Ontario, who spoke up for Indigenous people and spoke like an ordinary Joe. He has been an MP since 2004. Federal New Democrats knew him.

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But now it's Mr. Singh, 38, who is viewed as the front-runner. He's young, a good communicator and a turbaned Sikh who offers barrier-breaking potential. Mr. Angus is 54, and some worry his French is not good enough.

Most guess Mr. Singh will be ahead after the first ballot. So Mr. Angus can only win if the rest of the party rallies to him as a consensus candidate on later ballots. So where are the MPs, the first tier of prominent federal New Democrats who could urge party members to consensus? Not behind Mr. Angus.

Eight are endorsing Mr. Singh. Seven back Quebec MP Guy Caron, who had been seen as trailing the other three candidates in the race. Five MPs support Manitoba's Niki Ashton. Only two have endorsed Mr. Angus: Carol Hughes and Christine Moore, both from ridings bordering Mr. Angus's own.

Endorsements aren't the be-all. They don't mean as much as signing up members to vote for you. But Mr. Singh, who recruited heavily in Vancouver and Toronto, especially from the Sikh community, is leading on that front. And Mr. Angus does have endorsements from non-MPs, such as union leaders. But in the late stages of the campaign, it is long-shot candidate Mr. Caron who is claiming momentum by picking up endorsements from MPs.

So why not Mr. Angus? He was, after all, elected caucus chair by his fellow MPs.

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But his time in that job hurt him. Some NDP MPs say they came to see him as a top-down, do-it-my-way politician, not the grassroots listener he claims to be.

Many in the NDP caucus had chafed under the autocratic style of outgoing leader Tom Mulcair – and some feel Mr. Angus shared some of his faults. Mr. Angus ran caucus his way, some NDP MPs say; weekly caucus meetings were mostly taken up with the "head table" – the caucus leadership – doing the talking, giving MPs marching orders rather than giving MPs their say. Some feel Mr. Angus blocked backbenchers trying to suggest different ways of doing things. One MP said he worries that, like Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Angus is a smart guy with an ego who won't necessarily listen.

Some of Mr. Angus's allies say the Timmins MP paid a price for being the caucus referee at a tough time. Party delegates voted out Mr. Mulcair in April, 2016, but then there was a caucus dispute: Mr. Mulcair wanted to stay until a new leader was chosen and some MPs wanted him to go. Mr. Angus was in the middle. One veteran New Democrat said Quebec MPs who wanted Mr. Mulcair to stay thought Mr. Angus was conspiring to push him out; but other MPs who wanted Mr. Mulcair out felt Mr. Angus was too heavy-handed in shutting down the squabble.

In the end, Mr. Angus came out with little support. That could hurt now.

Take British Columbia MP Fin Donnelly: He announced this week that he supports Mr. Caron. In an interview, Mr. Donnelly said he likes Mr. Caron's environmental policies, thinks he's best to help the party succeed in Quebec and stressed that "he's a consensus builder."

For the record, Mr. Donnelly said Mr. Angus also "brings a lot to the table." But the point is Mr. Donnelly, as with many MPs, didn't choose the leading candidate from the NDP caucus, the veteran, as the consensus builder. And this is a time when Mr. Angus desperately needs to be seen as just that.

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Video: NDP leadership candidates discuss Quebec bill on face coverings (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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