Monday, November 16, 2015

The path ahead for the NDP -- Leadership, prospects and possibilities

By Fraser Needham

When the Canadian Parliament resumes in early December, it will be a very different House of Commons than has been the case over the past decade.

The Liberals will hold the majority of seats at 184, followed by the Conservatives in Official Opposition at 99 seats and the NDP at 44.

There is no doubt the recent election results are a big disappointment for New Democrats. The NDP led in the polls going into the campaign only to see the party’s first legitimate chance of forming government slip through its hands as it was surpassed by both the Liberals and Conservatives in the 11-week campaign. Not only did the NDP lose the 2015 election, it also lost Official Opposition status and shed 51 seats from coast to coast.

Nevertheless, all is not for naught. The party still picked up three seats in Saskatchewan and another two new seats in B.C. Although the NDP lost 43 seats in Quebec, at 16 the party is still in a much better position in the province than it has been for most of its history. In general, with 44 seats nationally, the NDP is in as good shape as it has ever been.

And the great thing about politics is each day is truly a brand new day. Political parties have come back from much worse fates than the NDP suffered in this election and revived to rule the day.

What the NDP now needs to do is assess the election results for what they are and move on. First off, putting partisanship aside, the party and its supporters need to understand that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives being out of government is a very positive thing for the country.

Sure, the Liberals under Justin Trudeau are a neoliberal government but they are not neoconservatives like Harper and his crew. There is no reason to believe the new Liberal government will be as partisan, divisive, hostile to the bureaucracy, war mongering, deceptive or inaccessible as the Harper government has been over the past decade.

A new day has dawned in Ottawa, the public sees it and the NDP should support the change where warranted. In other words, the party should fully support Trudeau when he tries to do the right thing whether it be the Liberal infrastructure plan, allowing government scientists to speak openly again, making serious moves to fight climate change, removing Canadian air strikes from Syria, forming a cabinet based on gender parity and diversity, etc. Overall, the public has had enough of the partisan games that went on in Parliament over the past decade and it will not look kindly on any party that continues in this direction – whether it be the Conservatives or NDP.

Once the House resumes, because the NDP is now the third place party, it will have much less time to ask questions than it did in the last Parliament. So, this means the party needs to use its time in Question Period very wisely and pick three or four issues it wants to hammer the new Liberal government on. If the NDP uses a scatter shot approach and decides to just oppose the government every time it gets a chance, what may be some of the party’s valid criticisms will get lost in the shuffle.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair says he plans to challenge the new government on its support for the Trans Pacific Partnership and hold it to account on its campaign promises to Indigenous peoples, which is encouraging. The TPP, as it stands now, is full of problems for Canadian working people and labour rights in general. The Liberals made substantive and good promises to Indigenous peoples in the election but they will be costly and the NDP needs to make sure these promises do not get pushed down the list in favour of other priorities.

Moreover, by appointing millionaire businessman Bill Morneau to the finance portfolio, the Liberals have sent a strong message to Bay Street that it will be business as usual under the new government. Morneau is a fiscal hawk and there is no doubt he will be trying to put the brakes on Liberal spending promises, especially now that the economy appears to be heading into recession.

Hence, the NDP opposition will need to work hard to ensure the Liberals do not renege on the party’s many spending promises. For its part, it is high likely, at least in the immediate term, the Conservatives under new interim leader Rona Ambrose will simply attack the new government on any of its spending initiatives as sending the Canadian economy into further recession.

The NDP opposition may also want to push the new Liberal government on a few of the planks it ran on in the election campaign. The NDP’s affordable childcare plan is a good one and there is no reason why the party could not push the Liberals to institute it. In fact, the Liberals were on the verge of signing an affordable childcare agreement of their own with the provinces prior to losing the 2006 election, so there is no reason why the new government could not revisit the idea again. Affordable housing and working with the provinces to establish a living wage are two other priorities the NDP may want to push the Liberals on.

However, other than the immediate problem of holding the new government to account when Parliament resumes, the NDP faces the much larger and long-term problem of assessing the party’s current direction and what is the best route to success.

Whether the party wants to admit it or not, the reality is the NDP ran a very poor campaign in the 2015 election which was out of synch with the desires of the majority of progressive Canadians. The party ran a center-right campaign allowing the Liberals to move into territory which has been traditionally the NDP’s and win the election.

Moreover, while Trudeau ran a campaign that focused on youth, hope, positivity, progressive ideas and looking forward, both Harper and Mulcair looked and acted old, out of touch, reactionary, negative and backward looking. Not surprisingly, the anti-Harper change vote went solidly behind Trudeau.

Although the NDP lost the election, the party should not necessarily be disappointed at how the majority of voters made their wishes known. Roughly 70 per cent of voters who cast ballots in the election firmly rejected Harperism and neoconservative values once and for all. And, another 40 per cent were not inspired by the play it safe road of fiscal conservatism the NDP ran on.

The results clearly show the majority of progressive voters have moved to the left of the campaign the NDP ran on. For a social democratic party, this should be very positive news. It means if the party were to move left and closer to its traditional roots, it would likely appeal to a lot more voters than those leading the party may have thought.

There is also good reason to believe the Conservative Party will need to moderate and move somewhat to centre if it wants to survive. For the present moment, it appears the Harper project of creating a neoconservative Canada is dead.

Nevertheless, immediate signals out of the NDP ranks in the aftermath of the election are not encouraging. From top to bottom in the party, there appears to be a complete and collective denial that the NDP ran a poor campaign. It is as if the tactical errors, of which there were many, in trying to run a controlled Harper-style campaign  based around fiscal conservatism never happened.

It has also become clear that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and his entourage have no plans to take any responsibility for the election loss. In fact, it is very evident that the leader is determined to set his own exit date and has no plans of going anywhere in the immediate future, if ever.

Who is Thomas Mulcair? 

Most people know he is the current Federal NDP Leader and MP for the Quebec riding of Outremont. Others know Mulcair was an MNA in the Quebec Liberal Party from 1994 to 2006 and served as environment minister in the cabinet of Premier Jean Charest.

The story goes that the current NDP Leader quit Charest’s cabinet in 2006 over a dust up with the premier over a proposed condominium development in the mountain and ski resort of Mont Orford National Park. Charest was in favour of the condominium development and the environment minister against.

Mulcair left the Liberal Party shortly after and in the long run he ended up being right.

The Liberals eventually backed off approving the condominium development in Mont Orford.
Then NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was looking to build the party’s base in Quebec, approached Mulcair to run for the NDP in a by-election in the provincial riding of Outremont in 2007 and the rest is history. Thomas Mulcair won the by-election and has been re-elected in the riding ever since.

Other things that are known about the NDP Leader is that he comes from a large middle class family and worked his way through law school. He is known as someone not afraid to stand up for his principles and who won’t back down from a fight. Mulcair is also a staunch federalist and can more than handle himself in the House of Commons as was shown over the past four years when he took Stephen Harper to task during Question Period over any number of issues.

However, it also appears there is much more to Thomas Mulcair than what the official public record tells.

Globe and Mail reporter Jeffrey Simpson wrote an insightful feature article on the NDP Leader during the election campaign. Simpson never actually interviewed Mulcair, the NDP Leader and his handlers dodged him for weeks on end until finally he had to meet his deadline and publish the article. However, the Globe reporter did talk to a lot of people who have worked closely with Mulcair including former Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

Everyone interviewed in the article describes the NDP Leader as very bright, sharp and as someone who does not suffer fools gladly. However, there appears to be more than one story floating around as to why Mulcair left the Quebec Liberal caucus in 2006. In Simpson’s article and according to more than one source, including Charest, Mulcair’s departure may not have been as principled as some have been led to believe.

In the article, Charest and others contend Mulcair said one thing in cabinet and another publicly when it came to the proposed condominium development in Mont Orford National Park. In other words, a number of sources in the article say the NDP Leader supported the proposed condominium project around the cabinet table but then proceeded to question it in media interviews.

When questioned by cabinet colleagues regarding the discrepancy, Mulcair proceeded to browbeat a number of them including, according to Simpson,  driving one of his female counterparts to tears. In the article, Charest is quoted as saying he liked and respected Mulcair but things had come to such a point that he could no longer tolerate the disunity he was causing around the cabinet table. Hence, the Quebec Premier demoted Mulcair to a more junior portfolio in 2006 and he quit the Liberal Party soon after.

There were also numerous rumours swirling around Thomas Mulcair after he joined the Federal NDP caucus in 2007. Once again, no one doubted his intelligence or capability but some were wary of his naked ambition. Prior to Jack Layton getting sick with cancer, it was no secret around Parliament Hill that the NDP’s new Quebec lieutenant was interested in the party’s top job. Those close to Layton say the late leader mused that perhaps he had bitten off more than he could chew with Mulcair.

When Jack Layton passed away from cancer in August 2011, everyone knew Thomas Mulcair would seek the NDP leadership. What is telling is that almost none of Layton’s staff or the caucus got behind his campaign. Instead, Layton supporters strongly got behind backroom operative Brian Topp’s campaign. Within the party, rumours continued to swirl that Mulcair was too divisive, too right and too difficult to work with.

In the end, Thomas Mulcair defeated all other challengers and won the NDP leadership in 2012. He then proceeded to consolidate his leadership over the party caucus and perform well in the House of Commons in terms of challenging the Conservatives and Stephen Harper. Much better than Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was able to do.

Nevertheless, there have always been doubts. According to the Simpson article, many of Mulcair’s former Quebec Liberal colleagues were very surprised that he joined the Federal New Democrats. They say he had always been considered a blue Liberal and definitely not a social democrat. The current NDP Leader has also been known to be a strong proponent of former British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s move toward Third Way politics. In fact, Mulcair has spoken very positively about former British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Quebec Legislature.
When challenged on these comments in the last election campaign, he stood firmly behind them.

After Mulcair won the NDP leadership in 2012, a number of Layton’s strongest supporters, such as Brad Lavigne, left the employment of the party to pursue other opportunities. However, Lavigne and others rejoined the NDP team in this last election as the party strived to form its first ever government. Yet, it is not really clear just who exactly was running the 2015 NDP campaign.

After the NDP finished a distant third, many of Thomas Mulcair’s apologists have argued that he was forced into an ideological straitjacket by party apparatchiks and had no choice but to do as told. However, none of this fits with the NDP Leader’s past history and his political modus operandi is not to take orders from anyone. In short, the 2015 NDP campaign had Mulcair’s fingerprints all over it and there is no doubt he had a large part in designing it. The fiscal conservatism and center-right focus are all classic Thomas Mulcair. If anything, it seems likely the NDP leader bent his advisors to his vision and not vice-versa.

Where can the NDP go from here?

The current reactionary attitude of the party hierarchy is based on a few things. Mulcair and his immediate advisors are aware that the NDP caucus is very weak and too afraid to challenge him. If members of the caucus were to force a leadership convention Mulcair stands a good chance of defeating anyone in the current caucus the same way he did in 2012. In turn, what is left of the party membership is now so cowed and beaten down after the way the NDP has been ruled with an iron fist in recent years that it is unlikely any significant challenge would come from below.

The current plan of the leader and his inner circle is quite clear. Taking any responsibility for the election loss would be seen as a sign of weakness so they aim to deflect all attention elsewhere other than internally. Tell and convince the membership in the short term that Tom needs to stick around because the party could not stand the disunity of an immediate departure and he is needed to hold Trudeau to account in the House of Commons.

Mulcair does perform well in the House and you can be assured his supporters will exaggerate any points he does score against Trudeau as all the more reason why he needs to stick around in the long term. They will then look to build on these perceived successes in Parliament with the hope that members will begin to forget about his inept performance in the election campaign. By the time the party convention rolls around in April, the hope of Mulcair’s inner circle is that any opposition to his leadership will be quelled before it happens and he will achieve a strong endorsement in the leadership review securing his status as leader as long as he wants it. Commissioning an election report to the party president and national director is yet another attempt to whitewash what happened in the election and avoid responsibility.

Were Mulcair and his team to stick around any longer than a year, it would be disastrous for the long-term success of the NDP. Progressive voters in the election clearly rejected the NDP Leader. Much as some of his strongest supporters would like to believe, voters are not going to discover the hidden qualities of him if he sticks around. In fact, the longer Mulcair sticks around, the more the public will turn its back on the NDP.

But if the NDP caucus or membership won’t force Thomas Mulcair and his cadre out, who will?

Likely the only move that would start the ball rolling is if one of the party stalwarts spoke out or questioned how the NDP hierarchy ran the last campaign, the existing direction of the party and Mulcair’s leadership. Someone like Ed Broadbent or maybe Stephen Lewis. If either of these two spoke out against the NDP Leader and his inner circle, people would listen and others within the party would feel comfortable coming forward to air their concerns.

It is well known that Broadbent had serious concerns about Mulcair during the 2012 leadership race and aired them quite vocally at the time. The former NDP leader worried about the direction Mulcair would take the party in and that his vision was not a social democratic one. He was, of course, right.

Once Mulcair won the leadership, Broadbent backed off in his criticisms as a sign of unity as the new NDP Leader moved to consolidate the caucus. Now that the NDP has suffered a debilitating electoral loss under Mulcair’s leadership, hopefully Broadbent feels free to voice his concerns once again.

So what happens if Mulcair is ousted and the NDP is able to hold a leadership convention in the near future?

The way forward would be for someone from outside the caucus and party, but with serious credentials within social movements and the left, to come forward.

In political parties, there is always resistance to looking for leadership from outside the elected caucus. Yet the NDP would be wise to review some of its recent history on this front.

When Jack Layton first sought the party leadership in 2002, he certainly was not the favoured candidate. An MP from Winnipeg named Bill Blaikie was -- another “great Parliamentarian” just like Thomas Mulcair.

The establishment of the party frowned on Jack’s leadership campaign initially and did not take it seriously. Layton was seen as too Toronto, too inexperienced, too local politics to make the jump to the national stage. He had run as a federal NDP candidate before but never been successful.

Little did most people in the NDP establishment know that Jack Layton had cultivated a strong and loyal following in his many years as a Toronto municipal councillor. He was known as a guy who worked hard, got things done and delivered.

In the 2003 contest, Layton and his team proceeded to out work and out organize every other candidate, including Bill Blaikie, on his way to easily winning the NDP leadership. His campaign was the most youthful, the most energetic and fun and they caught the attention of and inspired the membership of the party in ways that had not occurred in a long, long time.

After Layton secured the leadership, the establishment of the party was still preaching doom and gloom. Who was this guy from Toronto who had never been elected to Parliament? Were he and his followers not too left, too inexperienced and too “wacky” to take the NDP anywhere in the hard game of Canadian politics?

Once again, Jack and his followers proved the naysayers wrong. In the following years, Layton literally rebuilt the party organizationally and financially in ways it had never achieved before. He did this through countless hours of hard work and relentless energy – all of which occurred outside of Parliament and Ottawa for that matter.

To see him in action was a truly amazing thing. A typical day for Jack Layton when he visited a city was to spend the morning and afternoon doing as much media as he could. He would do everything – even the most right wing radio talk shows. This would be followed by any number of meetings with constituency associations in the early evening and meetings with youth groups at universities later on.

So by the time Jack Layton fully hit his stride in the 2011 election, suffering from cancer and on crutches due to a recent hip replacement, it wouldn’t have mattered what he was selling, voters were buying. Le Bon Jack caught fire in Quebec and many other places in Canada. The moderately center-right NDP platform was an afterthought to most people who voted for the party. They voted for Jack and only Jack.

The fact that the party ran on a further-right platform in this election and failed miserably with a much less inspiring leader should be clear proof to the NDP that it needs to change gears in terms of leadership and direction. A more grassroots, left wing, younger and more inspiring leader than Thomas Mulcair, running on a truly social democratic platform could not only retain the number of seats the NDP currently holds, but also make gains in the 2019 election. This in turn would put the party, once again, in a very good position to form government in the 2023 election. Long-term thinking, for sure, but also realistic thinking.

There can be no doubt there will be many arguments from within the hierarchy of the NDP for maintaining the current status quo. These proponents will argue that, at 44 seats, the party still sits in a better place than it has for most of its history. They will also argue that the most prudent thing to do is stay the course, current leader and center-right platform, and Trudeau and the Liberals will screw up so badly that the NDP will form government in 2019. This is of course wishful and delusional thinking but it will hold some sway.

It remains to be seen what the NDP decides to do in coming months. Whether the party decides to think small and recede or looks at the larger picture and progresses. Only time will tell.

Fraser Needham is a freelance journalist living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He has been working and writing in Saskatchewan for the past 15 years. Aside from the Saskatchewan CCF/NDP, he follows Aboriginal issues and politics closely.

See also: Delusion continues to rule the day in Mulcair NDP

See also: Mulcair's NDP ran a great campaign! We know this because they say they did.

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