The Nova Scotia NDP, which will pick a new leader at the end of February, is at a low point.

From the giddy heights of government in 2009, the party is back to being a small third party with only six MLAs in the legislature.

More importantly, the party is still struggling to explain to itself what exactly happened between that sweet victory in 2009 and that crushing defeat only four years later.

The leadership vote is essentially a referendum on which story about the Dexter government will prevail inside the party.

Wilson most experienced

Dave Wilson, MLA for Sackville–Cobequid since 2003 and a health minister in the Dexter government, is the most "Dexter insider" of the three candidates.

They golfed.

He also has the most political experience of the three contenders, whether as an MLA, a minister, or party organizer. Politics isn't as easy as it looks. Experience counts, and Wilson's got it. He's not flashy, but he is dependable.

The story Wilson wants to tell is that the Dexter government was a good government in tough times. It made mistakes, but was generally on the right track.

If you believe that story, then Wilson's the one for you. That's why he has the party establishment solidly behind him.

His story is their story.

Tough balancing act

The other candidates are Lenore Zann, MLA for Truro–Bible Hill–Millbrook–Salmon River since 2009, and Gary Burrill, who was elected in Colchester–Musquodoboit Valley in 2009 before being swept away in the Liberal wave in 2013.

Both Zann and Burrill are positioning themselves as outsiders to the Dexter government.

It's a tough balancing act.

Zann and Burrill were elected on Darrell Dexter's personal popularity in 2009, and voted for every law and budget proposed by the Dexter government.

But neither was ever in the Dexter cabinet, so they can plausibly distance themselves from the less-popular decisions.

Burrill most left-leaning

Burrill is the most unabashedly socialist — or if you prefer, the most left-leaning or social democratic — of the three.

The story he wants to tell about the Dexter government is that it leaned right to win and never found its footing. If only it had been truer to the NDP's anti-poverty, pro-labour, social activist roots, it would have won the hearts and minds of Nova Scotians.

Burrill is a deep thinker and knows exactly what he stands for and why. He's a preacher, and it shows. He gave a couple of the best speeches I've ever heard in the legislature.

He's also the only one of the three who lacks a seat in the House.

As the NDP discovered with Helen MacDonald in 2000, leading from outside the House is tough. The end of the road for MacDonald came after she ran and lost a 2001 byelection in Cape Breton North.

Zann distinctly different

Lenore Zann wants to tell a different story than the usual left–right, Dexter–Epstein, Wilson–Burrill factional split that bedevils the NDP.

In the casual sexism of Nova Scotia politics, Zann is sometimes dismissed as flaky, but that's dead wrong. Zann is much smarter than people give her credit for and has real depth of character.

She's also a dedicated constituency worker, evidenced by the fact she retained true-blue Truro even when the provincial tide was running against the NDP.

Her background as a performing artist makes her distinctly different than the usual middle-aged male lawyers, doctors and teachers that we're accustomed to seeing in leadership roles. 

Speaking as a middle-aged lawyer myself, I think we've had our turn.

NDP vulnerable

Whoever wins, it's going to be a long slog.

None of the 2016 contenders has a high-public profile. Modern politics is so focused on the leaders that other MLAs, even a former health minister, tend to be relative unknowns.

Darrell Dexter wasn't very well known when he became NDP leader in 2001. It took him eight years of slow, patient building before he won the premier's chair. The next NDP leader faces at least that much work, or more.

The first job for the new NDP leader is simply to hold the party together until the inevitable wounds of a leadership contest are healed.

The NDP will remain vulnerable until members's competing stories about the Dexter government finally, slowly, painfully coalesce into one story that everyone can live with.

Then, and only then, will the party be able to move on.