NDP plots strategy of 'contrast' to tackle resurgent Liberal Party

As their MPs gather in Edmonton to plot political strategy for Parliament's fall session, some New Democrats are increasingly uneasy about how to fight a resurgent Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau, and how to hang on to the gains in Quebec delivered during the 2011 federal election.

Party takes pains to contrast its own leader's 'substance' over what it says is Trudeau's 'style'

Making a differentiation between the 'substance' of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (above) and the 'style' of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau -- a tactic insiders refer to as 'contrast' -- will be a key part of the NDP's fall effort. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As their MPs gather in Edmonton to plot political strategy for Parliament's fall session, some New Democrats are increasingly uneasy about how to fight a resurgent Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau, and how to hang on to the gains in Quebec delivered during the 2011 federal election by their departed leader Jack Layton.

Both those pressures seem settled on the shoulders of Tom Mulcair, whose team this fall will take pains to contrast their own leader's "substance" over what they say is Trudeau's "style."

House Leader Peter Julian admitted on Tuesday that Mulcair needs to improve his profile. But, he says, what Canadians see they like.

"He's getting better and better known and there’s no doubt when you contrast his skill and experience and strength and depth he compares very favourably with all other leaders," Julian said. 

And making that differentiation will be a key part of the party's fall effort. Insiders refer to the tactic as a theme of "contrast."
NDP President Rebecca Blaikie says there is uncertainty over how a resurgent Liberal Party may alter the political landscape in Quebec. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

With an election date fixed already for October 2015, the opening shots of the coming campaign are effectively being fired now. That's why NDP insiders are so concerned about Trudeau's apparent gains, and worried they could come at the expense of their own man.

Still, Julian says there's plenty of room for Mulcair to grow.

"The reality is there’s a big difference between polls and elections," he said. "And what we’re working for is the election that will be held a year from now."

In addition to an NDP leader's tour of sorts, outside Parliament to improve his profile, Mulcair, a Quebec MP, has also tasked Party President Rebecca Blaikie to co-ordinate the party's campaign in Quebec and ensure it's able to hold onto 2011's massive gains.

Before the 2011 general election Mulcair was just one of two NDP MPs ever elected in the province. But a collapse in Bloc Quebecois support and a surge in NDP popularity under former leader Jack Layton saw the party win 59 seats in Quebec — more than half of the party's national total of 103.

'Huge' effort to hang on to seats

That huge flip in support to the NDP also cost the Liberals seven of their Quebec seats, and is what propelled the NDP into the Official Opposition.

Meeting highlights

NDP MPs are meeting for three days of strategy sessions in Edmonton. Here are some public events:

Wednesday:

Mulcair talks to media, 1 p.m. MT, 3 p.m. ET

Guest speaker Oilers captain Andrew Ference, 1:45 p.m. MT, 3:45 p.m. ET

Thursday:

Leader's address, 9 a.m. MT, 11 a.m. ET

Hanging on to those seats is a "huge" effort for the NDP now, according to party insiders. And it's why Blaikie agreed to forgo a shot at a seat in her home province of Manitoba and instead return to the Quebec battleground.

Blaikie helped lay the ground work for the party's Quebec success in the 2011 campaign through work she began in the province years earlier. But, in 2011, she ran in Mantioba, where her father had been a prominent New Democrat, but lost by 44 votes.

Rather than returning to that fight, Blaikie is now back in Quebec.

"I think it would be no surprise to folks that many of our Quebec MPs were elected without doing much campaigning, or they had very small campaigns, and so I bring that experience to the leadership of the Quebec campaign."

It's no small point that Blaikie is back in Quebec. As party president she chairs the party's national campaign committee.

The fight in Quebec is now a major part of that national campaign, but Blaikie says there is nevertheless uncertainty over how a resurgent Liberal party may alter that Quebec landscape.

"[Trudeau's] obviously a famous guy and he's got a lot of media attention," Blaike concedes. "But, I keep expecting to hear a lot more about Trudeau than I am hearing."

Blaikie says the NDP believes Trudeau's appeal in Quebec is primarily with Anglophone voters while the NDP is more likely to be popular with Francophones, who are the vast majority of Quebecers.

Still, the sharp focus on the Quebec campaign has some New Democrats in other parts of the country worried. Several insiders suggested Atlantic Canada is nowhere near as friendly to New Democrats as it used to be.

And in the West, there is concern the party may have taken for granted a few core NDP constituencies in urban parts of the prairie and in B.C.'s lower mainland, where the Conservative Party is also working hard. 

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