Possibly the most challenging question posed during the NDP leadership debate on Sunday came from Kim, the bartender.

"A few months after [the last election], I went in to watch the hockey game at the local sports bar. Kim the bartender came up to me. She's putting her son through law school on tips," recounted Charlie Angus, having explained that he was "heartbroken" by the NDP's 2015 result.
 
"And she looked at me and she said, 'What the hell happened to you guys? You're supposed to be our voice.'"

Kim's question is useful for framing the existential questions that now weigh on the NDP.

What the, uh, heck happened to them in 2015?

And now what should they sound like in 2019?

A bolder, leftier NDP that's more fun?

A charitable assessment of the NDP's situation might blame bad luck. But Kim's phrasing would seem to suggest a failure of substance or style, or both. And she would have company in that regard.

Guy Caron, the genial economist, ventured that the party needed to reconnect with Canadians. And the last few years have demonstrated, he suggested, that such a connection is not formed through the House of Commons.

Niki Ashton, presenting herself as a "democratic socialist" and an "intersectional eco-feminist," posited that the NDP "played it too safe" and let the Liberals "out-left" them.

Peter Julian, the tall frontbencher who joined the party at the age of 14, saw a need for "bold" policies.

Angus, the middle-aged punk rocker who seems to want to make a stiffly raised fist his trademark, promised that, as leader, he would bring "fun" back to the NDP.

So perhaps the party should be bolder, leftier, more fun or less concerned with question period. Or some combination of those attributes.

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Charlie Angus speaks during the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race while Niki Ashton and Peter Julian look on. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Perhaps it was telling that, whatever might be said about the party under his leadership, Tom Mulcair's name went entirely unspoken on Sunday.

In fairness, there were also no mentions of Ed Broadbent, the fondly regarded elder statesman of the party whose electoral high-point (20.4 per cent of the vote in 1988) was only marginally better than Mulcair's crushing disappointment in 2015 (19.7 per cent of the vote).

Jack Layton's legacy looms

Instead, there were numerous references to Jack Layton, to "Jack" and to "Jack's legacy."

In his time, Layton, a proponent of practical progressivism, was also accused of moderating the party's policies and pushing it toward the political centre. But he was also a former municipal activist and he played guitar. 

Then, hobbling across the country in 2011 and faced with an uninspiring Liberal leader, he suddenly transcended himself. Later, in death, he became an inspirational hero: NDP supporters walked around the room on Sunday afternoon wearing T-shirts with the words "love, hope and optimism," a reference to Layton's last letter to Canadians.

There might be lessons in his success and legacy.

But it is also the case that up until the last two weeks of that 2011 campaign it appeared Layton had plateaued somewhere below the Broadbent line.

And a decent case can be made that the NDP platform in 2015 was further to the left and bolder than the NDP platform in 2011. 

Which might reinforce the point that politics is still a mysterious game.

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Guy Caron speaks as he participates in the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The glass-half-full reading of the NDP's situation would note that from the last half of the 2011 race to the first half of the 2015 campaign the NDP was polling like a party that could form government in Ottawa someday.

Pipeline divide could emerge

So how to go about getting back there?

Over the course of an hour and a half, the discussion touched on a predictable array of topics: economic inequality, climate change, employment, trade. There was renewed interest in "value-added" jobs and somehow making it make sense to refine our resources domestically. There was some talk of connecting with various activist movements. 

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Niki Ashton speaks as she participates in the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

There is general agreement on most things, including the notion that Justin Trudeau's Liberals have failed to be as progressive as they promised. But disagreements will emerge. One or two more candidates might also enter the race, most notably, Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh.

Already, there seems to be the makings of a divide over pipelines: Julian seeming rather opposed, Angus and Caron seeming less willing to rule out such development.

Caron also hit on something when he raised the matter of the niqab. The question of that garment tied up the Conservative campaign in 2015, but the New Democrats also got caught between their progressive bona fides and their supporters in Quebec. That tension is still to be reconciled with.

There is that old saw about not refighting the last campaign. But, for now, it's an obvious starting point.

When the candidates were asked on Sunday to explain the difference between a New Democrat and a Liberal, Caron expounded on the alleged duplicity of Liberals who only say they are interested in addressing things like electoral reform, climate change and Indigenous welfare.

"We need to be ready when people will realize that, because they are realizing it now," he said. "To actually be there and say: 'We're there for you. You wanted to vote for what we [stood] for last time. We'll give you the real thing.'"

So if the Liberals can disappoint enough bartenders of their own by 2019, it might just work out for the NDP.

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