Inside Politics

Debates about to change NDP leadership race

The NDP Leadership is still in the "smaller event" stage.

As one campaign volunteer put it, "It's not a campaign that's being fought in the media right now -- it's playing out in the church basements and in the pubs."

That's about to change.

Debates will propel the contest into a new stage, with one coming before Christmas and five after. In each one, there will be at least nine candidates on stage, and the wheat will slowly start separating from the chaff.

There's been a lot of talk about two possible front-runners: Thomas Mulcair, MP from Outremont, and Brian Topp, former president of the NDP.

Wrong, says one NDP insider, who questions whether Mulcair has any momentum at all, even in Quebec. Plus, he says, high-level endorsements are worth just one vote each in a one member, one vote race.

Mulcair announced his candidacy surrounded by 33 MPs. Brian Topp doesn't have the support of nearly that many, but he has the all-important blessing of former leader Ed Broadbent. It's worth remembering that Jack Layton had the endorsements of only two MPs, but he had Broadbent on his side.

Michael Byers, the B.C. co-chair of the Mulcair campaign, says the key to a Mulcair win is signing up new members in Quebec, somewhat the way Layton won by signing up new members in Toronto. He says, "Mulcair comes from a political culture where he is very much the model of a successful Quebec politician who then succeeds on the national stage."

The actual membership numbers in Quebec are Lilliputian, not even 6 per cent of the total, despite the 59 Quebec MPs. Still, an NDP organizer says, "The memberships (from everywhere) are coming in like wildfire. We've had to hire extra staff to process them."

Mulcair had complained that new members in Quebec weren't getting their membership cards quickly enough. But the organizer says that not having physical cards in their hands doesn't mean they're not members. Nonetheless, "Now we're up to speed in Quebec."

James Laxer, a long-time NDP supporter, and a leadership candidate himself back in 1971 when he ran against David Lewis, says he's not necessarily a Mulcair supporter, but says Mulcair is the centre of the race.

"You've got to ask yourself if this guy is the Wilfrid Laurier of the NDP. Laurier is the guy who used Quebec to win power in this country, and then won four elections and set up the Liberal party for something like 85 years of dominance in Canadian politics by using Quebec as its base."

But another party member cautions that there's not a regional divide in this race, and that Quebec is split in all directions: "They don't vote as a block."

One thing everyone agrees on is that proficiency in French is essential. "The bar is that you have to go on Tout le Monde en Parle right away," says an insider.

Or, being able to remain standing in a French language debate.

The bilingualism hurdle may eliminate Paul Dewar, because if there are not front-runners, there's at least a top tier (Peggy Nash, Nathan Cullen, Topp, Mulcair and Dewar).

"We can't go backwards on French, so whoever wins should speak it as well as Jack did," says another party insider.

James Laxer adds, "People who run, and say, 'I'm going to learn French?' I've been trying to learn French since I was 14."

The next stage of the campaign is the dynamic the debates give it, and maybe then the public will start seriously paying attention.

It's not just that the NDP is the official opposition, but that this is a much different NDP. It was always an English political party, right up to the last election; now Quebec is its springboard.

And it's so much more centrist now than it was in past decades, says James Laxer:

"If you even look at the policies of Pierre Trudeau on the petroleum industry, they look pretty radical compared to what the NDP stands for now. I'd call it a centre-left party, and it's a party whose great mission in life has always been to replace the Liberal party, and become one of the two potential governing parties."
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