Deeply wounded NDP must find leader who can end bickering, unite Opposition

The NDP concluded its convention with little consensus, a smidgen of optimism and lingering wounds deep in its political soul.

Recovering from internal revolt and devastating election loss just 2 hills New Democrats must climb

In front of a sunrise of casting orange and pink hues on clouds is a silhouette of the Golden Boy atop the Manitoba Legislature.
The NDP is working to find a path forward in Manitoba under a yet-to-be-chosen leader after a devastating election put a Progressive Conservative government in charge. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The plastic tables, spotty WiFi and glare of florescent lights made for spartan digs as New Democrats piled into the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre to talk policy and try to heal some wounds on the weekend.

Even outgoing president Ovide Mecredi wasn't impressed with the location the party chose, or had to choose, for its meeting and exhorted the crowd to "dig deep" so the once formidable political machine could find better accommodations next time. 

Theresa Oswald and Stan Struthers look on, but who will they back for leader? (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

But watery coffee and cramped confines didn't keep the 550-plus delegates from starting on the long slow road back to political prominence. Many rolled up their sleeves and began to bicker.

On a list of resolutions several sheets long, the options between moving the party to some type of one-member, one-vote system or a hybrid delegated convention kept jamming forward momentum.

The party is, in many ways, like a being with several souls.

Unions represent one. Deep roots into the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party are another. Modern social democrats are in there as well. There are other powerful forces that also draw this band together.

But the glue, or chewing gum and wire if you are cynical, that held these psyches together was ripped apart by an attempted palace coup by a group of cabinet ministers and their supporters who were unhappy under then-premier Greg Selinger. 

A devastating though quite predictable election loss has further imbued the once powerful Prairie political force with angst and indecision.

Divisions within the NDP run deep and whoever becomes leader must manage many disparate opinions.

Many blame Greg Selinger for the party's fortunes, but don't think his resources are exhausted. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Most of the rebels who fought Greg Selinger's leadership are gone from the legislature, but there was a brief moment Saturday when Theresa Oswald, Erin Selby and Stan Struthers leaned against a table at the back of the room, just metres from Selinger's table.

It's impossible for outsiders (and many in the party) to know what they are thinking, or planning, when it comes to who will lead the party next.

Some speculate co-conspirator  Andrew Swan will jump into the race. He was the only one of the group to take in the convention from start to finish. Selby's name was whispered here and there as well.

MLA Wab Kinew has to contemplate many divisions within the NDP. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Then there the influence of Selinger himself. 

City councillor. Finance minister. Premier. Winner of an election he might reasonably have lost. 

The MLA for St. Boniface sits on the front bench in the House day after day taking withering fire from Premier Brian Pallister, details of the revolt thrown at him with near glee in suggestions of weakness and mismanagement. 

At times it is uncomfortable to watch.

What influence Selinger holds within the party, or perhaps more importantly in the caucus, is also hard to gauge.

He is under an either self-imposed or dictated ban from speaking to the media, and rises in the House only to deliver words of congratulations or sympathy regarding events in Manitoba's francophone community.

It would be foolish to think a man who had such prominence has lost all of his resources within the battered party.

As the convention wore on, the battle lines were drawn between union stalwarts and their supporters and a smallish rump of one-member, one-vote acolytes clearly organized by former cabinet minister Steve Ashton.

Ashton, booted by voters in the last election after decades as the de facto kingpin of the north, is clearly still pushing buttons, and made little effort to dissuade at least the idea he might take one last shot at the title of leader.

Is the new blood ready to flow?

Wab Kinew worked every room of the convention. He tells reporters he is considering the leadership and is gauging support. His effort was on display for every delegate. 

Michelle McHale needs allies in a party with many factions. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Bright, trilingual, media savvy and seemingly tireless, the Fort Rouge MLA is talking the talk right now.

But can he walk the walk that heals all the divisions? That is as hard for outsiders to judge as it is to measure the influence of each of the previously mentioned players.

Michelle McHale also did a pillar to post convention. The activist and union staffer is the only New Democrat who is actually a declared leadership candidate. 

McHale gets genuine respect from insiders for her work on the Steinbach Pride parade. She is personable and holds her own with pesky reporters.

But in a party filled with factions, she will have to align with some supporters shortly — supporters who have sway and can bring others into the fold.

An appeal to the conscience of the party appeared at the convention in the form of an open letter penned by former MLA Marianne Cerilli.

It was scathing. 

In a letter peppered with words such as "manipulation" and "elitist" and accusations that the party "is lost in the trees and can't see the forest," Cerilli challenged the party to find its activist soul and shed its management culture.

She compared its inability to reform how it chooses a leader to "colonialism" that "reinforces the power of the party elite."

It's an oft-used phrase that time heals all wounds, but how much time does the NDP have?

The Pallister government is in the midst of dismantling many of the things that New Democrats hold sacred and it has the mandate and the majority to do it. The Progressive Conservatives are introducing eight pieces of legislation on Monday, some of which fire directly at the heart of what the NDP championed for nearly 17 years.

These changes may be successful and popular or damaging and despised. The New Democratic Party must have a leader that challenges the changes as they happen, not months or years after they occur.