4 themes from the NDP leadership race

Here's a look at four of the key themes that emerged in the party's seven-month leadership race.

New NDP leader to be chosen Saturday

NDP leadership candidates Thomas Mulcair, from left, Brian Topp, and Nathan Cullen pose for a photograph prior a debate in Vancouver, B.C., on March 11, 2012. The debate is the last before the party elects a new leader to replace the late Jack Layton at a convention March 23 and 24 in Toronto. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Last spring, Jack Layton led the NDP to an historic election result: the party leapt from fourth in the House of Commons to Official Opposition. Less than four months later, Layton died of cancer. In the seven months since his death, nine candidates declared their intention to run to replace a leader known to his staff, to colleagues and to voters simply as Jack. Seven leadership contenders remain as the NDP heads into Saturday’s vote.

Here's a look at four of the key themes that emerged in the party's seven-month leadership race.

The Quebec question

The NDP soared in the May 2, 2011 federal election from one seat in Quebec –  leadership contestant Thomas Mulcair’s – to 59. It was key to increasing their seat count from 36 to 103 (102 after Layton’s death), accounting for almost two-thirds of the party’s growth in the House of Commons.

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The next New Democrat leader will have to hang onto most of those seats or vastly improve the party’s results in other provinces through the next election to maintain their popularity.  

La langue française

It’s likely that selecting a leader who can converse with voters in Quebec will be key to hanging onto the party’s new status as the Official Opposition. Former contestant Robert Chisholm dropped out of the leadership race in December after being unable to string together a sentence in French in one of the debates, and the language question has dogged Anglo Paul Dewar too.

Proficiency beyond being able to recite rehearsed lines is likely a consideration for many of the New Democrats voting on the weekend.  


Another question facing the party as they look to the next person to set their policy direction is whether to continue to be pragmatic and to look for ways to change. With Mulcair a former Quebec Liberal member of the national assembly, it’s expected could pull the party more to the political centre. Nathan Cullen, meanwhile, has suggested the NDP co-operate with the Liberals and Greens by running only one candidate among them in ridings where the Conservatives dominate. Dewar, Brian Topp and Peggy Nash have painted themselves as defenders of the NDP’s more traditional position on the left.  

The old guard

NDP luminaries have divvied up their support among the contestants, but things started heating up when Ed Broadbent, a former leader of the party, gave interviews last week in which he cast doubt on Mulcair's commitment to the party and took issue with comments Mulcair made during the debates. "The suggestion is that we haven't been going in the right direction," Broadbent said on CBC's Power & Politics.

Topp has the support of a number of big names, including former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, Broadbent and Layton’s mother, Doris Layton. But it’ll be up to the party’s members to decide how much influence they will have.