Politics·Analysis

Tom Mulcair left New Democrats wanting more, and now looking for what's next

Tom Mulcair arrived on the stage Sunday for his appointment with destiny. One speech. One last chance to convince NDP delegates who filled the Edmonton convention hall that he was the right person to take the party forward. In that time-worn expression, it was too little, too late.

Leader could take some credit in Harper’s defeat, but couldn’t convince party his was way forward

'Don't let this very divided vote divide us, let's all work together now to choose the best person to take our project forward,' says Tom Mulcair 5:51

Tom Mulcair arrived on the stage Sunday for his appointment with destiny. One speech. One last chance to convince NDP delegates who filled the Edmonton convention hall that he was the right person to take the party forward, that he understood why many of them weren't so sure.

"No pressure," Mulcair told them as he began.

For a half an hour, Mulcair spoke about the role of the NDP in Canadian politics. He spoke of what the party stands for. He showed a more human side, choking up as he described meeting Colleen, a woman from Nanaimo, B.C., who couldn't afford the test strips needed to monitor her diabetes.

"I wish I could have told Colleen that universal pharmacare was now a reality," he said, his voice breaking. "But it's not possible. It's not possible," he paused.

"Not possible — yet."

It was a nod, again, to the NDP's failed campaign in 2015. A nod, again, to his own role in that failure.

And then Mulcair made his pitch. He appealed to delegates to stand with him as the party takes on the challenges ahead of rebuilding the NDP  brand, of re-engaging progressive voters who abandoned the party for the Liberals.

NDP leader makes final appeal to delegates ahead of leadership vote 32:03

"Stand if you want to fight to build a country that generations of New Democrats, young and old, have dreamed of and organized for. A Canada that is loving, hopeful and optimistic," he said, voice rising, invoking the memory of Jack Layton's final, penned message to Canadians before he died.

And delegates did stand. They gave Mulcair a prolonged standing ovation.

But, in the end, it was not an endorsement. It was a send off.

'Fire in the belly'

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair waits to go on stage at the NDP's convention in Edmonton Sunday for a speech that, ultimately, did not convince delegates to keep him in the job. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

When the ballots were counted a short time later, the 1,800 delegates voted 52 per cent in favour of holding a leadership race. For a party with no history of booting its leaders, they had done so. Shockingly. Stunningly.

The speech was, to use that over-used expression, too little, too late. Delegates spoke later of wanting to hear more from Mulcair about why he deserved to remain as leader after directing the New Democrats to less than half the seats they held going into the 2015 election.

They wanted to hear not what he had learned from the experience of squandering the early lead the NDP held in that race, but how he could lead the NDP to form their first government in Ottawa four years from now.

"From my perspective and those of a lot of people around me, they were hoping for more fire in the belly," said former NDP candidate Jillian Ratti, who attended the convention with her newborn child. "We were hoping for a bit more specific direction on the way forward for the party."

Hard acts to follow

Mulcair had the misfortune of following two dynamic speakers from the night before, two other prominent New Democrats who took the convention by storm.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley captivated delegates with a speech on the power that winning gives the party to enact that progressive agenda, one that cares for working families and the environment, while pitching a vision of a country that is greener, cleaner and growing.

And NDP stalwart Stephen Lewis did much of the same, excoriating the federal Liberals as mere posers on the political left, a party long on the rhetoric of idealism, short on any plan to turn those ideals into reality.

Mulcair simply couldn't live up to the excitement those two had generated.

So the question now is, what next?

After a weekend of debates, NDP supporters also voted on policy, including to work to incorporate the environment-focused Leap Manifesto. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

Who wants it?

NDP leaders insist the party remains united. That they will pick up and carry on.

But there is no heir apparent. There is no one in caucus openly itching to succeed Mulcair.

Others whose names came up on Sunday say they aren't interested.

Brian Topp, who finished second to Mulcair in the 2012 leadership race, is now a top advisor to Premier Notley in Alberta. Topp told me the next leader must be prepared to commit eight years to the job and while he was prepared to do that four years ago, he's not now.

Megan Leslie told me she's not interested, either.

Avi Lewis, son of the aforementioned Stephen, and one of the main movers of the Leap Manifesto and its bold call to move to an economy powered entirely by sustainable energy in 2050, is another name on people's lips. But, he too professes not to be interested.

As for Mulcair, gracious in his defeat, he remains the face of the party, if no longer its soul.

He says he will remain leader until his successor is chosen. He, presumably, remains on the front bench.

The Commons' most effective inquisitor still. The leader who can take credit for the beginning of the end of Stephen Harper's time as prime minister through his dogged attacks, even if he and the New Democrats didn't benefit from that work when it counted last October.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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