Politics·Analysis

Whether Tom Mulcair stays or goes, the NDP has bigger questions to answer

New Democrats are supposed to be the dreamers who dare to imagine they might topple 150 years of political history. But the federal party seems now to be flirting with breaking new ground in the realm of leadership turmoil: dumping the same leader twice in the space of five months.

Could the NDP manage the feat of dumping the same leader twice in the space of 5 months?

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says he looks forward to keeping 'a steady hand on the tiller,' but there are rumblings below deck. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canada's New Democrats are supposed to be the dreamers who dare to imagine the unprecedented: that they might topple 150 years of political history and see an NDP prime minister.

But with that prospect at least still a few years away, the federal party seems now to be flirting with breaking new ground in the realm of leadership turmoil: dumping the same leader twice in the space of five months.

Word of that possibility broke Wednesday night in the form of anonymous sources speaking to the National Post. This came less than 24 hours after there was some excitement about a push to convince Tom Mulcair to seek to regain the permanent leadership post he was dramatically deposed from on national television in April.

"Between those two, what I am happy to report is that I am looking forward to being a steady hand on the tiller as we bring this ship into port for the next leader," Mulcair told CBC Radio's The House on Thursday afternoon.

But perhaps whether Mulcair goes now or a year from now is somewhat beside the point.

'Not in a good spot'

To recap: Despite the crushing disappointment of last fall's election result and though obligated to face a leadership review at the next party convention, Mulcair resolved to stay on as leader of the federal NDP. He went to Edmonton, made a dramatic appeal for his party's support and was rejected by 52 per cent of delegates.

Despite that stunning result, he resolved to stay on until his successor could be chosen. Three days after the vote in Edmonton, the NDP's parliamentary caucus voted, apparently overwhelmingly, to stick with him in the interim.

Less than five months later there is some amorphous amount of doubt about how that is working out.

The NDP is certainly not surging in the wake of dumping its leader. The party raised just $1.3 million in the first quarter of 2016 and the party is polling around 13 per cent of popular support (a level that, if repeated in an election, would put the party nearly back to where it was more than a decade ago before Jack Layton began to revive the organization).

"We're not in a good spot in terms of polling and fundraising, and those are two important sets of numbers," says Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP from British Columbia who had been touted as a possible leadership contender (and who says he has not been part of conversations about Mulcair's leadership). "So regardless of whatever else is going on, I hope that there's a new strategic focus coming out of the caucus that rights the ship. Because we're stuck right now and we need to get unstuck."

MP Nathan Cullen says he won't be mounting a bid to succeed Mulcair as the leader of the federal New Democrats. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Waiting on a leadership race

Mulcair, meanwhile, has not been a prominent presence through the summer, though in that regard it might be said he was hardly alone. 

"There's been the one-offs, but not as a group are we in that mood where we are out and smashing away at campaigns and things we're doing on the road," says Cullen. "That'll change and it needs to change."

Mulcair, Cullen says, has "obvious and natural gifts for holding governments to account." And, in theory, the work of going on the road, working the church basements and whatnot, would otherwise be for the leadership candidates vying to replace Mulcair. 

But a month after the NDP caucus endorsed Mulcair as its interim leader, the party executive decided the next permanent leader would be chosen on Oct. 31, 2017. And with a final vote that far off, leadership candidates have taken their time entering the race.

The result, Cullen says, is something like limbo.

Holding down the fort

There is something to be said for the job of holding down the fort.

Bob Rae's charming run as interim leader of the Liberal caucus from 2011 to 2012 might have elevated the role of official seat-warmer to a sort of exalted service, and Rona Ambrose has gained esteem with her steady house-sitting for the Conservatives. but neither was publicly defenestrated by their party immediately before assuming the role.

So, in hindsight, New Democrats might have thought a bit harder about what they wanted to do in the interim before signing on to what could end up being a year and a half of more Mulcair.

But we might wonder who the alternative might have been (Cullen might be an intriguing option now, but he only ruled himself out of the leadership race in June) or whether the party would obviously be better off now.

Mulcair might have somehow done more this summer, but he could also come in handy again soon as the House of Commons reconvenes and the daily question period resumes. And sooner or later the leadership race should come to the fore.

In the meantime, there is minor palace intrigue (concerning, mind you, a leader who will be gone two years by the time of the next election). Which flatters no one.

The NDP faces larger questions

Whenever someone gets around to declaring themselves a candidate for leadership, the NDP might start to grapple with the larger questions it is faced with.

In addition to dumping their leader, party delegates in Edmonton also opened a debate that pits the pure principles of the Leap Manifesto against the real interests of the only NDP government in the country (Rachel Notley's Alberta NDP). As the country prepares to confront pivotal questions about pipelines, New Democrats themselves could end up split over resource development.

Against a popular (at least for now) prime minister and a left-leaning (at least for now) Liberal government, New Democrats must articulate an alternative leftist vision while still, presumably, hoping to appeal broadly. And the two most widely touted faces of the party's future — Cullen and former MP Megan Leslie — have ruled themselves out as leadership contenders.

None of which suggests the NDP is obviously doomed. But its path forward is not likely to be easy.

Of course, nothing about the NDP's pursuit of power has ever been easy. But, with that in mind, New Democrats might try to avoid making matters even harder for themselves.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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