National Column: In tepid defence of Thomas Mulcair

by Tim Harper

If Thomas Mulcair were the leader of the Conservatives or Liberals, he would have cleaned out his office long ago.

But he leads the federal NDP. No pushing, please. We have a process.

Mulcair’s fate as leader will be determined over the next two weekends, unofficially here at the Broadbent Institute summit of progressives, then officially in Edmonton, where party delegates will vote on his leadership in a mandatory review.

The news is grim for the leader. The party, according to EKOS, is barely in double digits, at levels not seen for 13 years.

An election post-mortem released Thursday is logically critical of party strategy.

Mulcair is making news for the wrong reasons: foolishly challenging Justin Trudeau to follow his lead and label Donald Trump a “fascist,” and being taken to task by Marie Henein – lawyer for Jian Ghomeshi – for using the #Ibelievesurvivors hashtag in a tweet before seeing a court judgment.

Perhaps the Edmonton podium could be wrapped in black crepe.

We live in a leadership-driven political environment, so it seems Mulcair, as the captain, must walk the plank.

Except there is a case for Thomas Mulcair.

Unloved, without deep roots in the party, overly defensive, slow to listen to advice, arrogant – we’ve seen and heard it all – but also lightning quick on his feet, passionate, intellectual and a fiercely meticulous interrogator.

We know who Mulcair is.

What is the NDP in 2016?

Elections can be about catching lightning in a bottle.

It is a fair question to ask how Mulcair might have fared had he been facing Michael Ignatieff as Liberal leader, not Justin Trudeau. It is also fair to ask how Jack Layton would have fared facing Trudeau.

Yes, the NDP and Mulcair are guilty of running a tone-deaf, strategically inept campaign that now has them in a box, but that box does not change with a change in leadership.

New Democrats have ridden to power provincially by staking the centre, but in a three-party federal race, they perform best against weakened Liberal leaders. Ed Broadbent set a high-water mark for seats in 1988 against John Turner, while Layton built the Orange Wave against Ignatieff.

Liberal sweeps have inflicted much deeper damage on New Democrats than last October, but the box remains because there is little prospect of Trudeau and the Liberal brand being so gravely weakened by the time of the 2019 election.

New Democrats could not have won by promising to run deficits, but they would have denied Trudeau the “real change” mantle. Voters didn’t believe they could balance the budget, anyway.

Can they win by chasing votes in the centre? If the party heads in that direction, it will be forever chasing and will be courting its own demise.

Most galling for New Democrats must be how the party managed to be outflanked on the left by the Liberals at the federal level, a year after the Liberals did the same to them in Ontario.

They have lost the progressive mantle to the Trudeau Liberals, but to survive, they have to wrest it back.

If they want to be a more progressive alternative to the Liberals, party members will have to ask themselves whether Mulcair can comfortably sell that alternative or, whether he is a centrist at heart.

Mulcair must ask himself the same question.

If the party were to embark on a journey to re-establish itself as the country’s true progressive party, a leadership race would be only a distraction, a search for a shiny, young leader to take the helm of a
conflicted party.

New Democrats have one more chance to visit the leadership question before the 2019 vote.

If, two years hence, they are still spinning their wheels, Mulcair will know it is time to depart with dignity. If not, party elders will let him know.

They could hold a spring 2018 leadership convention in advance of an autumn 2019 election – an 18-month window to introduce and sell a new leader.

This is not a call for New Democrats to put Mulcair on probation.

If they put the leadership uncertainty behind them, allow Mulcair to do his job of holding the Trudeau government to account, and realize they should stay true to their progressive roots instead of chasing
voters in the mushy middle, they will bring New Democrats back into the fold and away from a government bound to disappoint by 2019.

That electoral lightning will be found only if they stay consistent and woo voters to their vision instead of becoming unmoored and chasing votes away from their comfort zone.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.

His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.


Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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