Column: NDP has a crisis at the top

by Chantal Hébert

As the New Democrats prepare to pronounce on Thomas Mulcair’s leadership, here is a prediction:

Regardless of how the NDP leader scores on a confidence vote Sunday, there will be little or no cause for celebration at the party’s gathering in Edmonton.

One way or another, most of the delegates will leave the convention with the sense that the leadership issue remains unresolved, and their party is unmoored in the federal universe. There will be no definitive resolution to what ails the NDP this weekend.

On Sunday, most New Democrats will not really be asking themselves whether they want Mulcair to lead them in another election.

If that were really the question put to the convention, the answer would almost certainly be negative or, at least, not positive enough for Mulcair to stay on.

In the five months since the federal election, few backers have emerged for his contention that he will do better next time.

The fact that the party will have another shot at showing him the door before the next campaign has surfaced as a more compelling argument for postponing a leadership change.

That’s basically the case laid out by – among others – Unifor’s president Jerry Dias. The leader of Canada’s largest private sector union argues the decision as to who will lead the party in 2019 should be based on
what Mulcair achieves between now and the next time his leadership comes up for review in two years.

If the NDP leader survives the weekend it will be, in no small part, on the basis of that logic.

If, on the other hand, his convention support falls short, the many New Democrats who are out to punish him for a disappointing campaign will feel vindicated, but for how long?

Predictably, some of the more aggressive promoters of a leadership change are MPs who lost their seats last fall. Some of them also happen to have been at the table when the campaign strategy – including the
party’s lacklustre platform – was agreed upon.

For all the talk of poor choices and uninspiring execution, there is no evidence that a more aggressively left-wing approach would have delivered more seats last fall. Moreover, at this juncture, those who
believe the party has lost its way in a self-defeating rush to the centre lack a unifying figure to make the case for their conclusions.

To sum up: The NDP does have a leadership crisis on its hands. The only question is whether enough delegates will agree to keep a lid on the issue this weekend. But the larger crisis is one of relevance and it is one that Mulcair’s efforts over the past few months have only highlighted.

Much like his campaign strategy, the post-election path he has so far sketched out is based on the presumption that Justin Trudeau’s government will so underwhelm progressive voters that they will
rediscover the virtues of a moderate NDP and – by the same token – the merits of a ready-for-prime-time leader in 2019. In politics, half of the battle often amounts to staying alive to fight another day and, by
all indications, Mulcair would be happy to settle for what could be no more than a reprieve. After all,
beggars can’t be choosers.

The New Democrats are meeting on the heels of a resounding defeat in Saskatchewan; at a time when the Manitoba NDP is facing extra-long odds in the quest for a fifth mandate, and with the federal party in the basement of voting intentions

Mulcair can reasonably hope the context will be more favourable to his leadership in a couple of years.

But there is another scenario that may make it worth their while for the New Democrats who absolutely cannot fathom going into the next election with the current leader to keep their powder dry and it’s Trudeau’s promise of electoral reform.

The advent of a more proportional voting system in time for the next election could go a long way to shift the balance between the NDP’s social-democratic ideals and the quest for government in favour of
the former. It could also render the rationale for sticking with a middle-of-the-road leader such as Mulcair redundant.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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