By Richard Forbes.
Despite rumours that he might face a coup d’état, interim party leader Tom Mulcair left the NDP’s Montreal caucus meeting yesterday assuring the press that he had the ‘unanimous’ support of his caucus to remain as leader until the new party leader is chosen next year. He also set out to reset the party’s agenda in the lead up to the fall sitting, promising to stick to the party’s core values of, in his words, “environmentalism, pacifism, feminism and socialism –” with a pointed emphasis on the latter. In that sense, change does seem to be afoot: for starters, Karl Bélanger, the man who helped engineer the NDP’s rise to the official opposition, stepped down this morning as the party’s principal secretary to the surprise of many.
It was the NDP leadership review back in April that was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the line for Tom Mulcair. After a humiliating loss in the fall election, the hard-nosed leader was given one last chance to beg and plead for his job, only to be delivered a stiff sentence from the unforgiving mob who voted 52-48% to remove him as party leader. He would return to Ottawa, a pale ghost of his former self: running through the motions admirably but without the full confidence of the party that had once legitimized his animated scorn and bravado. The NDP’s polling numbers have since dropped to a dismal 13% – in line with their pitiful pre-Layton numbers. For Mulcair, it’s been a lonely, embarrassing end to a long and distinguished career. A bitter divorce from a position of leadership that he had dedicated years to, only to then have it all fall apart.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this, he might tell himself.
It was only a year ago when Tom Mulcair was enjoying his ‘day in the sun’: delivering a sunny weather report for a local Hamilton station at the end of July. He awkwardly smiled his way through the broadcast, the press lapping it up.
Polls consistently had Tom Mulcair as the person Canadians believed was best suited to lead their country. Out of all of the candidates, he was regarded as the most competent and the most trustworthy. Riding a high from the NDP’s momentum since Notley’s surprise win in Alberta, Mulcair’s NDP was also leading the polls in a three way race to form government. He was Canada’s prime-minister-in-waiting. A lot of ink was spilled discussing his chances, his past, and his facial hair – can’t forget the facial hair. With each debate he faced the highest of expectations and the greatest scrutiny: a ‘body language’ expert even killed time on Maclean’s debate coverage with an exhaustive dissection of his unsquare shoulders, his awkward gestures and his brutal incompetence at the simple act of smiling (for which he still can’t muster anything less scary than a Hyena.)
The problem for the NDP and their leader was that for the first time in their lives they were on top of the polls during a federal election – and frankly, they didn’t have a clue what to do with it. Their campaign was very quickly sliding into neutral gear, spending the month of August bombarding the airwaves with the most boring political ads since Ignatieff wandered onto the set of Bambi: short clips from the spring of their party leader sipping coffee with a stilted delivery and his trademark creepy smile.
Mulcair himself would dedicate much of his time pitching his life story in his paperback snorefest, Strength of Conviction (now available used for just $ 6.49 on Amazon!), that is, when he wasn’t speaking vapid platitudes at the occasional presser or promising half-measures on daycare and a federal minimum wage. Content with its standings in the race, the NDP campaign was floating in la-la land as a big boring orange balloon, unaware that it was slowly but noticeably losing hot air over the course of September, partly due to events and partly due to the stronger campaigns of his competitors.
Neither Mulcair nor the NDP had anticipated the election unraveling into a values debate – and when it did, it left their campaign off message and ill prepared, especially in Quebec.
With Mulcair now on his way out, the NDP is looking for a fresh start. Which first means finding a new leader to stop the hemorrhaging of its support against the Trudeau’s Liberals, while the party itself prepares for the worst heading into the next federal election. But there’s a risk here for the NDP (and the Tories) that they may be rushing their own attempt to define the Liberals. Since their first day back in the House after the fall election, the NDP’s strategy has been to make the Liberals out to be ‘just like Harper’ while the Conservatives have sought to paint the Liberals as spendthrift and out of touch.
Altogether these attacks make for a lazy paint-by-numbers approach to opposing the Liberals: painting them as arrogant, irresponsible and cynical. Instead of letting them make their own mistakes – and incorporating those mistakes into a picture of where Trudeau’s Liberals are failing and how they’re failing – the opposition is deferring their opinion of Trudeau’s government posthumously to Diefenbaker and hoping something sticks. The same talking points used against Justin Trudeau’s own father after being in office for more than a decade have simply been dusted off, repackaged and deployed against his administration less than a year into his mandate. The opposition shouldn’t be afraid to give the Liberals a longer leash instead and let a more organic critique of them develop. Talking points – a general sense of where things are failing – take time to appear.
Meanwhile, the NDP has lots on its plate to think about.
Rather than being preoccupied with the question of whether Mulcair should stay or go as interim, the party must decide the more pressing issue of what it wants to be. That means finding a direction that is distinct from Trudeau’s Liberals. A coherent purpose that appeals to disenchanted voters that have drifted to the Liberals. But it’s also a decision that, like their criticism of the government, should not be rushed, not when there is time available and the opportunity to let the party ‘breathe’.
This Montreal caucus meeting, however, serves as proof the NDP is not prepared to wait that long for a new leader to set a different course; the party has been led to believe from the nation’s pundits and insiders that to recover the party must ‘declare its values’ now – and, ready to please, they’ve obliged sloppily.
In those regards, the NDP have been presented with three radical options so far for reinventing their party, the first (and most hotly considered) of which is to reinstate “socialism” in its constitution and return to its “roots” as democratic socialists around a humorless curmudgeon, à la messieurs Bernie Sanders et the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn, forever calling for a revolution (that isn’t going to happen) to create a world different from our own in many respects (that they’ll decide upon at a later date.) Choosing this option, the NDP can expect a decade of hoarsely screaming at millennials about dying unions and the rising cost of rent and tuition with only a doubtful hope of success.
Alternatively, it’s been mused the NDP could pursue Avi Lewis and Niami Klein’s Leap Manifesto, as it did this April when its members voted to study it further. That path to redemption, an “eco-” champagne socialism of sorts, would see the NDP become a dumping ground for has-been celebrities promoting government-by-documentary; the hopes of which would be to build a kooky platform centered around issues that musicians and actors like to discuss – the seal hunt, genetically modified foods, general NIMBYism etc. – at the risk of alienating every voter that isn’t on the CBC payroll.
And while, the conservative-leaning National Post laughs at the thought of the latter plan, that strategy would be no less of a disaster for the NDP than the National Post‘s own endorsement for a more or less ‘neoliberal’ direction. After all, Tom Mulcair, who received more than one nod of approval from writers at the National Post, is a perfect example of how a third party candidate promising to turn the clock back on the Harper government and return Canada to the 90s can easily be squeezed out of contention by candidates promising new ideas on new fronts, both to the left and right of him or her.
As opposition, the NDP have the opportunity (and luxury) before them to take off their ‘ideas’ cap, put their ‘feeling’ cap on, and ask questions of the new regime that ought to be asked. Instead of trying to focus its attention on rebuilding the party on an ideological level, which will almost surely divide itself further infinitesimally, the NDP’s caucus ought to focus on being good local MPs with their constituents and act as a foil to the government in an improvised, ‘heat of the moment’ manner – rather than a party whose messaging and communication is carefully orchestrated by some central party figure.
While his politics leave something to be desired for some, Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to the UK House of Commons could be effective for some NDP members; using their speaking time to act as storytellers, echoing tales of resilience and class struggles from their constituents, offers testimony of the rising cost of living that demands a comprehensive response from the government. It’s a personable approach that is suited for members with deep local roots to their ridings, like Timmins’ Charlie Angus.
The goal in the long and medium term would be to resonate with a coalition of voters in a lower socioeconomic bracket that feels disenchanted with the Liberals. With a laser-focused on pocketbook issues and the cost of living – not unlike an approach that once paid Jack Layton dividends, the NDP – while not yet burdened by promising specific polices, could foster a loyalty from the working class that cuts into both traditional blue and orange territory. Not unlike the Liberals cutting the NDP’s legs from underneath them by flanking them on the left, the NDP could exploit the Conservative party’s off-message musings on social and immigration policy to talk to average folks about their primary concern: their wallet.
While the Trudeau Liberals attributes every policy to the benefit it will have for the middle class, an energized NDP could call the Liberals out for ignoring the hardships faced by Canada’s working class and its working poor, who struggle to pay for rent, food, tuition, and hydro. Ultimately, the ‘struggling middle class’ is a grand contradiction since it goes without saying, if people were struggling in relative terms, they wouldn’t be in Canada’s middle class. But the Liberals having won the election seem to be blind to this liability behind their exclusive “middle class” love-in. Although Mulcair is in a poor position to navigate this particular pivot, having run the past election also speaking to the “middle class” exclusively (even saying in ads, he was “born in the middle class” and most sentimentally, “raised with middle class values”), it’s a pivot that, once made, will force the prime minister to answer one question he doesn’t want to be asked: why is the man who doesn’t want to “divide Canadians” explicitly leaving poorer Canadians out of the sights of his government’s policies and rhetoric?
Over the next few years, it wouldn’t be surprising for both the NDP and the Tories to slip into a quieter starvation mode to conserve their energy and their finances while Trudeau remains ‘untouchable’ in the polls, which means selecting party stalwarts as their leaders; faces that are largely inoffensive or neutral to the various wings of their parties, like the CPC’s Andrew Scheer and the NDP’s Peter Julian, who have roots in the Prairies and Ontario, and BC and Quebec, respectively, which make them appealing candidates for their parties geographically. The task before them is ultimately about patience and timing, playing the long game on what could very well be a long, brutal winter for the opposition; for the NDP that means waiting for the right time – not rushing – to decide when and what their appeal will be to voters running up to the next federal election.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.