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The NDP: Can Tom Mulcair hang onto the leadership of the party? Should he? The fallout from the NDP's disappointing showing in the federal election is ongoing and the party will meet in April to review Tom Mulcair's leadership. There is deep unhappiness with the way the campaign was run, but will it be enough to make New Democrats break their traditional pattern of giving their leaders more than one election to improve their party's showing? Marit Stiles, Richard Mahoney and John Capobianco are in the ONW Salon for that debate.

 

John Capobianco:

So the NDP will be facing a tough decision. The NDP - like most parties, decide the fate of their leader after election losses and Tom Mulcair will be facing his party later this year to find out whether they think he should stay for one more election.

However, the interesting thing about the NDP - and this in NOT like the other parties, is that they don't tend to shoot their leaders after election losses.

The history of NDP leadership battles has usually been understated, as was the case for Mr. Broadbent and more recently with Jack Layton, who was given a few tries after a few losses. The Liberals and the Conservatives have harsher consequences for their respective leaders when it comes to giving them subsequent opportunities at elections.

As for the likelihood that the NDP will keep Mr. Mulcair, if it does, it will be for a couple of reasons.  First, he didn't do badly when compared historically even to the huge success of Jack Layton - winning 44 seats is the second highest number of seats for the NDP. Secondly, there just isn't enough interest in the current group to challenge him, nor anyone with the profile to take over as leader.

 

Marit Stiles:

Like a lot of New Democrats I'll be heading to Edmonton for our federal convention on April 8-10. As John notes, there will indeed be a leadership confidence vote. This is standard at NDP conventions and also, as John notes, in the past we haven't seen leaders generally turfed in this fashion. Especially after only one election.

That's not to say that it isn't possible, of course. At the last Ontario provincial convention, there was considerable talk that ONDP Leader Andrea Horwath might suffer the wrath of her membership - and she came out of it relatively unscathed. But the vote is only part of the story. In Ms. Horwath's case, she had engaged in a considerable effort to listen to unhappy members as part of a province-wide election debrief. And she had a large contingent of supporters - folks like former Manitoba Chief of Staff Michael Balagus - championing her among members and rallying the vote in her favour. She also, however, had a looming federal election around the corner and many Ontario New Democrats were uneasy about heading into a potentially divisive leadership battle where activists would be distracted from pre-election work.

In Mr. Mulcair's case, New Democrats would have almost four more years to organize around a new leader, and the loss of much beloved incumbent MPs - especially in the Atlantic provinces and Toronto - has left some New Democrats eager for change.

The question is whether Mr. Mulcair has enough friends organizing to support him. The thing about the NDP is we are a party very much built around our membership. They have a strong voice, and while they aren't necessarily harbouring any personal ill feelings for Mr. Mulcair, most are deeply unhappy about the campaign itself. The ads, the failure to capitalize on some of the momentum heading in, and the desire of Canadians for change.

The key will be whether they think Mr. Mulcair wears the responsibility for the campaign or whether they will be happy with a commitment to change of tactic heading into 2019.

 

Richard Mahoney:

After every election loss, it is customary for parties to assess what went wrong and to have a vote amongst party members on whether or not they wish to "review" the party leadership. Even when parties decide to keep their leader, this process is a vital element of party democracy - a step by which parties hold their leaders accountable for the way they run a campaign, lead a party, and the issues and vision they articulate. This is a good thing.

This time will be a tough one for party militants. As recently as August 2015, party militants watched as Tom Mulcair and his team were leading in the polls and ran a "frontrunner" style of campaign, taking few risks and moderating policy positions such as their now famous balanced budget plan.

The NDP, like all parties, have had their share of previous electoral disappointments. As Marit and John point out, Jack Layton ran four campaigns, and it was not until 2011 that he achieved significant political success. He was given lots of time to get there.

The difference was that no one expected Layton to win in any of those campaigns. And all New Democrats expected Tom Mulcair to take that over the finish line this time. He failed, they failed, and badly.

While only a few prominent New Democrats have called for Mulcair to go to date, I think that most of them are waiting to see how he performs between now and April before deciding how they will vote on his leadership. Where does he think the party went wrong? Does he take responsibility for the defeat and his contribution to it? Most importantly, they will look to Mulcair to chart out a vision for the future. What is the role of the NDP in 2016? What policies will it champion? And how do they do so in face of a popular, progressive Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

Mulcair will need strong answers to those questions, if he is to earn the support of New Democrats to do it all over again in 2019.

 

John Capobianco:

I agree with Marit's assessment of leadership confidence votes in that you just never know what could happen by the time you get to the convention. Having gone to my fair share of them on the Conservative side - we can be brutal with our leaders after election losses - you just can't take anything for granted.

As for Mr. Mulcair, he has certainly made some smart political moves since the election, like naming high profile candidates who lost their seats to key party positions. He also talked positively about the 44 seats he did win in most provinces as well as expressing sorrow for those who lost. He has kept out of the spot light for most part since the election, which I think helped him. He had a mediocre performance for the week the House was in session.

So for all the positive steps and moves he has made, there is the one fact that is critical to his leadership challenge and Richard alluded to it in his submission - that of expectations. In most NPD races of the past, the NDP started in third place and by and large ended in third place (of course Jack Layton's run as the exception). Not the case with Mr. Mulcair who started the election in first and held that for a good chunk of it.

That is his biggest problem - most believe that he had more than a real chance of being Prime Minister.  He even believed it, as did his team. The fact that they abandoned their traditional NDP policies and campaign style to run a front runner's campaign was what some think lost them the edge and gave Canadians a chance to look at Mr. Trudeau as the real alternative to Mr. Harper.

I do think Mr. Mulcair will survive the confidence vote - I know Marit will be at the convention and I know she and her party faithful will be tackling serious policy issues and debating what exactly went wrong for the NDP, and I think the NDP will give their leader another chance.

 

Marit Stiles:

Yes, there's little doubt that the expectations of New Democrats was far higher in this election than perhaps in any election in the past. And so the loss of seats is more difficult, certainly.

I am not ready to predict the outcome of the vote at the convention. The fact that it will take place in Edmonton (decided before the federal election even took place) will make it easier for West coast and prairie province voters to attend, and more difficult for those of us living in Central or Eastern Canada, and that may work in Mr. Mulcair's favour if Easterners tend to be feeling a little more unhappy these days.

I do think many New Democrats, notwithstanding whether they lost seats or gained them (and as was pointed out, there were some gains among the losses), are looking to 2019 in a slightly different light than past elections. We will, it seems, be engaged in a different kind of campaign with a different kind of Prime Minister and a different kind of electoral system. Everything shifts and changes. And our party has a strong and vibrant new generation of activists, many who came into the party in the excitement of the 2011 "Orange Wave." Many of them may want to see their own generation better represented in leadership ranks.

All this is to say that while I agree with both Richard and John that it's unlikely Mr. Mulcair will see a large vote of non-confidence in Edmonton, the ground is still shifting and anything can happen. Most riding associations are just now picking their delegates, forcing folks to focus a little on what they might choose to do with their vote on the convention floor.

One thing is for sure, for Mr. Mulcair to maintain his leadership in the party he must be seen to be reaching out, listening (I mean listening to the members) and willing to make the changes necessary to be ready to form government in 2019. If he doesn't, I expect we may start to see more high profile New Democrats speaking out and the tide could change.  

 

Richard Mahoney:

Whether Tom Mulcair survives the leadership vote is one question. As Marit points out, we don't know whether Mulcair has enough "friends" in the party to rally support to his cause in that effort and political organization of that is key.

The bigger question facing the NDP is a more existential one: what kind of a political party are they? Are they a movement or a more conventional political party - a big tent or "brokerage' party that harbours moderates and progressives in an attempt to appeal broadly to Canadians?

This battle for the soul of the NDP has been going on since the Seventies. On the one hand, there are the true progressives - people who want to see change in our society and joined the NDP as a movement to drive progress on those issues. On the other side are the generation of New Democrats that I have come to know and like, who have been pushing for years to make the NDP into a modern political party capable of appealing to a broad number of Canadians.

This group has often seen the Liberal Party as their true competition. Their efforts have been directed at getting the NDP to replace the Liberals as the progressive party that is best positioned to govern Canada, a modern alternative to Conservatives, which headed to the right in the days of Harper, Mike Harris and Preston Manning. That was the motivation for Jack Layton and the New Democrats when they joined with Stephen Harper to defeat the Liberal minority government lead by Paul Martin after the tabling of the Gomery Report.

The result was a Stephen Harper government, but Layton and the New Democrats were poised to take advantage of Liberal disarray after their defeat. Layton and the New Democrats sought to supplant the Liberals as the moderate progressive alterative to the then Conservative government. This meant moderating some of their core policy ideals but, in 2011, Layton replaced the Liberals as the Official Opposition to the majority Harper government. A step closer, many thought.

But many New Democrats and progressives were wary. Many more think that Tom Mulcair, and those running his campaign, went too far down this more conservative road in the last campaign. They point to Mulcair's support for a balanced budget in the last election, a mirror of Harper's position, as evidence of this shift. Justin Trudeau championed modest deficits to stimulate the economy, and came to be seen as the best examples of "real change" from Harper, a test most New Democrats think they should have won.

So the question for the NDP is not just whether they should keep Tom Mulcair as leader. It is what kind of a party are they? What kind of a party do they want to be? Are they "Liberals light" or are they something more progressive, more social democratic in the economic models and policy they create?

If they want to be something more progressive on this front, they will probably decide to renew their leadership in that model with a bold, progressive new voice. If they prefer the more moderate middle, then they will probably give the Mulcair model another go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted date : January 13, 2016
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