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Federal NDP Leadership Review: Where does Mulcair stand?

by Michael Lightstone

These are not glorious days for Nova Scotia’s New Democrats.

In last October’s general election, the federal NDP dropped to third place from its previous standing as the Official Opposition. It failed to win a single seat in this province and the rest of Atlantic Canada, as the Liberals steamrolled to victory at the polls.

Nova Scotia’s previously-popular NDP MPs were booted out of office, in some cases in favour of rookie federal candidates who simply surfed the red wave to Parliament in Ottawa.

Provincially, the NDP tumbled from first to third in the 2013 election. The party, led by former premier Darrell Dexter, was the first in 131 years in Nova Scotia that wasn’t re-elected to a second term.

The New Democrats’ provincial caucus consists of six MLAs, and newly-selected Leader Gary Burrill isn’t one of them. But at least his job is safe for a while, since he only became the NDP’s chief here in late February.

Burrill’s federal counterpart, on the other hand, could be facing a big job-security hurdle next month.

Leader Tom Mulcair will be the subject of a review from NDP delegates attending the party’s national convention in Edmonton. Party president Rebecca Blaikie has said publicly that he needs the backing of 70 per cent to remain leader.

The NDP, or its precursor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (founded in the 1930s during the Depression), has never held power in Ottawa. There have been provincial NDP governments, including the Dexter administration in Nova Scotia, but the party’s victory march to Parliament Hill still hasn’t happened.

Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin, Alexa McDonough, Jack Layton, Tom Mulcair—not one of these federal NDP leaders became prime minister.

If you’re a New Democratic Party supporter in Nova Scotia and intend to vote for the party in the next federal election, you’re likely asking yourself this: Does Mulcair deserve another chance to lead the troops into battle?

Burrill plans to attend his party’s convention in the Alberta capital. He’ll be a voting delegate but wouldn’t say whether Mulcair should stay or go. He did acknowledge that last year’s election campaign was not exactly a golden period for the federal NDP.

The NDP’s platform plank about deficit reduction didn’t help matters, Burrill said in an interview.

“There is a great deal of discussion in the federal party, at the moment, about the need to move from a major focus on deficits and debt, to a conversation that has a much broader place for social investment and the widening of opportunity and the narrowing of inequality,” said Burrill, who’s seen as a true leftist in a left-of-centre political party.

He used to be a member of the provincial legislature but lost his Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley seat in the 2013 election. Although Burrill still doesn’t have a chair inside Province House, he’ll be rubbing shoulders with Canada’s other provincial NDP leaders after he arrives in Edmonton.

The New Democrats’ convention runs April 8 to 10. According to The Toronto Star, about 800 delegates had registered by early March.

Political pundits have noted the federal NDP doesn’t dump its leader after one unsuccessful election. Indeed, Alexa McDonough, the former Halifax MP who used to be head of Nova Scotia’s New Democrats, survived a leadership challenge when she was guiding the federal party. She won the leadership in 1995.

The McDonough-led NDP did well in the 1997 federal election, regaining official party status and capturing an unprecedented eight electoral districts in our region. It won 21 seats in the House of Commons that year. The 2000 election was a much different story for the party, but McDonough survived a leadership review in Winnipeg the following year.

David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said Mulcair, the MP for the riding of Outremont (in Montreal), is in “real trouble.” He said the party’s left wing is certainly displeased with Mulcair, but suggested there’s a key issue that may save his skin: the prime minister’s promise to press ahead with significant electoral reform.

“The NDP has always been pushing for proportional representation,” Johnson said. He said if there’s major reform coming, and if Mulcair can convince party members he is the one “who’s able to articulate, and promote and push for proportional representation, that may sway some voters” at the convention in Edmonton.

While the NDP’s election result in 2015 landed with a distinct thud, there’s perhaps enough blame to go around for the party’s lackluster campaign. A quarterback may guide his squad down a football field, but football, like politics, is a team game.

Surely Mulcair wasn’t the only New Democrat who failed to prepare and execute the game plan for the campaign. (Although he’s written a letter to supporters saying he takes full responsibility for the party’s showing, which Johnson noted he’d have to say as leader, common sense says other NDP players, too, helped the team lose.)

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran a more aggressive campaign, the shelf life of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper had finally expired in voters’ minds and the rest is history.

Johnson said there’s at least one clear signal of dissension in the ranks of the NDP—this coming weeks prior to the Edmonton convention.

“The fact that, already three weeks out, (Mulcair is) getting MPs in his caucus who cannot (publicly) say that they endorse him—that’s trouble,” he said recently. “He’ll have problems getting the 70 per cent” support from the delegates, Johnson said.

The NDP wound up with 44 seats in Parliament, a lousy enough outcome to send the party home last fall with the bronze medal. The convention will likely include some soul-searching and cold calculations, looking ahead to the next election, as well as the usual policy discussions and in-house business.

Mulcair has said he wants to remain federal NDP leader “for the long haul.” Rank-and-file party members, however, might have other ideas.

Freelance reporter Michael Lightstone lives in Dartmouth, NS.

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Topics: Governance
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