Mulcair is the right pick for NDP, Canada

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A lot of hand wringing is going on at several levels within the NDP about picking a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister to lead the NDP. Some of the traditionalists warn that this is the drift of the party to the right that they had been guardians against and that little will now distinguish the party from the federal Liberals they replaced as Official Opposition in the 2011 federal election.

The problem is that the NDP, as a populist left-wing party is that in its earlier form – it would never have come this close to . The drift, if we can call it that, started under beloved former leader Jack Layton. Layton himself made it a pillar of his leadership to build a new progressive coalition of voters and office-seekers to supplant the Liberal party and take on the right wing in Canada.

Thomas Mulcair is a product of that coalition building.

The fact that the NDP still hangs on to second place with its outgoing and lackluster temporary leader Nycole Turmel is a testament that Canadian voters are ready to coalesce behind a new progressive banner – they were just waiting for the NDP to complete its leadership process. Polling has shown that only one candidate for leader has the support to take the NDP over the top. That leader is Thomas Mulcair.

The growing pains for the NDP will be intense. The party will have to go from Mr.NiceGuy to bare-knuckle politics to face the well oiled Conservative party with its professionally trained campaigners.

Those in NDP most upset with Mulcair are from a faction of voters that is more myth than reality. The NDP is legally a socialist party…it says so in the party’s constitution. But how many Canadians are truly Socialist in their hearts? Chances are, a lot less than the level of support that the party currently enjoys at the polls.

If voters researched the facts, they’d see that socialism is no friend of freedom. Its core principles come from the writings of Karl Marx. Several branches have evolved along the way, the radical one being Communism. All in all, the further left you get, the less free you are. The same is true of the far right; any radical ideology doesn’t permit much deviation from cardinal truths as decreed from party elites.

The Federal Liberals were, for the longest time, the home of the generically progressive voters in Canada. Those who felt that a reasonable social safety net for the vulnerable, laws to protect against discrimination, protect the environment, were perfectly at home in the liberal party; it wasn’t too radical, and yet had a semblance of the free enterprise mixed economy that is the centerpiece of North America.

The Liberals had started taking this voting block for granted. They had a habit of campaigning on the left while governing on the right. They liked the votes that came from compassionate Canadians, and also liked the campaign donations that came from conservatives and big business. They said what you wanted to hear, and did what they wanted to do…often at odds with the majority of Canadians.

While the Liberals were getting arrogant in power, the conservatives re-organized themselves from their 1993 blow out. The party was fractured into three parts. Fiscal conservatives from Central Canada, social conservatives from Western Canada, and cultural nationalists from Quebec. They became the (old) PC party, Reform Party, and Bloc Quebecois. None of these factions liked each other much, but they hated the Liberal party. They went through twists and turns trying to find ways to cooperate and eventually the PC party and Alliance (prev. Reform Party) morphed into the Conservative Party. Finally, one party for the generically conservative voter in Canada.

The split of the progressive voter away from the Liberal party happened almost immediately after the 1993 PC blowout. Liberals knew that progressive voters had no other home. Provincial governments in Ontario and BC (at the time) made the NDP brand unpopular, so the Liberals would campaign slightly to the left while happily governing as a rightist regime. With a fractured conservative vote, it simply wouldn’t matter. This textbook triangulation worked well enough assuming that the conservative stayed fractured…and assuming that progressives would remain loyal to a party that abandoned them long ago.

Enter; Jack Layton. Jack saw this opening on the progressive side of the spectrum and figured that he could grow a new big-tent coalition party that was truly progressive. He started recruiting big name politico’s into the fold; attracting big name Green party supporters and federal Liberals. His big coup was landing Thomas Mulcair in Quebec. That test was a by-election campaign in what was supposed to be a Liberal stronghold. It isn’t a stronghold for the Liberals anymore.

Layton’s politics also drifted as well. The NDP was starting to talk of tax cuts and debt control; crime and punishment. The NDP made issues that were the traditional area of conservatives into talking points for the NDP. Progressives had their own populist ideas for taxes, crime, immigration, etc. It wasn’t Thomas Mulcair that made the NDP into a centre-left governing alternative, it was Jack Layton.

It will likely work too. Canada is ready for progressives to govern again, but the changes to the NDP needed are going to cause some discomfort to those who got too comfortable just being complainers. If the NDP wants to play in big leagues and be a contender, then it has to change and consolidate into a machine that is at least as fast as its its adversaries. The Conservatives have a professional fundraising and message machine that is as powerful as anything by scale in America. The NDP will have to be as aggressive if they are to compete and win. I hope that with this new leadership, and new faces in the back offices, a new energy for the NDP is at hand.