Seeing the extreme positions taken by Republican candidates in the U.S. gives us a clue as to the typical dynamic of leadership races –- first, having to win over a party’s base who are more dogmatic and than the electorate as a whole, then, to appeal to the broader electorate, having to walk back many of those very positions and risk being condemned as a flip-flopper with no principles.
This typical dynamic makes Thomas Mulcair’s strategy for winning the NDP leadership especially interesting. Simply put, he has not followed the script. He has not delivered the boilerplate sound bites NDP members (consciously or not) have come to expect. Rather than pay respect to where the Party has been, Mulcair has instead outlined where the Party must go (and what must change for the NDP to take the next step, i.e. to form Government). While Mulcair no doubt could have been a bit more “politically correct” in outlining his rationale for departing from the NDP orthodoxy, I give him full credit for not taking the easy path.
The easy thing to do was simply tell traditional NDP constituencies what they wanted to hear, recite the old gospel, and pretend to be as nice as the guy (Jack Layton) whose rather large shoes he is trying to fill. And while his advisors have surely kept reminding him to smile more for the camera, Mulcair is not and will never be Jack Layton. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Layton resurrected his party from the back corner of Parliament to front-and-centre as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. But it wasn’t because he smiled a lot. It was because he slowly and deliberately shifted the NDP towards a broader appeal. So while Mulcair might strike some hard-line Dippers as “not quite one of us”, his approach is consistent with the trajectory that Layton began.
Now in its government-in-waiting position, the next NDP leader cannot be content merely being the conscience of Parliament. A vote for NDP leader today could well be a vote for the Prime Minister of tomorrow. It cannot be about who smiles the most (or kisses the best!); in fact, it could well be quite the opposite since s/he will be attempting to unseat one of the most strategic and successful Prime Ministers in Canadian history. You don’t have to like Stephen Harper to acknowledge he is determined, disciplined, and yes, successful. And yet, he is not especially popular. Good leaders often aren’t; they don’t merely acquiesce to the most popular idea, they often have a unique capacity to nudge you where you didn’t think you wanted to go.
Each of the other NDP contenders — who are very likable, charismatic and bright — have many strengths essential to an NDP administration, e.g. Nash with labour, Cullen with the West, Ashton with younger voters, Topp strategically, etc. But it seems to me that Mulcair has best demonstrated the qualities of leadership. He has not been afraid to try to convince the base that being in government (i.e. the goal) requires not just opposing what Dippers don’t like (acting on the “no” reflex), but engaging opponents on critical issues and forging *realistic* policies to move these prickly issues towards more just and more sustainable ends. This is especially true on economic issues, which will remain the key battle for the foreseeable future, but which has not traditionally been the NDP’s forte (or at least has not been the issue on which Canadians trust the NDP the most).
That Mulcair arguably has the most direct experience in Government (having served as a Cabinet Minister and been a public servant before that) certainly helps. That he is articulate in both official languages and the only candidate seen as a native son by Quebeckers (who represent 60% of the caucus) also helps. As do his economic (finance critic) and environmental (former Environment Minister) credentials.
But most importantly, he would give the NDP a leader who, though perhaps less politically correct or even as likeable as other candidates, would be as ruthless defending a progressive agenda as Harper defends a conservative agenda. And yet, because he has not taken the easy/conventional path to the NDP leadership, he also seems to be the best placed to make a progressive appeal to voters who have not traditionally supported the NDP. By stepping slightly outside the orthodoxy, Mulcair offers the NDP the best opportunity to form a progressive government. So it seems to me that, on balance, the best choice for NDP leader is Thomas Mulcair.