On Losing and Leadership

05 Apr 2016

The New Democrats lost the last election in a resounding fashion. Talk to organizers or campaign managers across the country and they will tell you about soft support and the moment they felt that they lost control of their campaign. The exact moment and the degree will differ, and there are even a few notable success stories – Saskatchewan and fortress Vancouver Island come to mind – but the overall story for the NDP is that 2015 was the party’s most devastating federal defeat. No amount of spin or rhetoric can change that reality. The question is then how they should react to that. This is not just a matter of electoral strategy, but also an existential one: what does it mean to be a New Democrat and why does the party exist?

Tom Mulcair offered a version that was to be the natural successor of the Liberal dynasty and, while it was somewhat unpalatable to the progressive wings of the party, it seemed to have a broader appeal to Canadians unsatisfied with Stephen Harper, but who were leery of trusting the Liberals to unseat his government. The New Democrats would be a middle way: close enough to the centre to expand their voter base, but left enough to remain connected to their roots. It was a difficult balancing act that was impressive to watch while it was working – and, of course, devastating to watch the stumble and fall. “Stop Harper,” indeed.

Now the party finds itself on unsteady ground in a very different political landscape. Where are they to go from here and how we they to get there should be the first questions that New Democrats should ask themselves. With the upcoming convention and leadership review in Edmonton there has been a lot of focus on Mulcair and whether he should stay on, but that presents the party with a simple binary when there needs to be a much broader debate about the NDP as a whole. With everything that has changed over the last year, the convention has to be more than a cathartic opportunity to vent frustrations. While it is certainly the case that Mulcair should offer his (presumably) new roadmap for the party and why it should be him that leads, it does New Democrats no favors for Mulcair to defend himself in a vacuum. There needs to be a convention where different visions of the party are presented, discussed, and contested. This is not something that I believe can happen effectively when the party is focused on a leadership review. Rather I think that there needs to be a leadership election – and one in which Mulcair stays on as one of the candidates.

As it stands, I do not know whether the party can find a viable leadership alternative to Mulcair – or if there is a better voice of opposition against the Trudeau Liberals – but regardless, even if the result was for him to stay on as leader, the debate would help (re)discover what New Democrats want the party to be. Granted it would be a show of weakness for Mulcair to have to defend himself in such a fashion and any number of think pieces would be written about the disarray of the weakened New Democrats, but the truth is that the party is weak right now. Instead of trying to save face and hide it they should embrace the opportunity that a stable, majority government provides and take that time to build into a stronger, unified, and coherent party.