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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Amid 'violent' agreement, NDP excitement's at a premium Add to ...

Nathan Cullen, an NDP leadership candidate from northern B.C., put matters well: The candidates, he said, “violently agree” on just about everything. When candidates agree, it’s great for party unity. But it means the contest is not much about policy differences but rather about style, nuance, geography, organization and, dare we say it, electability.

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Other parties always worried more than the NDP in selecting leaders about electability, or who could carry the party to office. NDP leaderships of yore were never about which candidate might actually become prime minister. Candidates sometimes talked about what they would do at 24 Sussex, but nobody took such prattle seriously. Now, who knows?

The Conservatives will have been in office for about a decade when the next election rolls around. Here’s what recent history shows about the longevity of governments. Pierre Trudeau won in 1968 and lost in 1979. Brian Mulroney won in 1984, successor Kim Campbell lost in 1993. Jean Chrétien won in 1993, successor Paul Martin lost in 2006. At about the 10-year mark, parties either lost power or did so not long thereafter.

It’s way too early, of course, to speculate on the outcome of the next election. But it’s not too early for opposition parties to dream. Now that the NDP is the Official Opposition, the fairy tales the party once told no longer seem utterly fanciful.

Mr. Cullen has impressed a lot of people with his good humour, acceptable French and environmental preoccupations. As the only candidate from B.C., he should be, on paper, the province’s “favourite son,” which would count for a lot in a province with perhaps 35,000 NDP members.

It would seem, however, that the B.C. provincial party machine has lined up for Brian Topp, the former party president who’s the classic backroom boy-turned candidate. Mr. Topp, with the heavyweight backing of former federal leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, is deemed to be one of two front-runners, the other being Thomas Mulcair, an MP and former deputy leader from Quebec.

But who really knows what’s going on? Yes, the candidates are having weekly debates. But since they agree on just about everything, the debates are hardly gripping affairs. In fairness, of course, how can a serious debate occur among eight candidates in 90 minutes, even if the candidates were inclined to debate as opposed to agree?

Only a small minority of NDP members will attend the debates or watch them on television or social media. Many more will be meeting the candidates as they roam across the country. The candidates’ goals at this stage are to meet, greet, impress and sign up as many members as possible before the deadline for memberships expires in about a month. It’s an organizational marathon more than anything else.

There’s a twist to this NDP leadership contest that could be consequential. Those who vote will do so by preferential ballot. When the candidate who finishes last drops out after the first ballot, his or her supporters’ next preferences will be allocated to the other candidates. And so on, until one candidate gets 50 per cent of the vote.

So being a second choice becomes very important, since none of the candidates are expected to be near 50 per cent in the first round. It’s conceivable with preferential voting that, if the two front-runners’ supporters can’t abide the other front-runner – Mr. Topp’s backers can’t bring themselves to favour Mr. Mulcair, and vice versa – then perhaps someone else could sneak between then with a harvest of second choices.

Perhaps that might be Peggy Nash, who’s from Toronto, bilingual and has lots of union support. Or Paul Dewar, an Ottawa MP who’s got lots of support from Manitoba’s provincial NDP. Or perhaps Mr. Cullen, although that would be a long shot, indeed. Or maybe Mr. Topp and Mr. Mulcair, both bilingual and from Quebec, will have lots of supporters in that province for whom both candidates would be just fine.

At this stage, speculation is merely harmless fun. In a race where all “violently agree,” excitement is at a premium. Selling memberships is where it’s at, for now.

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