When Jack Layton won the NDP leadership in 2003, he was a relative outsider – the party, including Ed Broadbent, took a chance on him. Mr. Layton was a player in Toronto but his national credentials were limited. He had never been elected to an office higher than city council, he was little known outside his city and he was certainly not considered a “Quebec candidate.” Brian Topp was a well-known party apparatchik, but few New Democrats had ever heard of the environment minister in Jean Charest’s provincial Liberal government. And it’s doubtful that Tom Mulcair had ever given the NDP even a cursory thought.
That was then. This is now. Then, the leadership contest may have been about taking the NDP “to the next level,” as Mr. Layton liked to say. But now, the leadership is not solely, or even primarily, about the party’s aspirations: It is about choosing the leader of the Official Opposition and a potential prime minister. It is also, not insignificantly, about ensuring that Quebeckers retain a voice in federal politics.
Last May’s federal election gave the NDP its biggest opportunity ever. Almost 80 years after a coalition of farmers, workers and socialist intellectuals formed the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and after 50 years of playing the sidelines in federal politics, the New Democrats need to choose a leader who can make them come to grips with the party’s new role as government-in-waiting, and use this enviable platform to transform the party into a credible alternative for all Canadian voters.
The NDP’s challenge as Official Opposition, however, is much more difficult than its pioneers could have imagined. It faces not the “progressive” Conservatives or “centrist” Liberals of the past, but arguably the most right-wing government Canada has known. The NDP needs a leader who is ready to face the brave new world of Canadian politics – a task not for the faint of heart. It needs someone who can play the strategic game and remake the space for the centre-left in a different and daring way.
The 2011 election also gave the party the biggest shock in its history. After decades of oblivion in la belle province, Quebec is now home to the largest bloc of NDP members in the House of Commons, and the NDP is the de facto voice of Quebec in federal politics. Whether New Democrats believe Mr. Topp or Mr. Mulcair is more responsible for this breakthrough is beside the point. What matters is that the new leader must be able to fulfill the party’s obligations to Quebec voters.
It’s clear that Quebeckers did not so much vote for the NDP as they voted against politics as usual. They voted for Mr. Layton not so much because he was a federalist or a social democrat, but because he provided a personable alternative and promised to take a stand on the issues that matter to Quebec.
That promise has been evaporating. While Quebeckers show persistent dissatisfaction with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the NDP’s support in Quebec is sliding, the party has not yet secured grassroots support and its leaders are not well known. Quebec voters are largely responsible for the NDP’s place in Canadian politics today, but they have been mostly silenced in this leadership contest within a party that is resolutely anchored in the rest of Canada in outlook, attitude and organization.
So, the real question is: Does the NDP want to become a party with a real and relevant Quebec voice? It is a huge responsibility, but also a risk. To do so means choosing a leader who can essentially build a new party, someone who is prepared to give Quebeckers a real voice in its organization and platform, and who is able to bridge the increasingly uneasy relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
The risk of not doing so is just as great. The NDP’s breakthrough as Official Opposition and a new Quebec party in federal politics should not be underestimated. But the two roles are inextricably intertwined, and party members need to face up to that dual responsibility if they want to see the NDP remain a force on the national political stage.