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ANALYSIS

NDP opts for a power broker over a protest leader Add to ...

The New Democratic Party has decided to rebrand itself by asking Thomas Mulcair to take it from protest to power.

That was the name of Bob Rae’s memoirs, and it is a rich irony that Mr. Mulcair, a former Liberal, now leads the NDP and Mr. Rae, a former NDPer, leads the Liberals.

But it is the New Democrats who, as Official Opposition, have the best chance of unseating Stephen Harper in the next election, and the New Democrats have decided that the Montreal MP has the brains (obviously) the brawn (apparently) and the judgment (not yet proven) to end the Conservative hegemony in Ottawa.

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In defeating party strategist Brian Topp, B.C. MP Nathan Cullen and Ontario MPs Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar, Mr.Mulcair earned a clear mandate to move the party in a new direction, one that acknowledges the challenges facing, not just workers, but business and government itself; that espouses a principled foreign policy while stripping away the pollyanna pacifism of the NDP’s traditional stands; that seeks to improve the environment without disemboweling the economy.

Call it the New New Democrats, since it was the brand New Labour that worked in Great Britain for Tony Blair.

It was exactly that fear – moving the NDP so close to the centre in pursuit of government that it would lose its social-democratic soul – that impelled former leader Ed Broadbent and others in the old guard to do everything in their power to stop Mr. Mulcair. It was why they rallied around Mr. Topp, who believed the NDP should remain true to its past, so that voters could elect a government, as he put it, ‘worth electing.”

But the majority of the roughly half of the 130,000 NDP members who cast ballots had other ideas. They want to hold on to the party’s astonishing gains in Quebec; they want Prairie voters who have abandoned the party – and who do not see the oil sands as an unmitigated evil – to return to the party.

Most important, they want middle class voters in Ontario – worried about their jobs, but worried also about grand new social experiments – to be able to vote NDP next time out with some confidence that a New Democratic prime minister won’t tax their employer out of business, while sending the deficit in entirely the wrong direction.

All this, Mr. Mulcair promises to do. It will be not easy, and there are other, more immediate challenges.

The party’s current administration was, it goes without saying, passionately loyal to the late Jack Layton, and they would much have preferred to see Mr. Topp, one of their own, in charge.

They and many others will be disinclined to support this new leader. Replacing those who must be replaced with people Mr. Mulcair can trust, without at the same time deepening rifts within the party, will be no easy task.

And then there is the party across the aisle. The Conservatives will have spent months preparing for Mr. Mulcair. They will seek to brand him as a rogue politician with a wild temper and closet socialist tendencies who must not be allowed anywhere near power.

Within minutes of Mr. Mulcair taking the stage, the Conservative Party launched a vicious attack by e-mail. "Thomas Mulcair is an opportunist whose high tax agenda, blind ambition, and divisive personality would put Canadian families and their jobs at risk," said party spokesman Fred DeLorey.

The NDP says it will not permit the Tories to do their leader what they have so effectively done to the Liberals, time and time again. We’ll see.

Finally, there is the question of Mr. Mulcair himself. He can be ill-humoured; he is a hard man to warm to; fierce loyalty is not the first emotion he inspires; his relationship with the press is one of mutual hostility

These are difficult personal obstacles for a leader to overcome. Some would call them insurmountable, were it not for the fact that the current Prime Minister is the same sort of fellow.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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