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In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s next task: Win over the country Add to ...

One member crossed the floor. But party insiders say that, by showing such patience and willingness to compromise, Mr. Mulcair has since enjoyed solid support from his caucus. He is especially close to the many rookie MPs from his home province, as much mentor as leader, while instructing them in the campaign skills they will need if the party has any hope of preserving its gains in Quebec.

As a result, the NDP has largely avoided the “bozo eruptions” that are common to large groups of greenhorn MPs.

“What impresses pollsters and analysts in Quebec is the fact that the NDP rookies are doing well with no real experience,” says Montreal marketing expert Jean-Marc Léger. “There have been no big mistakes, and that has surprised everyone.”

At the same time, Mr. Mulcair is obsessive about message discipline (forming a coherent response to any issue and sticking to it) as well as keeping the leader front and centre as the face of the party. It’s the same formula his chief rival used to cement his control over his yet, like the Conservatives, the New Democrats seem to accept the Mulcair mantra that, with power in striking distance, everyone must be flexible and exercise restraint.

For example, Mr. Layton failed in 2011 to persuade the party faithful to change the preamble to the NDP constitution, with its lofty lefty references to “democratic socialism” and commitment “to modify and control the operations of the monopolistic productive and distributive organizations.”

When Mr. Mulcair became leader, he strongly endorsed a fresh rewrite, which relegated socialism to a party “tradition” and promised simply “to address the limitations of the market in addressing the common good.” This time the changes passed.

Even the once-skeptical Mr. Broadbent has come around: “I think he’s doing a splendid job,” he says. The two have dinner on occasion and talk regularly. As for the alarm he raised, Mr. Broadbent insists: “I’m totally happy about the present. The past is the past.”

Of course, it’s not all hearts and flowers. Within the confines of his office, the Leader of the Official Opposition shares the Prime Minister’s reputation for micromanaging, a trait his senior staffers have been working to temper. (They report that he has, reluctantly, come to realize that a press release delivered two hours late because he insisted on signing off personally on it is a press release wasted.)

Where Mr. Layton saw himself as a chairman of the board, happy to delegate responsibility, Mr. Mulcair prefers to exercise tight control, giving his aides limited autonomy. He holds brainstorming sessions to hash out a response to emerging issues and relishes a good argument, but soon makes up his mind and, like Mr. Harper, rarely feels there is anyone smarter in the room.

Both men can be uncompromising – a quality often prized in a leader – but there are differences between them. Mr. Mulcair is capable of changing his mind and not known to hold a grudge, while some days the Prime Minister seems to be about nothing but grudges.

“Tom is tough, but for him it’s never personal,” says NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen, who ran against him for the leadership.

Still, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper seem so alike that now the only real difference between their parties, in the eyes of one NDP insider, “is that we’re good and they’re bad.”

That said, Mr. Mulcair has learned to bite his tongue – for example, when he invites small groups of MPs to discuss issues and priorities over dinner at his official residence. Those who have been to a Stornoway session say he lets everyone else talk, and sums up the discussion at the end of the meal.

The path to government also requires setting priorities, and Mr. Mulcair has chosen wisely. The NDP has pushed for bolstering the Canada Pension Plan, now a top issue for several provinces and one that threatens to leave Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and the Conservatives behind the curve.

The party’s opposition to untrammelled development of the Alberta oil sands has been echoed in powerful resistance to both the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines.

“I want my first act as prime minister on the international stage,” he says, “to be my attendance at the Paris conference in December, 2015, on the Kyoto Protocol” – the historic climate agreement that he says the Liberals signed in 2002 as a “communications stunt.” (A stunt that later became what environmentalists consider a tragedy when the Harper government withdrew from the accord altogether.)

But he is also an economic realist, and the NDP supports a proposed pipeline to carry western oil to the east. “We want development that benefits everyone, and we’re actually going to get it done,” he says, dismissing both the Liberals, for constantly saying one thing and doing another, and Mr. Harper, for his cynicism and “grim view of the world.”

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