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NDP leadership contender Thomas Mulcair speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Sept. 19, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
NDP leadership contender Thomas Mulcair speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Sept. 19, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Robert Silver

What mandate is Mulcair seeking? Add to ...

Watching the NDP leadership debate Sunday in Winnipeg, the most striking thing to me is how certain Thomas Mulcair appears to be that he has the leadership in the bag. Unlike the other candidates on stage with him, he wasn’t pleading for second-choice votes. He is acting like a front-runner who both knows where he currently stands and is confident he has a path to get more than 50 per cent.

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He was doing something much bigger this weekend – and has been for a few weeks now, as far as I can tell as an outsider to this race – he’s trying to get a mandate to fundamentally change the NDP. Candidates who are unsure if they’re going to win normally take the approach “a win is a win.” Candidates who are confident of victory have far more luxury to define what their win means. Also, typically in a leadership race or primary battle, you run toward your party’s base (and then tack toward the centre in the general election). Mulcair is running away from his base – or said positively, is proposing to lead his base in a different direction. That speaks to someone who feels pretty good about his standing.

First a proviso: It is very easy to look very stupid writing about leadership races prior to a winner being announced. Leaderships are ultimately math contests. The air war is what the media and outsiders pay attention to because that’s all we have access to. But unless you have the membership tracking numbers, it is impossible to know how the race is really going. So of course it’s very possible that Mulcair is wrong and he won’t win. I’m only commenting on how Mulcair is acting and what it says about how he thinks the race is unfolding.

Assuming Mulcair is right and that he’s going to win, the mandate he’s seeking was on full display in Winnipeg. In an exchange with Niki Ashton, he made his intent clear: “I would not repeat things from 50 years ago, I would modernize our language, modernize our approach.”

Modern language, modern approach. I have no idea what that actually means, but I can guess. In part, it is easiest to define what he is proposing by contrasting it with his main opponents. Peggy Nash and Brian Topp have been carrying a message through this campaign that you can boil down to “the NDP doesn’t need to change, what we’ve been doing is working, we have passed the Liberals, our vote total keeps going up and if we keep doing the same thing, we will win.” They would stay true to NDP orthodoxy as opposed to moving to the centre; they embrace the NDP’s relationship with organized labour as opposed to downplaying it; they celebrate the party’s history at every opportunity, etc.

Mulcair rejects this approach categorically. He put it plainly on Sunday: “We did get 4.5 million votes but we are still far from being able to form a government. The only way we are going to be able to do that is to go beyond our traditional base, refresh our way of approaching these issues. We’re not going to defeat Stephen Harper with a slogan.” Putting aside the fact that “modernize our language, modernize our approach” is little more than a slogan, this strikes me as a pretty significant mandate for change if he is successful. He wants to make the NDP into a party of the centre, not the left. That would be a big change in Canadian politics with potentially far-reaching implications .

The lazy shorthand for what Mulcair is doing would make some reference to Tony Blair and his fight against Labour’s Clause IV and other New Labour steps he took to drag his party to the centre. What’s interesting about Mulcair’s gambit – again, assuming that he’s right and he has the leadership in the bag – is unlike with Blair, there doesn’t appear to be an existential debate ongoing within the NDP. The amazing thing about the change in direction Mulcair is seeking a mandate to implement is how easy it has been for him to (potentially) get a yes. Unlike the Clause IV battles, he’s just winning the leadership and oh ya, may change the party in pretty significant ways.

While I really have no idea how Mulcair would modernize his party or what he would change in order to reach centrist voters beyond the NDP’s traditional base, I do know that Mulcair is a talented guy and Liberals and Conservatives alike should not ignore what he’s proposing to do.

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