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How the NDP’s postelection malaise could doom Mulcair

Tom Mulcair may be in a lot more trouble than he thinks.

Since his party's epic collapse in last year's election campaign, the NDP Leader has displayed few signs of someone who believes his job is in serious jeopardy. Repeatedly expressing confidence his party will rally behind him, he has seemingly been buoyed by caucus members declining to openly challenge him, and a lack of organized effort to replace him with someone else.

But Mr. Mulcair seems to have mistaken postelection malaise for an acceptance of the status quo. The reality, acknowledged by sources who worked in senior roles on his recent campaign, is that there are few people very invested in having him stick around. And his failure to move quickly and convincingly postelection to get them invested stands to haunt him this spring, in a leadership review vote that could be highly volatile precisely because not that many people care enough to participate.

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By the estimate of well-placed NDP sources, the party is on pace for no more than 800 delegates at its national convention in Edmonton in April. That would be a very small turnout for any such gathering – the party's last national convention, in Montreal in 2013, drew roughly 2,000 – and especially so for one at which the leader's future is in question. Competing elections the same month in Saskatchewan and Manitoba play a role, as does the location not being geographically central, but an enthusiasm deficit is a big part of it.

As a result, the numeric threshold for loosening his grip on his job stands to be unusually low. Common wisdom, though it's certainly not carved in stone, is that he needs at least 70-per-cent support on the convention floor to credibly stay on. If there are 800 people there – and that, for now, remains at the high end of turnout expectations – fewer than 250 votes against him would prevent him from reaching that target.

The convention will have a small base of anti-Mulcair delegates, in the form of perpetually disgruntled ideological hardliners who might have voted for a change even if the party had won a majority government. But what should be especially worrying to Mr. Mulcair is that it is becoming easier to find more pragmatic New Democrats, planning to attend, who are leaning toward voting that way as well.

In conversations this week, sources who were reasonably charitable to Mr. Mulcair in the election's immediate aftermath – a defeated MP here, a former campaign official there – were sharply critical of him, albeit still on a not-for-attribution basis. While acknowledging there is not yet any co-ordinated effort against him, several said that anti-Mulcair chatter has picked up since the start of 2016.

That might have been preventable if Mr. Mulcair had quickly embarked on a postelection contrition tour, of the sort that Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath undertook after her disappointing campaign a couple of years ago, making a compelling case for what he would do differently next time. But as one of his former campaign officials put it, that's "not Tom's bailiwick." While he did venture outside Ottawa to meet with disappointed New Democrats who had worked on local campaigns, he is said to have lost rooms by pushing back against criticism, including spin about achieving the second-best election result in the party's history.

He also could have helped his cause by assembling a campaign structure, aimed at identifying people who want him to stay on, and making sure they actually get to the convention. There are rumblings that such a thing is now being cobbled together, but few signs of it yet. It's not even clear that supportive MPs have had the importance of bringing like-minded delegations from their ridings impressed upon them.

Aggressively campaigning to keep his job might also help Mr. Mulcair address one of the central criticisms of his leadership: that, while good in Parliament, he's not interested in unglamorous organizational work. Instead, his nonchalance has been reinforcing concerns that he's the wrong guy for the rebuild of a party that just lost more than half its seats.

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None of this is to say Mr. Mulcair couldn't still hang in there. His new chief-of-staff Raymond Guardia, a respected veteran campaign manager with whom he previously had an icy relationship, might yet be able to help. So might labour groups – the United Steel Workers, perhaps the United Food and Commercial Workers – likely to send delegations. If many New Democrats turn up still feeling ambivalent, a strong convention speech could win them over.

But so far, he's yet to give New Democrats who aren't looking to get rid of him compelling reasons to bother going to Edmonton at all. He has a little more than two months to convince them it's worth their while.

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