Skip to main content

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa September 15, 2014.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

The NDP are pulling off a few political tricks these days, all in an effort to shore up their rear flank.

Thomas Mulcair's party has often looked sadly ignored in recent months, left out of the limelight while the Liberals' Justin Trudeau gets all the buzz. But recently the New Democrats managed to shake that cycle a little.

That's not nothing – even if it was all used more to address weaknesses than to take the country by storm. They've sent messages they are still in the race, and still progressive.

The latest came in a little cliffhanger sold to political reporters in Ottawa by New Democrat MP Peter Stoffer. The Nova Scotian, a 17-year veteran of the Commons and one of the more popular MPs on the Hill, had fuelled speculation that he might not run for re-election, and said he'd make announcement on his future Wednesday morning. Then, on Wednesday, he announced he'll run again. Surprise! Now, whether the whole thing was a ruse to attract press coverage all along, or Mr. Mulcair belatedly twisted Mr. Stoffer's arm to run again, the NDP did well out of it. It garnered news stories recounting that Mr. Stoffer is planning to stay for the next election because he now really thinks – so he says – that the NDP can defeat the Conservatives in the next election.

Why does it matter if one MP runs again? Well, recent polls make it look like the NDP is gasping for life in Atlantic Canada, with the Liberals far ahead. (The Liberals are at 52.8 per cent, Conservatives at 21.9 per cent, and NDP at 21.1 per cent, according to an average of recent polls compiled by But now there's one of Mr. Mulcair's best known Atlantic Canadian MPs making headlines for staying on to witness a win. It's a way to spin that the party is still kicking down east.

And job one for Mr. Mulcair right now is convincing people he's not already out of the race, even if he's third in the polls. That's because some of those who want a change of government might vote for whoever's most likely to defeat Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Mr. Stoffer helped him sell the message that the NDP is still a competitor in Atlantic Canada.

Selling that message across the country was, in fact, Mr. Mulcair's first order of business when New Democrat MPs met in Edmonton last week to prepare for the fall session of the Commons. He declared the NDP a "government-in-waiting," and took more direct at Mr. Trudeau as not ready to govern. If only a declaration of intent, it still gave them a chance to counter whispers that they're cooked.

Mr. Mulcair also started unveiling his full platform, and it's no coincidence that he started with two initiatives that will shore up his credentials on the left: a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and a national child care plan.

Inside the NDP, the faithful need to be reassured that their leader isn't straying from the party's progressive tradition. That's no small matter in a party that traditionally sees itself more as political conscience than contender for power. Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath faced constant friendly-fire sniping over her middle-of-the-road provincial campaign this past spring. There are still some in the party who suspect Mr. Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal, is too centrist. These planks will reassure his own party before a campaign. It's always best to make sure, as you march into battle, that your own rear troops are with you.

No, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage isn't going to affect a lot of people, because it would only apply to the small number of people working in federally-regulated industries, most of whom are paid more anyway. But it's a symbol to the left that they want to raise living standards for the low-income workers. A national child-care plan, too, is the kind of big social program that matters to many left-leaning voters, and to a lot of parents, giving them a pitch to families.

Are those things, by themselves, enough to win an election? Probably not. They don't, for example, place the NDP squarely in the debate about the economy. Still, Mr. Mulcair has used them to bolster his credentials as a progressive. But he's getting some his own messages – even if they've been used to shore up his rear flank.