Skip to main content

Some consider Nathan Cullen a contender-in-waiting but his role in crafting the party’s election pledge to balance the budget– a policy now cited as a key reason for the party’s fall – could put him out of the contention.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

If not Tom, who? New Democrats have barely whispered that question, but they're facing it this week.

Tom Mulcair's leadership is on the line when NDP convention delegates cast ballots in a review vote on Sunday. He could well fall short. A few prominent critics say he should go. But there's a rare impersonal dynamic to the whole thing, because there is really no rival in the wings.

That's a point some New Democrats make for supporting Mr. Mulcair, or at least, for supporting him right now – for delegates to endorse him this week, but reconsider at the next convention in 2018. That kind of lukewarm probation could leave the party weak for two years. But who?

Political fates have trimmed the field and created hurdles for potential leaders in NDP ranks. Some New Democrats think of dark-horse outsiders, such as Avi Lewis, the documentary filmmaker and co-author of the activist Leap Manifesto – but they'd have to draft him, because he insists he doesn't want the job.

In 2012, the party had a big race with seven contestants who made it to the convention, but it's not clear who would line up now.

Mr. Mulcair's biggest rival in 2012, Brian Topp, is now busy as chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and at any rate, few in the federal party are holding a candle for him to run again.

That makes Nathan Cullen, who came third with a surprisingly strong campaign, a kind of contender-in-waiting. The British Columbia MP has charisma and wit, a reputation for environmental advocacy, and is undeniably one of the NDP's best performers in the House of Commons and out on the hustings.

But Mr. Cullen's past stands might clash with the current mood, at a time when Mr. Mulcair's critics argue he moved the party too much to the centre.

In 2012, Mr. Cullen promoted electoral co-operation with the Liberals, and that's certainly not in fashion now that Justin Trudeau is in power. And before last year's election, he was the party's finance critic, charged with promoting the party's reassuring promise to balance the budget – a policy now cited by many New Democrats as a key reason for last fall's election debacle.

Former Halifax MP Megan Leslie, however, has (gently) criticized her own party's timidity in the last election, saying voters could see little difference with the Liberals. The popular former deputy leader might emerge as a favourite for New Democrats taken with the Leap Manifesto, an activist-left agenda that calls for sweeping environmental and social-democratic policies.

But Ms. Leslie, once on everyone's list of NDP high flyers, lost her own seat in 2015. That's not necessarily fatal but it is damaging: It's harder for a politician to claim they will lead their troops to victory when they've just gone down to defeat.

For two who fared poorly in the 2012 leadership race, Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar, losing their seats last fall is probably debilitating.

There's still Niki Ashton, who finished seventh in that race. Now 33, the northern Manitoba MP would no longer face the skepticism about a 20-something running to head a national party. But Ms. Ashton hasn't seized a national profile or a reputation as an NDP heavy-hitter in seven years in Parliament, either.

There are few high-profile contenders. The Field of Dreams believers in the party argue that triggering a wide-open leadership race will bring in new supporters, promote fresh ideas and allow new stars to emerge. Jack Layton was an unknown outside Toronto when he won in 2003. But that's a leap of faith.

And that's where some in the party start dreaming of drafting Mr. Lewis, grandson of federal leader David Lewis and son of provincial NDP leader Stephen Lewis. He's a social-democratic activist, but not an NDP activist. He's an original signatory of the Leap Manifesto, but insists he wants all parties, the NDP or the Green Party, to adopt its ideas. To some, he has outsider appeal, plus party history. But in an interview, he insisted that after seeing politics up close since the age of 3, he doesn't want the job. "That's a no," he said. "I am not interested in the leadership of the NDP."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe