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New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair receives a standing ovation from his caucus during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 22, 2015. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair receives a standing ovation from his caucus during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 22, 2015. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Mulcair poised for clear shot at becoming prime minister as NDP surges in polls Add to ...

In major addresses to the Montreal Board of Trade and Toronto’s Economic Club of Canada, Thomas Mulcair will pledge an NDP government to reviving Canada’s flagging manufacturing sector.

Voters might be expected to shrug off such claims from a party of social democrats. But with the NDP surging in the polls, Mr. Mulcair has a clear shot at becoming prime minister, if he can reassure voters who worry about letting New Democrats manage the national economy.

The two speeches – in Montreal Thursday and Toronto next Tuesday – aim to allay those fears.

According to a senior party official speaking on background, Mr. Mulcair will rebut Conservative claims that they are reliable stewards of the economy by pointing to weak economic growth, pessimistic forecasts and higher-than-comfortable unemployment levels.

Along with previous commitments to lower small-business taxes and invest in infrastructure, the NDP Leader will pitch himself Thursday as a salesman-in-chief, willing to travel overseas to personally nail down major contracts that promote jobs in manufacturing.

The goal is to portray the NDP as economically responsible as well as socially progressive, despite internal contradictions such as the party’s inability to decide whether it supports free trade with Europe.

All of this follows in the wake of the latest good news for the official Opposition: a Corporate Research Associates poll that shows the New Democrats resurgent in Atlantic Canada – from 14 per cent to 29 per cent in the past three months – at the expense of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, who sagged from 56 per cent to 43 per cent.

But what really matters is Quebec, where there are strong signs that Mr. Mulcair may be able to repeat the late Jack Layton’s miraculous breakthrough of 2011. An Ipsos poll released last week has the NDP at 41 per cent in Quebec, with the Liberals far behind at 25 per cent.

Perhaps Gilles Duceppe’s decision Wednesday to return as leader will revive the Bloc Quebecois franchise. But from this distance, the Bloc appears to have swapped one dead horse for another.

If Mr. Mulcair holds his French Quebec base on election night, he will likely remain, at the least, Opposition leader. But with polls showing the three major parties essentially in a dead heat, the NDP Leader also has a realistic chance to win.

NDP Premier Rachel Notley’s triumph in Alberta might have something to do with this newfound popularity, although the same Ipsos poll showed no momentum for the NDP federally in Alberta.

What may matter more is something intangible: a gradual shift in perceptions among progressive voters over which leader might best confront Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. As they get to know Mr. Mulcair better, voters discover a tough, decisive, experienced leader who might be an even bigger SOB than the Prime Minister.

Even better for the NDP, polls suggest that the Conservatives have very little room for growth. If Stephen Harper is to win even a minority government, he is going to have to convert virtually every single undecided voter who admits to being open to the possibility of voting Conservative.

There are far more undecided voters who are open to supporting either the Liberals or the NDP. But it is the NDP that has the momentum, four months out.

And that’s one problem for the New Democrats. The election is still a long way away. If the NDP is peaking, it is peaking far too soon, leaving the Liberals plenty of time to regroup.

The NDP has another problem. Its ground game isn’t very strong in the 905, the vast swath of suburban seats surrounding Toronto where elections get decided. But that may not matter.

If GTA voters determined to oust the Conservatives see that the NDP is holding its base in Quebec and is competitive outside it, they might offer up their own version of the Orange Crush.

Yes, this is all wildly hypothetical. But this isn’t hypothetical: The New Democrats are fighting the Conservatives and Liberals as equals in an election campaign under way in all but name.

Which prompts another question: How long will it be before the Conservatives decide they are launching their attack ads against the wrong target?

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Thomas Mulcair will speak next week at Toronto's Empire Club. In fact, the NDP Leader will be speaking at the Economic Club of Canada. This story has been corrected.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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