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NDP feeling strain of internal battle between partisans and pragmatists

The recent by-elections were a noisy wake-up call for the Conservatives. But the NDP had a rough time of it too, and can draw some lessons from the disappointments.

The 2011 election bounty delivered by Jack Layton included more seats, more money and a bigger share of voice than the New Democrats had ever enjoyed before. But becoming Official Opposition presented a new, higher stakes version of the NDP's traditional dilemma. A fork in the road seen many times before: veer left on the familiar road towards moral victory, or take the other, less familiar path, in search of actual victory.

NDP ideologues want to believe that Canadians are moving towards them, that the party has no need to change in order to win. But NDP pragmatists see a need to claim territory around the centre of the political spectrum, by showing the party is more flexible and inclusive, and less dogmatic. In the next 18 months, this strain will intensify.

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In Mr. Mulcair, the NDP have a leader of superior intellect and considerable political gifts. His command in the House of Commons is superb. But for most of the last year, the NDP seemed to remain poised at that fork in the road, hesitant, perhaps hoping a choice won't really be necessary, that circumstances would yield a path to victory where no sacred cows are disturbed, and every bit of the old-time religion is welcome. But the arrival of Justin Trudeau and the rising fortunes of the Liberal Party make a "let-it-come-to-us" strategy far more risky.

The by-elections were an opportunity for the NDP to push out a more mainstream-ready take on the economy. But the focus quickly turned to the ruminations of its high-profile candidate in Toronto Centre, Linda McQuaig, whose views on taxes are more in line with traditional NDP thinking.

Her leader felt it necessary to clarify that there was no plan to raise taxes on consumers, only on businesses. But if I had to guess, Mr. Mulcair probably didn't want to spend time talking about raising taxes at all. The by-elections were a missed opportunity to establish a coherent and different brand message for the NDP on the economy.

In some contrast, just last week Mr. Mulcair gave a speech laying out his direction on energy and the environment. In content and tone, it was a clear and strategic departure from the past. Gone were suggestions that slowing the pace of oil sands development would create a better economy in other parts of the country.

Instead, his audience heard: "Canada's natural resources are a tremendous blessing, and our energy sector is the motor of the Canadian economy. New Democrats want to capitalize on those unique advantages. … That development is vital to our economy and our country."

To be sure, there were elements of the speech that will cheer the left and upset the right. Ideas that some in the business community will argue are economically unworkable. But there could be no mistaking that Mr. Mulcair was trying to make the point that he is pro-, not anti-, development.

One challenge idea for the NDP will be its commitment to the concept of "social license" as a precondition for future development. Mr. Mulcair argued "in the 21st century a social license is every bit as important as a regular license – if not more." The problem with this lies not in the principle of trying to win broad acceptance for development – pretty much everyone agrees that this is ideal.

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But of course there is no agreed-upon standard of what constitutes social license. How much support is enough, how much resistance is too much?

To suggest that social license is more important than an evidence-based, careful regulatory process and a political debate resolved by elected representatives is the kind of thing that might ultimately cost, not win, the NDP support. People don't always want exactly what they say they want in answer to certain polling questions. Sometimes they just like to vent concerns, secure in the knowledge that they are not, at the same time, making vital policy decisions for the longer term. Mainstream voters know that sometimes they need governments to take actions in the public interest, even actions that seem unpopular or inconvenient, or even costly.

With a resurgent Liberal Party intent on owning the economic middle while appealing to social progressives, the NDP, if it truly wants to to win the next election, must make more of type of choices that Mr. Mulcair revealed this week. What it will take to convince hesitant voters to rally behind the NDP brand, especially in Ontario, will undoubtedly make some NDP partisans wince in discomfort.

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacaus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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