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The Globe and Mail

New Democrats aren't just debating ideology in leadership race

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

Last week, former NDP strategist Gerald Caplan analyzed the NDP race, miraculously, without mentioning anyone except Thomas Mulcair.

He also fell into the trap of thinking that every NDP leadership race is about ideology, with one choice: power versus principle. This choice is false.

I was Jack Layton's communications director during the last race. It occurred shortly after the 2001 convention that pitted modernizers like Alexa McDonough against those who objected. Bill Blaike, Mr. Layton's main opponent, was on Ms. McDonough's side and was typically eloquent.

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In the end, this hurt him. Mr. Layton attracted the party's left and won on the first ballot, becoming the candidate for much of the establishment along the way. But the race had little to do with ideology: Mr. Layton ran on getting more attention for the NDP. He and Mr. Blaikie had similar enough views that the latter admirably served as his parliamentary leader for more than a year.

During the race, Mr. Blaikie said Mr. Layton's campaign released existing party policy as if it was his own. This was true.

It's telling that the same people who thought Ms. McDonough was selling the party out quite liked Mr. Layton's policies. What they did not realize was her approach was essentially his. And so the candidate from the left continued her modernization of the NDP – unchallenged.

The time-warped view that NDP debates never change is likely untrue now as well. In no small part, because the party is grappling with the other schism in Canadian politics: federalist versus separatist in Quebec.

Mr. Caplan analyzing the race without using the word "federalist" is passing strange, but not entirely surprising. Neither the media nor membership really had a chance to grasp what last May's election meant because things, tragically, happened so fast.

There has never been a leadership race that happened so soon after a party soared to new heights. This means that nobody got a chance to see Mr. Layton act as both Quebec's voice in Parliament, and the main progressive opponent to Stephen Harper.

This is no small point. When the NDP was in fourth, it got covered but not analyzed as thoroughly as Liberals or Conservatives. And then, five months after soaring to second, everyone – members included – were asked to look at things in a wholly new, much more meaningful, way.

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I believe the momentum enjoyed by the two candidates most open to continuing to grow the party – Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen – is because the new reality is sinking in. I also believe Brian Topp, the only other candidate in the race who acknowledges that May changed the NDP and the wider picture, is likely gaining, too.

It is a mugs' game predicting who is up and who is not. But donations and number of donors are objective. It is likely no accident that Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Cullen and Mr. Topp are the top three.

And if you look at online activity, namely Google searches, the two candidates promoting the most change – Mr. Cullen and Mr. Mulcair – are miles ahead of rivals.

Whether Mr. Mulcair is actually promoting change is admittedly a bit murky. Of the five main candidates, certainly Mr. Topp, Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash would say he is. A credible case could be made, and is by Mr. Mulcair, that he's continuing the process Mr. Layton embraced.

But there is another issue that Mr. Caplan overlooked. It's also what partly explains Mr. Cullen's significant growth over the last two months. But it's not about the NDP.

When this race began, most New Democrats saw the election in May as being about them. They were rightly thrilled with everything Mr. Layton won.

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Concurrent with the race, however, has been something that also flowed from May: the small matter of a majority Conservative government. This is likely on more members' minds than any debate over power versus principle.

When the race began, people had forgotten what majority governments were like. For seven years, there were three minority governments.

With every decision that Mr. Harper makes – withdrawing from Kyoto, online security, crime bills, shredding gun registry records, going at pensions – New Democrats are forced to confront the painful truth about last May. As impressive as the breakthrough was, it's tough for the party to change Mr. Harper's mind.

This reality is likely why candidates who most recognize that the election changed the NDP are up. Because every week that passes reminds more New Democrats about the need to keep growing. It's fitting a leadership about growth succeeds Mr. Layton's triumph, because he won the leadership on just such a question.

Jamey Heath is co-campaign manager for Nathan Cullen. He is the author of Dead Centre: Hope, Possibility and Unity for Canadian Progressives

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