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NDP MP Thomas Mulcair holds up his party membership card in his Montreal riding as he announces his bid to succeed Jack Layton as leader on Oct. 13, 2011.lRyan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

With unions getting a bad rap in Quebec and under attack by the Conservative Party across the country, Thomas Mulcair says he would reduce the labour movement's influence in the NDP.

Mr. Mulcair said the union issue is a clear differentiator between himself and the perceived frontrunner in the NDP leadership race, Brian Topp. The former party president is a union director and has won the support of the United Steelworkers.

In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Mulcair recounted how he informed the Canadian national director of the Steelworkers, Ken Neumann, that he opposed a reserved voting block for unions at the NDP leadership convention in March.

"It was quite clear he wasn't used to being told 'no' by anyone in the NDP. And I said 'no.' I said, 'Why not let the membership decide?'" Mr. Mulcair said of the "cordial" conversation that occurred last month.

Mr. Mulcair added the issue has set him on a collision course with Mr. Topp, who favoured a system similar to the one in place at the previous leadership convention in 2003. In the end, the party sided with Mr. Mulcair by going for a one-member, one-vote selection process.

"So that is a defining difference because I want to work with the unions, but I'm never going to be beholden to anybody other than the people who voted me there, which will be the membership of the party," Mr. Mulcair said.

While he is the NDP's best-known face in Quebec, Mr. Mulcair faces an uphill battle to increase his profile across Canada. He is currently in British Columbia, where about one third of the existing party membership is based.

It is obvious that he is aiming to bring the party closer to the centre of the political spectrum, although he refuses to be drawn into comparisons with the creation of the "New Labour" movement in Britain in the 1990s by Tony Blair. Mr. Mulcair said he is looking for inspiration in past NDP premiers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

"Gary Doer and Lorne Calvert are two of the people who I would love to emulate in terms of their public administration: consistent majority mandates with balanced budgets, without ever sacrificing their social-democratic beliefs," Mr. Mulcair said. "I will leave the analogies to Tony Blair to other people."

Mr. Mulcair went on to take a shot at the past NDP government in Ontario of Bob Rae, who is now the Interim Leader of the federal Liberals, stating it was "incapable of managing the night shift at a Burger King."

Never shy to emphasize his political skills, Mr. Mulcair said his parliamentary experience in Quebec City and Ottawa explains why the Conservatives have recently started attacking him personally.

"The reason they are singling me out is that the Conservatives are scared of me as the person who winds up facing Stephen Harper. They will attack me, and I'm expecting more," he said.

The labour movement is currently engaged in a bitter battle in Quebec, disrupting construction sites in face of the Liberal government's plans to eliminate union control over hiring practices on major construction sites.

Federally, the Conservatives have been increasingly attacking the union movement, favouring employers in major labour disputes and accusing the NDP of being beholden to "union bosses."