Skip to main content
gerald caplan

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair holds a news in Ottawa on June 21, 2012, before Parliament breaks for its summer recess.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Only a really sore loser would deny that Thomas Mulcair is off to a grand start. Since becoming NDP Leader in March, all of his strengths and few of his alleged weaknesses have been on display, as the media's attention, the party's morale and the polls all attest. The party is in first place, the leader is in first place, and while Jack Layton isn't forgotten, it's already Mr. Mulcair's NDP. Who'd have believed it could happen so quickly, so naturally?

As the Liberals flounder their way through the next year, and with no federal election due until 2015, the NDP has a rare opportunity to focus on the multitude of areas that must be firmed up if it's to be taken seriously as a government-in-waiting. It won't be easy, and nothing can be taken for granted. Three years can go awfully fast, all kinds of hardball opponents are gunning for the party, wholly unanticipated events are certain to scupper the best-laid plans, lots of money is required, and a good many public doubts need to be addressed.

Take the boundless area of public policy. It's well-known that the federal NDP has long had only modest public credibility when it comes to the crucial area of the economy. Nothing is more critical for the party's success than its ability to present policies that credibly offer growth and job creation with equity. Reducing both inequality and poverty must always be prime NDP priorities. It's a huge challenge. The federal NDP has always been more comfortable redistributing wealth than creating it.

Can the NDP convince Canadians that increasing taxes on the rich and the corporate sector won't kill investment and jobs, as many argue? Will those increased taxes be enough? As Globe columnist Neil Reynolds has been good enough to acknowledge, "when you lean disproportionately on the rich, they just learn to avoid paying." That's why rich folks and their businesses have rich tax accountants. What would the NDP do about that?

Will an NDP government not be forced as well to raise taxes on the party's beloved "ordinary Canadians" in order to pay for the enhanced social programs and massive infrastructure the country desperately needs? Will it say so?

Thomas Mulcair deserves the thanks of all thinking Canadians for making the environment a priority again. But there needs to be precise, comprehensible NDP policies to deal with this enormously complex subject. They must withstand the ferocious looming attacks by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government and the many interests that put profits and short-term economic benefits over my granddaughter's future. Just ask Mr. Mulcair.

This public policy list has no obvious end. Moving from domestic to global issues, with a government that seems bent on making Canada an international laughingstock, does the NDP have a body of effective, realistic policies that stand up to tough scrutiny? Every aspect of the Middle East, to take an obvious example, seems impervious to sensible policies. It's easy and right to criticize Mr. Harper. But what does the NDP propose that's both viable and politically possible?

Fortunately, there exists across Canada a veritable cornucopia of untapped progressive experts who would be thrilled to participate in reviewing and, where appropriate, revising NDP policies. This includes those with experience in provincial NDP governments, civil society researchers, academics, business people, union researchers, many NDP members. It was among the tragedies of the NDP government in Ontario in the 1990s that it was too overwhelmed to accept the countless offers of assistance that poured in from exactly these people. That's why they need to be mobilized now to help forge a platform that's both appealing and credible.

It's obvious of course that the NDP must have a sophisticated, carefully crafted political strategy for the next three years. If I were Tom Mulcair I'd look to certain of Jack Layton's key strategists to help here, including, not to mention names, those who might have run for party leader last March.

The strategic challenges here are many and thorny. How do you deal with the business community? What's the role of trade unions? What's the relationship with street protesters? How do you respond to a largely hostile media? How do you respond to Harperite attacks? How do you appeal to ethnic voters? How do you consolidate Quebec support without alienating the rest of the country? How does a Quebec leader appeal to the West? Tough questions. They need the best minds available to think about them.

And as much as the Layton team modernized the NDP, the party's not even in the same league as the Conservatives. During the NDP convention, copies of the March 19 issue of the Hill-Times were being handed out gratis. That issue should be required reading for everyone in the NDP responsible for election organization. It's filled with heart-stopping articles about how the Conservatives are meticulously preparing their permanent hegemony in Canada. As one headline puts it, "Tories deepen strategy to target new ethnic voters, 'bread-and-butter' Canadians, high-earning Green voters." The Manning Centre has a new School of Practical Politics that will churn out Conservatives operatives like an assembly line churning out pepper spray. It's terrifying, intimidating, state-of-the-art, Republican Party stuff. But a serious contender needs to be in the same ballpark.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the NDP needs to be brutally frank in assessing its strengths and weaknesses. The all-important truth, as Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen stressed during the leadership campaign, is that for 80 years the CCF/NDP couldn't earn the support of more than 20 per cent of Canadians – at best. Finally, in 2011, it exploded to 30 per cent, thanks largely to Quebec. For government, another 10 per cent at least of Canadians must be persuaded to trust the NDP with their support.

To that end, it's self-evident that something must change. The leadership already has. But that's just the beginning. The NDP must look at all aspects of its being and decide what else must change – policies, rhetoric, organization, strategy, tactics? – while remaining true to its enduring goals of social justice, equality and democracy. To win, as Mulcair insists, the NDP must appeal to the many progressive Canadians who have never brought themselves to vote for it before. For 80 years, the party never figured out how to do so. There's a short three years to come up with some answers.