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Why Mulcair should be the next NDP leader

Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair leaves the stage after the final NDP leadership debate in Vancouver on March 11, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

In choosing its leader, the first thing a party like the NDP looks for – a party of conviction and principle, not seeking power only for the kick and the spoils – is someone who will make them feel proud of their ideals and will fight relentlessly for those ideals, win, lose or draw.

The second is to recognize the self-evident: There are no perfect political leaders. So you don't look for the perfect candidate, you look for the best of those available. You hope, and pray, that you pick the least flawed among them, since you know all are flawed and risky in some ways great or small. And it's always a gamble, since you never know how their strengths and weaknesses will play out, as the cases of Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff surely demonstrate.

This gamble is of course even greater now that Conservative parties thoughtfully identify their opponents' alleged deficiencies for them, as I'm sure the Prime Minister's goon squad is just ready and waiting to do for the new NDP leader, whoever it is.

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Finally, the choice this time is unusually complicated for the NDP since it's also seeking a quality the party really never had to take seriously before. New Democrats want someone who can win. When the NDP was formed in 1961 from the ruins of the CCF, there was a tacit assumption that what its first leader, Tommy Douglas, had succeeded in doing in Saskatchewan for so many years – winning – he would soon repeat again for Canada.

He never came close. Nor did David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin, Alexa McDonough or, until his fourth campaign, Jack Layton. In fact, the simple truth is that until election night last May, the NDP never formed the Official Opposition, was sometimes reduced to ignominious fourth-party status, and never received more than 20 per cent of the vote. Usually it got less, often far less, occasionally crashing to single-digit territory.

So until now, electing NDP leaders was never an exercise in choosing the next prime minister of Canada, much as it was of course obligatory to introduce that person at all party rallies as "the next prime minister of Canada."

Jack Layton's historic legacy was to change all that. But we need some straight talk here. Jack's stature and accomplishment speak for themselves and need no false embellishment. New Democrats deplore Stephen Harper's practice of inventing his own reality. It would be fatal if the NDP did the same.

The fact is that for most of the 2011 campaign, the NDP looked likely to end the election as it had begun, as the fourth party, with various poll showing it at between 15 and 19 per cent at the time of the leaders debates. During the following week, barely 14 days from voting day, support didn't exceed 20 per cent according to most polls. For all the well-hyped strategic smarts of Mr. Layton's brain trust, it was the failures of Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe that finally created the vacuum in Quebec that Jack Layton was the perfect person to fill.

That created an entirely new, unprecedented Canadian reality. When you're a) the Official Opposition, b) when you're up against a narrowly-based Conservative Party that has never managed to win 40 per cent of the vote, c) when the Liberal Party has lost its traditional base in virtually every part of the country, d) when the Bloc remains a dormant rump, e) as inequality and hard times increase – all of this says the future is open for the NDP as it has never been before. Jack Layton took the party to the outskirts of the promised land. Who is most likely to take it the next giant step?

Fortunately, there's a lot of talent to choose from. As the always-perceptive Jeffrey Simpson has written in this very newspaper: "Frankly, it's doubtful the Liberals or Conservatives could field a group of eight such intelligent [leadership]candidates." A nice starting point for New Democrats. It's quite plausible to imagine five of them as party leader. But who's the least flawed, and who's the most natural leader? Having watched closely for all these interminable months of campaigning, my conclusion is that the first question is a toss-up, but the second is clear enough.

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Thomas Mulcair has that indefinable royal jelly in a way none of the others do. He sees himself as a leader, feels himself to be a leader, can convince others he's a real leader. Strangely enough, this is not true of all leadership candidates, but it's an essential attribute. I find him a natural leader. So do many of his peers, it seems. It can hardly be insignificant that he's won the endorsements of 43 of his fellow MPs, more than the total of all his opponents combined.

Mr. Mulcair also far and away has the greatest chance of consolidating the NDP's obviously fragile breakthrough in Quebec. Here his remarkable array of endorsements by the Quebec media speak for themselves.

Yet the dazzling orange wave that swept Quebec also ended with Quebec. That even under Jack Layton the NDP could take only 25 of 162 seats in the provinces between Quebec and British Columbia sent the obvious message that something about the party still wasn't connecting. If this record isn't changed dramatically, NDP dreams of government will remain just that. I'm persuaded that Mr. Mulcair's charisma (and he's the only candidate who has this rare quality), plus the singular mould from which he's sculpted, the differences between him and all his opponents and indeed between him and all previous NDP leaders – all these offer the hope of breakthroughs where they've never been possible before.

Put it this way: Nearly all the other candidates are in the classic NDP mould and will therefore largely offer themselves and the party in the classic New Democratic ways – honourable enough, but largely garnering modest results. Mr. Mulcair, in his very persona, his different political origins, offers something special. He embodies new approaches. It's his value-added.

Of course like his opponents he has his flaws, and the campaign has been abuzz with many of them. Yet he can answer these rumours readily. He can immediately reassure the entire party in two critical ways. He can in his acceptance speech give voice to those magnificent social democratic ideals and principles – equality, social justice, peace – for which the New Democratic Party has always existed. And he can show his magnanimity in victory and his understanding of the need for a strong, united, inclusive movement by embracing not only his worthy opponents but their talented and committed workers as well.

My support explicitly assumes him doing exactly that.

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No one knows how Mr. Mulcair will fare, of course. Certainly no one should doubt the precariousness of the NDP's present status under any new leader, including Tom Mulcair. But he offers new possibilities in the way no one else does. Sure it's a risk. But it's a risk well worth taking at this singular moment. And the rest will be history.

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