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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


Who can recast the NDP for Canada? Mulcair Add to ...

All political parties are coalitions, including the New Democratic Party, so it is hardly surprising that divisions have emerged in the NDP’s coalition as its leadership campaign reaches a climax.

These latent divisions are made more acute by the NDP’s unexpected proximity to office. With one more push, the party tells itself, the New Jerusalem of power might soon be at hand – a prospect no previous group of New Democrats could ever truthfully tell itself. What compromises or changes of style might be needed for that final push are matters close to the heart of the campaign. Most candidates say no changes are required, but several, especially Thomas Mulcair, hint that a few are required.

It seems obvious to outsiders, and to the largest number of NDP voters, that Mr. Mulcair is the leadership candidate best positioned for the final push, because every party has to update itself to win.

Moreover, we are in the Stephen Harper age of politics, which means unbridled partisanship and generalized nastiness, epitomized between elections by negative attack ads on the character, integrity and record of opposition leaders.

Former Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were subjected to these assaults. Now, “interim” leader Bob Rae is receiving the same treatment – with the Liberals a mere third party. It will just be a matter of time before the Conservative attack machine directs its fire at the NDP’s new leader.

Amid such generalized nastiness, a sad question arises: Who, among the NDP hopefuls, can best take these assaults and return fire? The answer seems evident: Mr. Mulcair. He is the most combative, argumentative, bilingual and quick-tongued candidate. Whether that would make him the best party leader over time, let alone prime minister of Canada some day, is another matter.

Evidently, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent does not think so. He supports party backroom boy Brian Topp and launched a very nasty attack of his own this week against Mr. Mulcair, with the approval and advance knowledge of the Topp campaign – a clear sign of panic, perhaps even desperation.

Essentially, Mr. Broadbent said Mr. Mulcair could not be trusted to lead the party because of character flaws and a desire to take the party toward the “centre” of the political spectrum, wherever that “centre” is at a time of diminishing utility of political labelling.

These were serious charges that reflected the nervousness many New Democrats feel about Mr. Mulcair: that he is somehow not of the NDP faith; that he will sell out that faith (as defined by Mr. Broadbent) in the push for power; that he is not sufficiently respectful of the party and its traditions; that his ego and temper makes him unfit to lead.

Quite obviously, the largest number of New Democrats don’t buy this critique or feel these putative weaknesses are more than compensated for by Mr. Mulcair’s obvious virtues, notably that he can hold the party’s ephemeral support in Quebec, recast NDP verities in a modern vernacular, beat back a Liberal resurgence under Mr. Rae, the best debater in Canadian politics – and, most critically, give as good as he gets from Mr. Harper’s attack machine.

Mr. Topp, like Mr. Mulcair, speaks excellent French, having grown up in the province. But he is without a Commons seat, has no elected political experience, did not distinguish himself in the debates and has thus far not developed the public skills to suggest a fair fight with Mr. Harper or Mr. Rae. That he has intelligence and strategic sense is undeniable, to which can be added the desire to keep steady the NDP’s policy direction and its enduring relationship with the trade unions.

This makes Mr. Topp a safe choice for those who believe that a steady-as-she-goes approach will best position the party for that final push to power. He is, therefore, the candidate who thinks the country is coming to the NDP, as opposed to Mr. Mulcair, who thinks the party still needs to come to the country.

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