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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


Will Mulcair beat the NDP's defenders of the faith? Add to ...

Thomas Mulcair is being paid the supreme compliment: All his serious NDP competitors for the leadership are attacking him. That must mean they think he’s the candidate to beat.

Two weeks from today, the party will select Jack Layton’s replacement. It has been a long and, from an intellectual point of view, uninteresting campaign.

Uninteresting because the candidates have largely repeated NDP boilerplate, which, in fairness, is what usually happens during leadership campaigns. Heresies among the faithful of any party are seldom well-received, especially if, as is the case for the NDP, the faithful actually believe the party is on the upswing.

Why change when so many good things happened in the last campaign? The leadership candidates who advance this argument are taking a not-so-subtle dig at Mr. Mulcair. He’s the candidate, critics suggest publicly and more insistently private, who’s not really of the NDP. He was – imagine! – a provincial Liberal cabinet minister in Quebec. He thinks the NDP needs – horror! – to update itself. He insists – treachery! – the NDP has to open its thinking and its doors.

Such suggestions sound deeply suspicious to candidates running on traditional NDP verities. Brian Topp, for instance, thinks Mr. Mulcair sounds like Tony Blair, as if this were some kind of sin – which it is in the eyes of those who believe Mr. Blair was something other than a social democrat.

Mr. Blair, it might be recalled, won three general elections and served as Labour prime minister of Britain for 10 years – which is three more elections than any NDP national leader has ever won. More striking still, the man for whom Mr. Topp brags he once worked, NDP Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, used to insist to all who would listen that he had preceded Mr. Blair in modernizing social democratic thinking.

But then, Mr. Topp’s crack is of a piece with deepening doubts about Mr. Mulcair – doubts that range from his suspect fidelity to NDP dogma and his inadequate reverence for NDP tradition to his privately irascible personality. It’s this irascibility that’s raised most often behind his back by those who tend not to favour him.

That Mr. Mulcair, a verbal scrapper, will act aggressively against Prime Minister Stephen Harper, there can be no doubt. That he won’t allow interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae to become de facto opposition leader, as he has during the NDP leadership hiatus, is also certain. But that Mr. Mulcair wouldn’t be a team player is also a very legitimate question raised about a man who irritated many of his former Liberal colleagues in Quebec.

Mr. Mulcair, a Quebecker, has plenty of Quebec support, of course; but equally surprising is how many Quebec MPs and party officials are not supporting him, the inference being that at least some of those who know him best like him least. As leader, Mr. Mulcair would certainly keep the NDP in the Quebec political spotlight, which is arguably his strongest selling point.

He and Mr. Topp are fluently bilingual, the other serious candidates somewhat less so. As always, however, no candidate is perfection incarnate, and opponents tend to dwell on these imperfections.

Peggy Nash is very close to Ontario’s big labour unions, which is great within those narrow confines but not so great beyond. Mr. Topp has never run for anything public, and would have a lot to learn in terms of public presentation. Paul Dewar’s French is the weakest. Nathan Cullen has run a good campaign but isn’t seen as having enough experience or versatility in French. He also supports – another assault on traditional thinking – working with Liberals.

Preferential balloting makes predicting a winner a parlous business, since second preferences can easily lead to formal or implicit alliances, such as Topp/Nash to stop the doubter of verities, Mr. Mulcair. Or Mulcair/Cullen, flexible on verities, against Topp/Nash, defenders of the faith.

The winner? Judging by the target of the attacks, Mr. Mulcair. In reality, with two weeks remaining, who knows?

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