Free advice to New Democrats: Let yourselves fall in love -

Free advice to New Democrats: Let yourselves fall in love

Pick a leader who can galvanize a substantial segment of the electorate and not worrying about the rest


Kevin Gonsalves/Flickr

I’m on a slow train to Toronto, confident that our NDP leadership coverage is in good hands with Colleagues Geddes, Wherry and Ballingall onsite at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre until I get there. While I speed westward, let me share the only thing I know about picking a party leader:

If you don’t follow your gut, you’re sunk.

You may be sunk anyway. Most practitioners of politics don’t succeed. Any search for a sure thing is likely to fail. It doesn’t mean strategy is a dirty word, and New Democrats have important decisions to make about strategy with regard to the Liberals, Quebec, labour unions and a lot of other elements of the political landscape. But the first step — the key to success that lasts and matters — is picking a candidate you can follow with your heart.

This is not idealism. It’s the hard reality of the thing. No party in Canada can command a broad consensus of most voters. Leaders who tried — Paul Martin in 2004 — found they couldn’t. Leaders who managed the trick briefly — Brian Mulroney with 50.03 per cent of the popular vote and 211 seats in 1984 — soon found they couldn’t hold their ungainly coalitions together.

You win by galvanizing a substantial segment of the electorate and not worrying about the rest. I’ve watched all kinds of leaders fail to galvanize anyone. Usually it was because they were trying hard to reach out to a “rest” that would never vote for them.

My favourite case is Ernie Eves. The parallel, especially to the electoral circumstances of the time, is imperfect, but bear with me. In 2002 Ontario Progressive Conservatives were proud of the work they’d done under Mike Harris, a little tired of kicking up so much opposition, and inclined toward a leader who filed off the rough edges of their partisanship. Ernie Eves, who was like a slicker, blander Harris, won handily. Ontario Liberals later told me Jim Flaherty, who at that point advocated jailing the homeless (for their own protection and only after asking them nicely to get off the street, he insisted), was the guy they were really afraid of. Flaherty would make Conservatives feel like conservatives. Eves didn’t make anybody feel like anything. Dalton McGuinty rolled right over him.

There are other examples. Michael Ignatieff’s red tent fell on him. Joe Clark lured arch-protectionist David Orchard and the NDP’s Angela Vautour, an enthusiastic advocate of seasonal pogey, into the Progressive Conservative party, thus killing it. At the Liberal coronation of Paul Martin in 2003, the loudest applause for Jean Chrétien came when he talked about the Clarity Act and the decision to stay out of Iraq, and even then, even some Liberals were lucid enough to remember that their new leader’s choir of surrogates had shown operatic uncertainty about both decisions. The Liberal story is much more complex than that, and in 2003 most Liberals’ hearts were with Martin, but I’ll never forget that night when a few of them thought to wonder why.

A winner holds the base and works out from there. It’s easy for party members at (or electronically linking to) a leadership convention to figure out what will hold the base because they’re the base. So don’t worry about regional balance. Don’t think too hard about the proper attitude toward the Liberals or carbon taxation.

If there’s anyone left out there who’s undecided, just pick the person who makes you happiest to be a New Democrat. It’ll never guarantee victory. But it’ll make both victory and defeat worth the work.



Free advice to New Democrats: Let yourselves fall in love

  1. I agree 100%

    The problem is that it’s difficult to find a leader you’d willingly follow.

  2. Hmmm, tough pick…good job i’m not allowed one. It is certainly a tribute to this bunch of talented dippers that the choice appears so difficult.

    Based on Paul’s advice i would not go for Mulcair…but that’s just me.

    •  Mulcair is just as loveable as Oscar the Grouch.

      • Shouldn’t he be aiming more for cookie monster,maybe with a toothache?

  3. I did this, although the man who’d make me happiest to be a New Democrat, Romeo Saganash is not longer “officially” a candidate. I hope that a substancial number of #1 and #2 votes for him will remind the eventual victor that the ideas he emphasized are the sort that made our hearts soar, and incorporate Saganash’s style and ideas into his/her actions as leader, and Saganash himself into his/her team.

  4. It sounds like good advice, but wouldn’t Harper be an irreconcilable counter-example?  

    • Given that Harper was running against Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach, who came from a province the new party desperately needed and who had, in Stronach’s case, far higher-octane support (Mike Harris, Guy Giorno), I’d say Harper illustrates the thesis.

      • Exactly.  And history showed that Stronach didn’t consider herself much of a conservative at all.

        If, at the time, she had mentioned her willingness in the future to join Paul Martin’s cabinet if the right situation presented itself, then she might have been the first person in history to receive a negative number of votes.

        Conservatives don’t like to vote for party leaders who consider themselves Liberals.

    •  I don’t think so…  Harper is the type of pure conservative I was looking for when voted for him as leader.
      I agree with Wells about Eves.  Once I got to know Eves, I didn’t care if he won or lost, he was not a conservative. 

      • I wish I shared your confidence in Harper’s conservatism.

        • I think he is a pure conservative in terms of principles.  I also think his policies have been as conservative as they could have been, at this time, and yet still succeed in winning a majority government. 

          Whether he can steer the country further in a conservative direction remains to be seen, but I’d rather have Harper attempt to do so, rather than a rehash of past administrations such as Mulroney and Clark that utterly failed to do so.  Clark failed to remain in power and was just as much a progressive as a conservative.  Mulroney succeeded in remaining in power, but his only real conservative accomplishment was free trade, and he failed to steer the country in a conservative direction, instead he led the way to 13 uninterrupted years of Liberal governments.

  5. Thank you.  That is good advice.

  6. There isn’t much good you can say about the country’s so-called progressive party if it can’t take on the biggest problem of our times:

  7. Paul Wells, I find, mostly has his facts right and is also, mostly,
    amusing to read. Once in a while he goes off the rails. “Joe Clark lured
    arch-protectionist David Orchard and the NDP’s Angela Vautour, an
    enthusiastic advocate of seasonal pogey, into the Progressive
    Conservative party, thus killing it.”

    Angela Vautour’s advocacy of seasonal unemployment insurance killed
    the PC Party? How could that be? It survived Robert Stanfield’s, Hugh
    Segal’s and Clark’s own wholehearted support for it. Rookie MP Vautour’s
    voice had more punch? In the short time she was allowed to use it?

    And David Orchard’s “arch-protectionism”? Didn’t the Tories win
    elections throughout their history, going back to the founder of the
    Party, John A. Macdonald, opposing free trade with the U.S.? And who,
    before he turned Progressive Conservative national policy on its head to
    take “a leap of faith” into the Canada-U.S. FTA, said “”Free trade is
    terrific until the elephant twitches, and if it ever rolls over, you’re a
    dead man. We will have none of it.”

    If David Orchard is an arch-protectionist, he is certainly part of a long Tory tradition.