I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Tom Mulcair probably wins the NDP leadership next weekend. If so, it would hardly be the first time the party’s members pick a leader the party establishment finds distasteful. In 2003 Jack Layton was a Toronto city councillor with almost no support in the tiny NDP caucus, who mostly backed big Bill Blaikie. Ed Broadbent did endorse Layton then, but for the most part he looked too big-city, too comfortable with Liberals and conservatives, and altogether too glib for people who thought they knew what was good for the NDP.
The NDP — the card holders — had a different opinion, and Layton worked out okay. These people don’t always do what they’re told. And indeed, the apparent stubborn popularity of Mulcair, who called himself a (Quebec provincial) Liberal for longer than he has called himself a New Democrat — and to a lesser extent the well-run campaign of Nathan Cullen, who supports formal cooperation with the Liberals — suggests New Democrats are open to the notion that the party needs something more, in its strange new circumstance, than more of the same.
Mulcair, as Chris Selley writes, wants to do a bit more of the moderating that Jack Layton already did a lot of. Like a lot of New Democrats, Mulcair himself has no patience with Cullen’s Liberal-New Democrat cooperation scheme, but Cullen is another kind of realist: He would rather advertise a scheme to govern with Liberals before an election, rather than admitting afterward that that was the plan all along, as Layton and Brian Topp did a month after the 2008 election. Cullen’s plans have probably won him more opponents than supporters, but that they’ve won supporters in any number confirms New Democrats’ understanding that they’re in a new game.
So the NDP race comes down, in the home stretch, to James Carville’s favourite frame, change vs. more of the same. Change, represented with perfect mutual incompatibility by Mulcair and Cullen, has the momentum. The “more of the same” camp — I strongly suspect Brian Topp is the candidate Jack Layton wanted to succeed him — isn’t delighted. Ed Broadbent did rather more interviews about Mulcair on Thursday than Mulcair did, and they were unflattering. Broadbent’s sortie has given the gormless and constipated Globe editorial board the vapours, but come on. If a man who’s given his life to building a movement thinks it is about to choose a leader who’s unfit to lead it, should he not say so? As loudly as he can?
Try as he might, Broadbent can’t plausibly argue that the case against Mulcair is about policy, because it’s obviously about personality. Mulcair is hot-tempered, bottomlessly self-satisfied, and Olympian in his ability to carry a grudge. He works well with many people, and really a lot less well with others. The analogy won’t have occurred to Broadbent, but Broadbent must feel the way Preston Manning’s palace guard did when they realized Stockwell Day was about to win the first Canadian Alliance leadership. Decorum will be the last thing on Broadbent’s mind.
I hope I’ve made it obvious that I’m not personally fond of Mulcair, but my point is that NDP members are as entitled to ignore their elders’ advice as their elders are entitled to give it. Most probably know what they’re getting if they get Mulcair: a brittle fellow who also happens to be, by a country mile, the finest debater and sharpest Parliamentarian in the field. There is no sure value in this race. There is only risk. Mulcair is the risk who has won this contest on points.
If he does win, this week’s raised elbows may wind up helping him more than they hurt. It’s handy for a new leader to owe nobody favours. Mulcair’s opponents are spending the campaign’s home stretch warning that he intends to change the very nature of the party. If he beats them and then does so, nobody can say they weren’t warned.