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.