Ottawa

Quebec's not making it easier for the NDP to pick a leader

If New Democrats chose a leader with roots in the province but residence outside it, they'd only be doing what they did in 2003

Oh, this poll is not helpful at all. At 26% in Quebec, the NDP would lose most of its MPs in that province.

(I know, I know: polls between elections do not predict the outcome of elections. Every number can shift wildly and will certainly do so before the next vote, unimaginably far in the future. And polls of disengaged voters about hypothetical choices may not measure much of anything. But try getting New Democrats to ignore the polls as they pick their next leader.)

The choice facing New Democrats is, roughly: Do they try to nail down their 2011 windfall in Quebec, and grow in other provinces — or do they try to find a “national (read: pan-Canadian) leader” and hope Quebecers will like that person?

The good news is that, if they’re super-lucky, they might be able to hold Quebec and grow outside. The bad news is, if they are only moderately unlucky, they may find it’s impossible to do either.

The candidate of “holding Quebec” — the only candidate of holding Quebec, as Quebec opinion-makers see it — is Thomas Mulcair. I have been surprised, and then amused, at the unanimity with which my friends in the Quebec chattering classes assume that only Mulcair would be an acceptable NDP leader for Quebec voters — and that, since he’s on offer, the selection of any other candidate is ipso facto an affront to Quebecers.

This is odd, because if New Democrats chose a leader with roots in the province but residence outside it, instead of a Quebec-born-and-bred candidate, they’d only be doing what they did in 2003, when they picked the Hudson-born Torontonian Jack Layton over Pierre Ducasse. So theoretically Brian Topp, born outside Montreal, would sort of do. But I’m really not feeling the Topp love from the Quebec journalists and politics-watchers I talk to.

So: pick Mulcair to hold what the NDP already has, and then pray he can be made to appear warm and cuddly, or at least persuasive, in those parts of the country where he’s barely known. Or pick a Topp or a Peggy Nash (very popular among Toronto New Dems) or someone else, and hope Quebec quickly gets over the latest Historic Affront.

Meanwhile, Harris-Decima suggests the NDP is fading fast in its biggest stronghold of support. We’ll hear it’s because the NDP hasn’t been fierce enough in denouncing a lot of Stephen Harper’s initiatives that seem, at best, tone-deaf where Quebec is concerned — unilingual auditor general, Royal Royal Queen Queen Queen wherever you look, the gun-registry stuff – but that doesn’t quite explain why the Liberals are rising as fast as the Bloc while the NDP falls. It makes more sense to say the NDP is simply deflating and listless voters don’t find any other party a uniquely persuasive alternative.

I don’t have any advice for New Democrats, or not yet anyway. I’m not sure they can hold those Quebec seats. I’m not sure Mulcair is the guy to do it if it can be done. I’m not sure picking a non-Quebecer will provide the traction outside Quebec to make up for any Quebec losses. Maybe what they really needed was Jack Layton and a weird storm of circumstance, and now they don’t have either. But I suspect their hitherto commendably cordial leadership campaign will be strained by the tension as they get closer to having to decide how to hold their gains, even as it starts to look like they’re letting those gains slip.

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