Tom Mulcair prepares for his own leadership review

He's outflanked by the Liberals. Is there any room left for the NDP leader?

For Canadians who line up on the left side of the political spectrum, it can be hard to know exactly how to feel in these early months of the new Liberal government. Justin Trudeau has drawn wide, admiring attention from self-declared progressives beyond Canada’s borders. Not only Liberals, but also many who voted NDP in last fall’s election are feeling a lot better about Canada’s image than they were during the long decade when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives held power.

But there is another way to see the international context, a perspective that has some New Democrats looking abroad with envy. Last fall, Britain’s Labour Party elected as its new leader Jeremy Corbyn—a 66-year-old MP who stands well to the left of the “New Labour” centrists who preceded him. In the U.S., the youth-oriented left is energized by the unexpectedly strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination mounted by Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old Vermont senator whose calls for free public universities and higher taxes on the rich, for instance, set progressive pulses racing.

Either viewpoint poses a problem for Tom Mulcair, who is in a fight to save his job as NDP leader. When Mulcair pleads for support among centre-left moderates, he’s asking them to set aside their new-found pride in Trudeau’s youthful, upbeat image. If he tries to shift left, he’s liable to be contrasted—at least in the eyes of core NDP activists, who are acutely aware of what’s happening in the U.S. and Britain—with the more authentically outside-the-mainstream personas of Corbyn and Sanders.

Related: Mulcair’s 2015 year-end interview with Maclean’s

Mulcair must have known his leadership was in doubt soon after the election returns began rolling in last October. Trudeau’s resounding majority win reduced the NDP from its historic high of 103 seats to 44, knocking the social democrats from second place in the House to third, behind the governing Liberals and the Conservative official Opposition. Under the NDP constitution, Mulcair must now face a vote on his continued leadership on April 10 at his party’s policy convention in Edmonton.

He enjoys significant support in the NDP caucus. Irene Mathyssen, who has won her London, Ont., riding four times, argues Mulcair will start looking better whenever the Liberal “honeymoon” period ends. “At this point, people don’t see the difference between a Liberal and a New Democrat, but they will,” Mathyssen says. Mulcair loyalists stress that at least three potential future NDP leadership aspirants in his reduced caucus have publicly pledged their support to him: Quebec MP Alexandre Boulerice and B.C. MPs Nathan Cullen and Peter Julian.


Mulcair has his detractors, though. On March 15—Shakespeare’s ill-omened “Ides of March,” as one Mulcair aide ruefully noted—37 Quebec-based NDP activists, including former MPs and riding association officials, put out an open letter calling for a “renewal” of the party, although they stopped short of openly saying Mulcair shouldn’t lead it. Two influential MPs, Ontario’s Charlie Angus and Manitoba’s Niki Ashton, have declined to voice support for Mulcair’s continued leadership. Still, discontent hasn’t coalesced around any single alternative figure. “It’s not like the Liberal party when Paul Martin was in the wings organizing against Jean Chrétien,” says one senior NDP official.

Soon after last fall’s humbling at the ballot box, Mulcair began taking clear steps to try to stop warring factions from forming. He recruited well-regarded former MP Paul Dewar, who lost last fall to the Liberals’ Catherine McKenna, to direct the party’s difficult transition back to third-place status. Dewar had run against Mulcair for the leadership in 2012. Mulcair also brought in Raymond Guardia, who ran Brian Topp’s second-place leadership campaign against him, as his chief of staff. He appointed a new communications director, Riccardo Filippone, who had managed the 2012 leadership bid of former MP Peggy Nash (another casualty of the 2015 election).

So Mulcair has done his best to widen his inner circle to embrace many of those who might theoretically be plotting against him now. But he will also need to present ideas to reassure New Democrats that their party stands for something distinct from the Liberal version of progressive politics. That won’t be easy.

Related: Paul Wells makes the case for keeping Mulcair

The recent Liberal budget should have offered the first major opening for an NDP assault. But how can a party of the left offer a full-throated denunciation of a fiscal plan that includes, for instance, billions for a new child benefit, increased spending on First Nations, and help for low-income seniors? “It’s hard because there’s good stuff in there,” says Rosane Doré Lefebvre, a former MP who won a Montreal riding in the Jack Layton-led “Orange Wave” of 2011, then lost it when Trudeau swept to power last year. “It’s easier for the Conservatives.”

Mulcair faulted the budget for coming up with too little for priorities like First Nations and home care, and for failing to make good on Trudeau’s election promise to curtail favourable tax treatment of stock options. But even he told the CBC that Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s first try was “a heck of a lot better” than what the Conservatives had been delivering. Early this year, at a caucus retreat in Montebello, Que., Mulcair and his surviving MPs decided their broad strategy would be to rebrand the NDP as the party determined to fight income inequality. The problem, however, is that Trudeau has also staked a claim to that theme, ever since a key Liberal policy convention in Montreal in 2014.

In fact, the biggest single policy move in the budget is the streamlining of a raft of federal payments to parents into the new Canada Child Benefit, which favours lower-income parents and reduces benefits to those with incomes above $150,000. The government contends it will lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. Even left-leaning analysts like the economists at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives applauded the reform, partly as a blow against income inequality.

In other words, Trudeau is not making himself an easy target, in this early going, for any attack on his left flank. And there remains deep resentment among many NDP stalwarts about Mulcair’s decision to run last year on a promise of balanced budgets, while Trudeau’s platform allowed for large deficits. Rebecca Blaikie, the party’s president, who is conducting a thorough review of what went wrong in Mulcair’s campaign, has already flagged his no-deficits pledge as a major reason voters craving a decisive change from the Tories decided they liked the Liberal alternative better.

Blaikie and her campaign post-mortem team are slated to discuss their findings and answer questions from party delegates in Edmonton at the NDP policy convention in April. That key session might well set the tone for the next day’s vote on Mulcair’s leadership. Under the NDP constitution, he only needs a bare majority to stay on as leader. In reality, though, his vote must be much higher. “I think Tom should stay. He’s so good in the House of Commons,” says Lefebrve. “But I don’t think he can keep being the leader of the NDP unless he gets at least 70 per cent.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair speaks to supporters, Monday, Oct. 19, 2015 in Montreal, after leading the NDP to a third-place finish in the election. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair speaks to supporters, Monday, Oct. 19, 2015 in Montreal, after leading the NDP to a third-place finish in the election. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Although the leadership verdict is bound to dominate the chatter in Edmonton, other convention business matters, too. A new party executive will be elected. Arguably the worst part of a bad night for the NDP last October was being wiped out by the Liberals in Toronto, erasing major breakthroughs Layton had scored in 2011. Now, the federal NDP doesn’t even maintain an office in Canada’s biggest city, where they employ just one organizer. Some NDP insiders are pointing to the candidacy of Marit Stiles, a Toronto school board trustee and sometime NDP TV commentator, for the party presidency as the first hint of a reawakening there.

But the convention is officially about policy. The direction it sets will indicate what rebuilding path the NDP sees for itself. Some party insiders are apprehensive about rank-and-file fomenting for a hard leftward turn. “A lot of the base is saying, ‘Look at what Sanders is doing, look at what Corbyn is doing.’ Well, in the case of Sanders, it is not going to win. If we’re going to look at models that aren’t winning, I’m not sure what the endgame is,” said one veteran NDP strategist.

Advance signals of the mood will likely come this week in Ottawa, when the Broadbent Institute holds its annual “Progress Summit.” (Although formally non-partisan, the institute is closely aligned with the NDP, and named for its former leader, Ed Broadbent.) Rick Smith, the institute’s executive director, conveys something of the conflicted mood of Canadian social democrats. “Of course New Democrats were disappointed with the election results,” Smith says. “But on some of the issues that the political left cares about, we see an opening, and the Liberal government is moving forward on some of that.”

Smith says that to “come out swinging,” the NDP should concentrate on three progressive priorities: pushing for proportional election of MPs when the Liberals launch a promised review to reform the way Canadians vote; advocating serious policy to combat climate change; and arguing for increasing taxes overall as the only way to rebuild the federal government after Harper shrank it in relation to the size of the Canadian economy. Public attitudes, he adds, are “much more progressive than they were a decade ago,” so the time is right for taking bold, progressive stands.

The problem for Mulcair, of course, is that most Canadians open to progressive leadership think the country is now getting it. In an online poll conducted after the budget, the firm Abacus Data found that 59 per cent of NDP voters from last fall said they would pass the Liberal fiscal plan if they were MPs. (By comparison, two-thirds of Conservative voters said they would defeat the budget if they had the chance.) Mulcair often recycles the well-worn observation that Liberals tend to campaign from the left, but govern from the right. He has to hope Trudeau soon starts giving that old saw new relevance. Otherwise, even if he survives the first test of his leadership in Edmonton, Mulcair will likely face four years of simmering doubt and dissent before the next election gives him a chance at political redemption.