Mr. Irrelevant vs. Mr. Angry

Because Ed Broadbent has tremendous moral authority in the New Democratic Party, he must never be allowed to exercise it. That seems to be the prevailing response to the sudden hatchet assault Broadbent made last week on NDP leadership contest frontrunner Thomas Mulcair. It is a curious spectacle: a throng of columnists and observers is questioning almost everything but the factual truth of Broadbent’s comments.

There is a real disagreement about who should get the credit for the still-mysterious Vague Orange that swept Quebec in last May’s election. Mostly, however, the criticism of Broadbent is meta. It’s the appropriateness that is being bashed, not the truth-status. Nn-nn-nn, tactically unwise of you, Ed. I mean, think about the timing. And really, does all this carping befit your role as an elder statesman of the party? What’s to become of you when Mulcair wins?

(The answer to that one isn’t too difficult: he’ll stay behind the scenes and work as much as he feels like working. That’s what most 75-year-olds do anyway: it’s really hard to believe the number of people implicitly saying “Ed, think of your future!”)

We are left with the distinct impression that there is not much to be said against the accuracy of Broadbent’s attack. Some of the frowny faces have claimed it was an intemperate critique of Mulcair’s “character”. What Broadbent said was that Mulcair has talked in vaguely threatening terms about the party’s social-democratic traditions, which he has, and that most of the MPs who were in the House with Mulcair before 2011 are supporting someone else, which they are.

Broadbent was also perhaps guilty of alluding slyly to Mulcair’s bad temper; but that temper is a matter of public record. It’s up to individual NDP members whether occasional spasms of hydrophobia can be considered a matter of character, but they are unquestionably relevant to a man’s fitness for leadership, whether or not “character” is inherently implicated. Similarly, a “personal attack” can be perfectly legitimate, whether or not Ed is really guilty of having made one.

And even on the contentious question of “Who won Quebec?”… very well: Thomas Mulcair has a strong prima facie case. He was Jack Layton’s Quebec lieutenant. And the Vague Orange MPs, unlike the old-timers, are supporting him in overwhelming numbers. They’re just not doing it very visibly, at least in English Canada. It makes sense that Mulcair doesn’t want to engage Broadbent, but I don’t quite understand why nobody else seems very keen on it. If Mulcair was really organizationally indispensable to the party’s success, and it wasn’t just a matter of the party being sucked up into a vacuum left behind by the BQ and the Liberals, then I suppose someone can tell us how he helped, and provide specific examples. Ed Broadbent would appear to be in a good position to know the facts, even if they did lead him to conclude that Brian Topp is an organizational wizard (whoops); it must be said that this is not true of some of the new NDP MPs in Quebec.

Broadbent’s attack reveals that there is a split in the New Democratic Party between an Old Guard of leaders and the new forces that Mulcair is now mobilizing, the restless young progressives born after the Cold War. “Reveals”, I say: there is no sense pretending that if Broadbent hadn’t spoken up, no schism would exist. The faultlines have been there since the 1960s in every social democratic party of the western world. The leftist belief that everything is political, that almost everything is potentially a proper subject for intervention by the state, makes actual politics hard. It tends to favour the creation of party lines and personality cults; it puts a premium on sincerity and authenticity.

Jack Layton was trusted because voters of the left decided his heart was in the right place, whether their own ruling passion was for labour or for identity politics or for the environment or for breastfeeding. That his actual agenda was a bag of fog wasn’t a problem. It will be a problem now for whomever has to devise a post-Layton battle plan, because the party is not going to choose a leader who is as likeable.

Indeed, it’s probably going to choose one approximately 1% as likeable. But it does seem pretty clear what the new NDP will look like if Thomas Mulcair wins. It’s not going to be a consciously redistributionist NDP; Mulcair doesn’t, for example, seem to have any intention of hiking top-end marginal taxes on incomes. It will be an anti-some-companies NDP, especially oilpatch and mining companies, rather than anti-corporate per se. There’ll be plans for bigger EI and a bigger CPP, but all-new social programs won’t be emphasized, and the Mulcair platform is virtually silent when it comes to specific proposals in defence of private-sector labour. His program, as I read it, is one that defends and retrenches the achievements of Liberal Canada (while being much less categorical about federalism). Mulcair would like to return us to the days of aggressive foreign-investment review, for example, but so did Michael Ignatieff.

The man is just not much of a revolutionary. To the degree he favours social-justice goals at all, he proposes to act mostly through time-tested methods (or market-friendly ones, in the case of cap-and-trade), ones fundamentally inoffensive to the ruling class. He isn’t going to grab us by the collar and hustle us down the road toward equality, the way Bob Rae tried to early in his Ontario premiership. Longtime New Democrats must sense this about Mulcair—that his core motivating ideology is Canadian Liberalism, not socialism. That is my sense, anyway, and I’m not a socialist; I don’t have that fine-tuned sense of when little cat feet are treading upon the sacred soil of NDP Mouseland. Someone like Ed Broadbent does have that sense. That’s what he’s trying to express, whether anyone cares in 2012 or not.

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