The next NDP leader has a lot to lose - Macleans.ca

The next NDP leader has a lot to lose

WELLS: Most of the party’s support came at the Liberals’ expense. That’s not a path to power.

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It’s getting down to the home stretch of the interminable New Democratic Party leadership campaign. The party will announce its next leader on March 23. Three televised debates remain: Winnipeg on Feb. 26, Montreal on March 4, Vancouver on March 11.

Montreal will get most of the attention because it sits in the middle of the NDP’s most interesting questions. More than half of the NDP caucus is from Quebec. Who can hold those 58 seats? Can anyone do that, while increasing the party’s support outside Quebec? Can anyone do so well outside Quebec that the party can afford to lose, say, half of its 2011 Quebec bumper crop?

The first question is easy. Thomas Mulcair has the strongest claim to being able to hold support in Quebec. The fact that Brian Topp was born in the province and speaks superb French seems to count for little. Quebec political commentators usually fly in tight formation, and they’ve already signalled that if Mulcair doesn’t win, they will view it, not as his personal failure, but as a rejection of “the Quebec candidate” and therefore as proof the NDP doesn’t value what it won there last year.

But Quebec, with almost a quarter of Canada’s population, has barely one-tenth of the NDP’s total membership. Being king of Quebec doesn’t help Mulcair much in the bigger race. Fortunately for him, nobody has yet broken into a clear lead outside Quebec. Topp, Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar and Mulcair seem to be grouped together in a first tier. Indeed, at least one candidate once thought negligible, Nathan Cullen, has pushed his way into consideration with his good humour and willingness to scrap. So the race is still wide open.

For my money, the party would be mad to bypass Topp, the best strategist Jack Layton had. Topp knows the country better than Mulcair. He knows the party better than anyone. He knows Stephen Harper, having plotted against him through four elections and a coalition crisis, as well as Harper can be known. And if he is low on charm, so what? He can learn charm, and against Harper he wouldn’t need to learn much.

But the NDP doesn’t often take my advice, nor I the NDP’s, and in any case the party’s biggest challenge isn’t to find a leader. It’s to win an election. That job is not getting any easier.

The Harper government has introduced a bill to add 30 new seats to the House of Commons before the next election. Almost all will be in areas that voted Conservative in 2011. Ontario will get 20 new seats in fast-growing suburbs, where the Conservatives have made rapid gains. Six will be in Alberta, six in British Columbia, three in Quebec. The Conservative vote has been remarkably stable since Harper became the party’s leader. If it held in 2015 the Conservatives could expect to win about 20 more seats, just for showing up.

Of course the NDP’s job will be to ensure the government’s votes don’t hold. Good luck with that. There really is such a thing as an NDP-Conservative vote switcher, but they’re not common, and most of the NDP’s increased support in recent years has come at the Liberals’ expense. That’s not a path to power unless the Liberals disappear and the NDP inherits all of their vote, two things that aren’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Winning Conservative votes will be tough, because the Conservative discourse is already changing to reflect the post-2011 competitive environment.

The Harper government is, today more than ever, the unabashed champion of Canada’s natural resource sector. Not just oil, but mining, farming, food crops for export, forestry. If Canada’s economy depended on it in 1960, Stephen Harper is all for it today.

This matters because the economy depends on resource exports today too. Again. Still. Whatever. And Harper’s China trip was all about ensuring that resource exports count for an even greater share of the economy in 2015. It’s terribly unsexy, but it pays the Conservatives dividends. To caricature, the NDP is the party of wage earners in manufacturing, a sector in long-term decline. The Liberals are the party of the creative economy, which, as Ontario’s cash-strapped premier Dalton McGuinty is discovering, doesn’t create jobs. The Conservatives are the party of wood-hewing and water-drawing. That’s where jobs and the population are growing, which means it’s where votes are going.

In a 2002 speech to the Civitas think tank that was crucial to understanding his political philosophy, Harper argued that social conservatism—faith, family and patriotism—was the best ground on which to draw distinctions with the left. “The real agenda and the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values,” he said, “so conservatives must do the same.”

But that was then. These days social conservatism is often more trouble than it’s worth, as Vic Toews could tell Harper. And the Conservatives’ main foe isn’t a Paul Martin or John Manley who could chase Conservatives onto their own tax-cutting turf, it’s the next NDP leader, who never will.

In that new environment, a certain kind of economic conservatism starts to be more appealing to the Harper party. Not fiscal restraint, necessarily, but what might be called “resource imperialism.” It’s Harper’s emerging strategy for boxing the NDP in. Getting out of that box will be the next leader’s full-time job.