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How to get the Liberals and NDP off each other's shoes

NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen on how cooperation is key to punting the Tories

United we stand...

“Everyone’s interpreting May 2 differently,” Nathan Cullen told me the other day over lunch at a reliably secluded Ottawa spot. May 2, you’ll recall, is the day we had a federal election. Stephen Harper won his majority. The New Democratic Party won 103 seats.

Nathan Cullen is a New Democrat. “There’s a lot of people in our party who are interpreting this incorrectly. They think we’re predestined to win power the next time. I take the other view.”

Which is? “We should co-operate.”

“We” here is the NDP and the Liberals. And maybe the Greens. Or not. Cullen isn’t nailed down on the details. Those would be settled through discussion and negotiation before the next election. The goal for that election would be to have a single candidate, Liberal or New Democrat (or Green) (or not) (to be confirmed) running against the Conservative incumbent in those ridings the Conservatives now hold.

To Cullen’s mind, if all of that is to happen, then New Democrats must first pick him as their leader in the party’s leadership vote next March 24.

He’s a bit of a long shot.

If I wanted to tell you about the person I think will win the NDP leadership, I’d have sat down with Brian Topp, the party insider who’s lined up all the big-name endorsements. But I’ve already been wrong about the NDP three or four times this year, so that prediction wouldn’t be worth much. Other candidates have more intriguing personal stories (Romeo Saganash: Cree!) or tempers (Tom Mulcair: hair-trigger!). Cullen has a plan.

“I think in the last two elections, the Liberals in particular have been drifting left in terms of what they propose,” he said. In 2008, for instance, Stéphane Dion campaigned on the necessity of corporate tax cuts. In 2011, Michael Ignatieff argued they could wait. “So common ground has increased,” Cullen said.

So the two parties should write a common platform and run under a single party banner? No, says Cullen. Not enough time. The process of uniting the Reform party with the Progressive Conservatives, which began about a decade after they disunited, took six years. Cullen’s plan would let New Democrat incumbents keep their seats and Liberal incumbents keep theirs. In ridings now held by Conservatives, the other parties’ local riding associations would get a chance to hold joint nomination meetings to decide which candidate would get to face off against the Conservative.

There are a lot of ridings, especially in Ontario, where the combined NDP and Liberal vote was larger than the vote of the Conservative who wound up winning the seat. Cullen’s proposal would get the Liberals and NDP off each others’ toes.

When I asked about inviting the Greens to join the fun, Cullen said, “It’d be a consideration for sure,” before amending himself a few minutes later: “It’s less attractive to me, to be honest.” Now, as a card-carrying member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, I am superbly trained to play gotcha with this sort of thing—Candidate Doesn’t Know Details of His Own Plan—but it’s just in the nature of a new venture that its details would depend on events. And Cullen is relaxed enough to understand that. And everyone else should be too.

But of course they won’t be. A handy rule of thumb for party leadership races is that you win by flattering a party’s orthodoxies. Stephen Harper took over the Canadian Alliance by insisting to its members that they were not, in fact, members of a mangy political donkey with no future. Stéphane Dion won the Liberal leadership in 2006 in part because he was the only candidate who felt, to Liberals, like a Liberal. Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae felt like parvenus. Gerard Kennedy, who tried to tell Liberals they were in trouble, felt like a downer.

Cullen has represented a northern British Columbia riding the size of Norway since 2004. So he’s been running and winning as a New Democrat longer than Topp, Mulcair, Saganash and Peggy Nash have. All that will be quickly forgotten as soon as he starts telling New Democrats they do not hold all the keys to their own success.

We have seen this happen before. In 2002, Harper won the Canadian Alliance leadership over two candidates, Diane Ablonczy and Grant Hill, who called for co-operation with the Progressive Conservatives. Ablonczy and Hill both won less than four per cent of members’ votes. Two years later, their party merged with the Progressive Conservatives. A prophet is without honour, et cetera.

Cullen has been receiving smart advice, much of it from Jamey Heath, who helped bring Jack Layton into federal politics. So my Grant Hill parables did not seem to rattle him. “It’s not a political value to co-operate,” he allowed. “But is it a Canadian value?”

Maybe. Layton spent much of his last decade calling for politicians to “build, not bicker.” He did pretty well. “Reaching out, getting over your differences—people like that,” Cullen said. “Parties don’t. There’s a reason why they call them ‘war rooms.’ ”

Yes, but he needs the members of a party to let him run their party. The likeliest outcome is that New Democrats will decide he was right. Years from now. Under another leader. But I’ve been wrong before.