Sunday, March 18, 2012

The NDP leadership race

On March 24 in Toronto the NDP will select a new leader, one who well may become prime minister after the next election. The NDP became the official opposition following the May 2, 2011 general election due in no small part to the leadership and personal appeal of Jack Layton.

However, it is now many months later and Frank Graves of Ekos Research argues that the NDP`s popularity endures despite the loss of Layton. In a commentary released with a survey on March 16 Graves says:
Another interesting finding is the continued strong performance of the NDP. One might think that a leaderless party, with a largely untested caucus, that had vaulted to unimaginable heights, putatively on the charismatic authority of the now departed Jack Layton, would have fallen back to Earth. The fact that they remain squarely in second place, well ahead of the still hapless Liberal Party, and within striking distance of the Conservative Party, suggests that this interpretation was flawed. ... the stable strength of the NDP under such inauspicious conditions suggests this movement to the NDP was far more than Jack-o-mania. The real forces lie in understanding the new salience of income inequality as an issue (reflected in the relative income characteristics of NDP versus Conservative supporters) and a longer term shift to a more polarized ideological landscape.
The Ekos poll party preference numbers continue to report the Conservatives in first with 35.4%, the NDP in second with 29.7% and the Liberals at 19.6%. In addition Graves notes:
Looking at how Canadians feel about the direction in which the country is heading, we come across a rather shocking finding. For the first time since we began measuring national direction in the late 90s, those who feel the country is going in the wrong direction now outnumber those who believe it is going in the right direction.
This underlines the importance of the NDP contest. The candidates for the NDP leadership have exhibited many strengths, but none seem to have the combination of attributes that made Jack Layton a superb and uniquely successful national NDP leader.

Among the leading candidates Thomas Mulcair has far and away the strongest political skills, and he appears likely to win precisely because of those skills. However, there are legitimate doubts about him. These are less about ideology, notwithstanding the Topp/Broadbent complaints, and more to do with the other equally important aspects of leadership: the role of the party chief as motivator, cheerleader, reconciler of the inevitable party factions, lead party organizer, most important fund raiser and chief executive officer.

Mulcair is best positioned of all the candidates to consolidate the NDP's gains in Quebec. The questions about him are how well he will appeal to other parts of Canada, and how he will do in the multiple other roles demanded of a party leader. That latter question applies to the others as well.

Were it not for the importance of Quebec to the NDP at this historical moment Paul Dewar might be seen as a logical choice. However, his French is weak and some of his platform performances have been wooden. Despite his linguistic handicap Dewar has rolled out the strongest, best organized campaign suggesting some real talent for the non-policy leadership roles. If Mulcair wins and wants to demonstrate skills in re-uniting the party he would do well to incorporate some of Dewar's organizers into his team.

Peggy Nash appears to have the strongest appeal to the party's left and most of its feminists. However, her performance in the debates has been dull and weak, rarely rising above conventional political rhetoric conventionally delivered. With a Masters in French Literature, the bilingual Nash has a combination of attributes that suggest she will be a strong second choice for many, and the one candidate who might overcome Mulcair.

Brian Topp started out trying to overwhelm the race, but has since fallen back substantially, a product of an uninspiring performance and poor retail political skills.  Early on TC heard complaints about his managment style from several separate sources who had had previous direct contact with him in different contexts. Despite his strong Quebec roots and French language skills, he has wound up becoming a divisive candidate likely to fall well behind.

Clearly Ed Broadbent's intervention against Mulcair came from Topp's campaign. Broadbent's key charge that Mulcair would take the party to the centre was not substantiated in any meaningful way. However, it is ironic, given that Topp was a key party organizer in the 2011 election, a campaign characterized as follows in this article by the National Post's Chris Selley:
... University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane observes in a recent study of the NDP’s marketing strategy during the 2011 campaign. “The party tried to establish its Third Way credentials early in the campaign by focusing on issues not usually associated with the NDP: helping veterans, increasing military spending on building naval ships … hiring more police officers, preventing gang recruitment and issuing tougher sentences on home invasions and carjacking,” he writes. Canadians, strategists accurately concluded, “expected a potential governing party to have a well-rounded set of policies” — they want, dare we say it, something approximating centrism.
TC's view is that, for all the campaign rhetoric, there will be no difference among any of the contenders in terms of what it will mean for the NDP's ideological stance going forward. Regardless of who wins the party will straddle the centre-left, seeking to maxmize its appeal while continuing the party's traditions.

Frank Graves notes in his commentary that the NDP has now supplanted the Liberal Party as the first choice of Canadian small 'l' liberals.
In this survey, we asked respondents whether they considered themselves to be small-l liberals or small-c conservatives. What is perhaps most striking here is the growing polarization between those who see themselves on the left and those who see themselves on the right....

For the first time, we now see more small-l liberals in the NDP camp than in the Liberal camp. The slight proliferation of small-l liberals will do little do reduce the success of the conservative wave which has swept to power in Canada as long as the liberal choices are ineffectually arrayed across four rather than one choice.
Graves's latter point brings us to Nathan Cullen who advocates formal Liberal-NDP cooperation. Cullen has substantially exceeded initial expectations of how well he would do in this race. His specific mechanics for doing NDP-Liberal cooperation appear to be impractical, and there are no immediate prospects for the Liberals and NDP coming together. However, in the longer run what will matter are the actual professed beliefs of the two parties, and the perceptions of the Canadian public about where the two stand.

The parties have decades of different traditions and policy priorities, but Cullen's argument cannot be dismissed easily. For several years now, various organizations have been pitching inter-party cooperation between the Liberals and the NDP on the premise that the two parties' differences are small relative to the contrast with the Harper Conservatives. At the very least the NDP and Liberals ought to maintain a strong informal dialogue to clarify the views they hold in common as well as their differences. They could find that the next election result places considerable pressure on them to come together to form a government.

Apart from raising this issue Cullen has been successful in the party debates in projecting the image of a fresh and somewhat droll voice from the west coast. Starting out as a minor candidate whose proposal for party cooperation is probably rejected by a strong majority of NDP members, he has brought himself into the leading group of candidates.

It is not clear to TC what the exact order of finish will be, although it is my strong impression that Mulcair will wind up on top. Whoever wins will have a difficult road ahead re-uniting the party and faces an immediate challenge in parliament following up on the electoral fraud/ vote intereference scandal.

It should also be remembered that leadership contests often bring out the worst in human behaviour and are especially hard on the losers. An excellent book on this subject, Leaders and Lesser Mortals, by Geoffery Stevens and John Laschinger, should be placed on the bookshelf of whoever wins as a reminder.