The Political Animal: Much at stake for new NDP leader

Sean Thompson - The Political Animal (Tom Bateman/AQ)

On Saturday, the NDP’s version of March Madness will reach its climax as the party selects the new leader of the Official Opposition, succeeding the late Jack Layton.

Of the seven contenders, deputy leader Thomas Mulcair is the bettor’s favourite. The former provincial environment minister in Quebec has the support of more politicians, raised more money, and caught more flack in debates than any other candidate.

To supporters, he’s a calculating, charismatic figure who’ll move the country’s political centre to the NDP.

To opponents, he’s an overly aggressive Tommy-come-lately (he joined the NDP in 2007) who’ll move the party to the centre.

Former party president Brian Topp was the early leader, earning immediate endorsements from NDP stalwarts Ed Broadbent and Roy Romanow. He best embodies the status quo, having run all four of Layton’s federal campaigns and readily embraced last May’s platform.

His performances in debates and on the hustings, however, leave much to be desired.

Peggy Nash, a former Canadian Auto Workers negotiator, wants the party to be trusted economic managers without abandoning social democratic values. She’s earned the support of organized labour, a major force in internal NDP politics.

Her popularity has steadily risen through the campaign, but she’s hindered by the perception that she’s the furthest left of the field.

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar is a confirmed centrist who wants to grow the party in Ontario and the West, but is likely little more than a spoiler right now. The same may be said of B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, running on the optimistic idea of cooperation with the Liberals and Greens.

Young Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and beleaguered Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh will be lucky to get past the vote’s first round.

Fifty per cent of votes plus one will win the leadership on any ballot, with further voting rounds required should no candidate pass that threshold. The lowest polling candidate on each ballot is eliminated.

Most members are expected to vote by mail-in preferential ballot before Saturday. If someone’s first choice for leader is eliminated, then his or her second choice will be counted, and so on.

Other members will vote, round by round, at the convention in Toronto.

The new NDP leader will be tested almost immediately. The Conservatives deliver the federal budget on March 29 and the country will demand the strong, cohesive response to it that Michael Ignatieff and Stephane Dion couldn’t give.

Saturday’s victor faces further tasks at least as challenging and vital to the party.

The new leader must share a vision of hopeful ideas voters can relate to. This was an essential part to Layton’s success.

Its opposite, despotically characterizing Stephen Harper while offering little accessible substance, was the Liberal strategy from 2003 until last May.

The new NDP leader will not only have to reach out to Quebec to consolidate the party’s position, but also to the rest of the country, especially suburban and Western Canada. It can’t seriously consider forming government otherwise.

Most importantly, the NDP and its new leader will have to unite around each other. The political graveyard is littered with the careers of leaders who divided their party: Audrey MacLaughlin, Stockwell Day and every Liberal leader since John Turner.

All candidates in this race have shown themselves willing to work to better their party and their nation and all have ideas and skills any leader should use.

Despite the late-rising rancour of the campaign (Broadbent’s verbal sucker punch to Mulcair in particular), all in the party are living under the same orange tent and must be able to unite under a common vision.

If they can’t, voters will camp elsewhere.

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