I couldn’t make it to the New Democratic Party’s biannual policy convention this year. That’s the difference between travelling from Hamilton to Toronto in 2012 for the post-Layton leadership convention, and travelling from Toronto to Edmonton for the post-election leadership downfall.*
* The difference was between a multiple-hundred dollar plane trip and hostel booking versus a ten dollar bus ticket and crashing on my buddies John and Ally’s couch. And the party still spent the next year always calling me for donations because they registered my conference fees as a donation-in-kind. I only did it for the tax refund.
So while I didn’t get a chance to see this weekend’s convention on the ground, I did see it through my public and personal social media accounts. And I’m even deeper in this conversation this year than I was four years ago.
Back then, I was just a member of the party hoping to get more involved in the rush of optimism after Jack Layton became one with the Force. This year, I'm a riding association vice-president slowly taking part in the creation of policy and philosophy of the party.
It largely amounts to encouraging more people to get on the progress train on the modern left – combining hostility to the military and security functions of the state with the organization of common forms of wealth. Right now, I’m kind of a Negri pusher. Eventually, I’ll push my own books. I kind of already do.
Because the most important part of developing Canada’s social democratic party for the current era of politics is that continued process of change in our activism after the conference. The slow-burning leadership race will let the NDP work out its issues and adapt to where the left has to go.
I’ll talk more about those ideas later this week. What I want to do now is make a single observation about Tom Mulcair himself, since he was the infamous man of the hour this weekend.
The general narrative – in the media and in the party’s own society – is that Mulcair embodied a radical transformation in the NDP to become a centrist party that developed its policy by triangulation.
That shift failed for a ton of reasons that have already been analyzed to death by any blogger or journalist who's ever farted a mild observation about Canadian politics. And now the NDP will return to their roots, choosing an embrace of their ideals over the cold heart of electability that comes from chasing the Liberals.
Mistake number one in this master narrative is equating “electability” with the smiling conservatism of the political centre’s inoffensive embrace of the status quo.
Let me tell you about another master narrative. Mulcair was a key organizer of the NDP’s destruction of the separatist banner as the only progressive front in Quebec’s federal politics mobilizes all those enthusiastic new Quebecois members as the largest block of loyalists in the 2012 leadership race.
Mulcair’s francophone newbies were the largest group of New Democrats dedicated to a single leader going into the last leadership vote. They were bigger than Brian Topp’s union men, Nathan Cullen’s west coasters and Occupy gang, Peggy Nash’s Torontonians, Niki Ashton’s Socialist Caucus, and Paul Dewar’s weird singing cult.
After 2011, Quebec was considered the new leading edge for the NDP. Quebec’s embrace of the NDP would win them their first federal election. Mulcair being the most prominent organizer of what was literally the party’s new largest base gave him a visibility that no other leadership contender had.
It became popularly taken for granted that Mulcair was the frontrunner. Only longtime NDP members and supporters were suspicious of him. Having been an architect of the sweep of Quebec, his NDP bonafides were not questioned at all by any new members. That only occurred with time, as the 2011 generation** grew wary of Mulcair’s tendency to campaign against his ideals.
** The generation that created Occupy and that now has made Bernie Sanders a contender for President.
The social status of the Quebec victory made him the number two of way more people than had him as their number one. We voted by mail on a single-vote-transferable ballot. Only those physically voting at the convention itself could change their minds during that weekend. That’s why SVT won’t work for electoral reform – the second choice of the majority always wins.
Mulcair had the biggest single block of dedicated supporters in 2012, but he was always a compromise candidate among a ton of different perspectives in the NDP. It took him four elimination rounds to whittle the field of seven to the winner.
Eight and nine, Robert Chisholm and Romeo Saganash, never even had enough support to make it to convention.*** Ashton and Dewar were first to drop out on the day. Then Nash. Then Cullen. Then finally a fourth round of voting and transfers in the final head-to-head between Brian Topp and Tom Mulcair. And he only got 57%!
*** Saganash was always going to be my number one. My ballot would have read 1) Saganash; 2) Cullen 3) Mulcair.
And Tom said he’d only stay on as leader with 70% of the vote this week? He’s never had that much support in the party.
The NDP never had any major cultural changes or shifts. The most successful organizer in the most recent election made for a good compromise candidate at the time because of that success.
He had a bad election because he was a good party organizer but a bad campaigner – with his staff, he misread the times with a platform that felt disconnected from people’s real concerns, like the groupthink of a room full of Ottawa nerds. Which is what they were.
I'm not about to advocate that Tom Mulcair should have stayed leader. That would have been disastrous. This election completely ruined his national branding. He will never be able to build himself a new image for the Canadian people. And much else has changed in Canada.
The NDP needs a leader who is actually in touch with the concerns of real people. As Tom Mulcair was when that concern translated into kicking out Stephen Harper. But once you defeat the enemy, you need to let your idealism guide your actual political program.
That idealism – the strength of a new vision for your country – is what inspires people to elect you.