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NDP Letter a View into Internal Party Struggle, Prof Says

New Dems face tough decisions ahead, regardless of whether Mulcair stays or goes.

Jeremy Nuttall 16 Mar 2016TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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A letter written by Montreal-area New Democrats claiming the party has lost its way is only the latest manifestation of internal uncertainty as Tom Mulcair faces a leadership review next month, says a political science professor.

On Monday, the newspaper Le Devoir published a letter signed by more than 35 Quebec New Democrats, including party organizers and former MPs, saying the party has strayed from its roots and needs a new direction.

"We want to build it on the NDP's founding values," read the letter [translated]. "To get there, we must renew the party to make it more progressive, more democratic, more transparent and more responsive to its members."

Without naming Mulcair as the culprit, the letter accuses the party of being unrecognizable to its faithful and argues the NDP must return to its roots as a movement focused on social equality rather than the attainment of power.

In response to the strongly worded letter, Mulcair said he has found the "constructive feedback" from grassroots New Democrats across Canada to be "inspiring."

University of Manitoba political science professor Radhika Desai said the letter shows that unrest remains within the NDP after losing 59 seats in October's election, many of which went to the victorious Liberal party in Quebec.

The NDP also lost its status as official Opposition, which it gained in 2011 in a victory many credit to now-deceased leader Jack Layton.

"[In 2015], the Liberals were able to poach the NDP vote by campaigning further to the left," Desai said in an email exchange. "The Mulcair leadership thought if it just said as little as possible, steered a centrist course, they would better the performance Layton left them."

Desai said the NDP leadership underestimated a shift toward the left across many western nations, pointing to the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in the United Kingdom.

'A disconnect'

One of the critics behind the Le Devoir letter shared that perspective.

Casarina Hocevar, co-president of the McGill University NDP, said that policies like the NDP's election promise for a balanced budget at all costs and its firm support for Israel went against the party's roots.

"The last election was a bit of a mess in terms of being too centrist and appealing to the popular vote and moving away from what we stand for as the NDP," Hocevar said. "Largely we think it has to do with a disconnect between leadership and members of the party."

Many of the party's faithful in Quebec were not pleased with the shift to the centre and believe it cost them dearly in the election, she said. In that province, the New Democrats went from holding 59 seats to 16.

"To see so many great MPs lost and then also deflating support and feeling disconnected, it was a sting," she said. "So I'm not surprised this call for renewal is coming out of Montreal and Quebec."

Hocevar said that NDP leadership must now listen to the many voices in the party during its upcoming convention in Edmonton.

Other frontrunners?

Meanwhile, University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman said the NDP leadership should consider who is doling out the criticism before it starts listening.

Wiseman said there are a lot of people who didn't become active in the NDP in Quebec until the 2011 election elevated the party to official Opposition status, making it a threat to win government.

At the time Mulcair said there would also be a provincial NDP established in Quebec, so it looked like the party had a bright future in the province, Wiseman said.

But the loss of seats in the election plus the sluggish attempt at a provincial arm of the party soon turned that optimism into frustration, he said.

"They went from being a dominant majority there, [and then on Oct. 19] they didn't get that many more seats than the Bloc Québécois or Conservatives," Wiseman said of the NDP in Quebec.

Going forward, the party should consider its future across all of Canada and not let the Quebec contingent drive the agenda in the hopes of a comeback in that province, he said.

Wiseman added that if the underlying suggestion in the letter is a change in leadership, Mulcair's replacement is also an issue because there are no Quebec MPs seen as natural front-runners, which may also affect the party's fortunes there.

Back in Manitoba, Desai said she expects Mulcair to suffer a "well-deserved" ousting as party leader in the near future.

But the biggest challenge, as Wiseman said, is who and what agenda will take his place, she said.

"The real question is whether those who wish to replace him have a coherent program and a leadership team," Desai said. "Not yet, I don't think."  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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