Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

Can Tom Mulcair Accomplish Political Mission Impossible for NDP?

Talk about a challenge: bad polls, a formidable opponent, and no new strategy in sight.

Bill Tieleman 29 Mar

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

"I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better." -- Georg C. Lichtenberg, German scientist, 1742-1799

Something needs to change -- everyone in the New Democratic Party knows that after a disastrous federal election result last October.

The NDP lost over half its Members of Parliament, dropping to 44 seats compared to the 103 it won in 2011, losing 11 per cent of its vote, and failing to become government or even keep official opposition status, despite leading the polls for half the campaign.

The question for NDP convention delegates in Edmonton starting April 8 is whether leader Tom Mulcair can deliver change or must be replaced.

And right now, Mulcair's challenge amounts to a political Mission Impossible.

First, the 2015 election that saw Justin Trudeau's Liberals leapfrog over the NDP from third place to first in defeating Stephen Harper's Conservative government was transformational.

And since the election, the Liberal party that is known for campaigning on the left and governing on the right has instead been governing on the left as well, further marginalizing Mulcair.

A March Forum Research poll puts the Liberals at 46 per cent and the NDP at a grim 12 per cent, with the Conservatives at 34 per cent and Greens at three per cent. The poll notes that one-third of 2015 NDP supporters would now vote Liberal.

Other polls also show the NDP at below 15 per cent while the Liberals are above 46 per cent.

"Like in the federal election, the Liberals are eating the NDP's lunch. That's a big defection rate. What it tells me is that the Liberals are still encroaching on the NDP's territory," pollster Lorne Bozinoff, Forum Research president, said.

A Mulcair-led NDP has to get its lunch back -- to win all those votes and many more from the Liberals simply to be competitive in 2019, with at least a chance to force Trudeau into a minority government situation.

If not, the NDP could drop below 12 seats and lose official party status, as it did in the 1990s.

Trudeau championed change

But a new generation of Liberals campaigned on a platform that looked to many voters more progressive than what the NDP offered, particularly on stimulating the economy through infrastructure spending funded through deficits.

Mulcair unequivocally opposed deficits, claiming the NDP would balance every budget in language that echoed Harper's, or another legendary former NDP leader of the 1940s and 1950s.

"We have a plan for investing in infrastructure and housing, but it's all done within the framework of a balanced budget. Tommy Douglas balanced the budget 17 times in Saskatchewan and still brought in Medicare in Canada for the first time," Mulcair said last September.

But when Mulcair announced his balanced budget pledge during the campaign, most New Democrats cringed, as it was neither party policy nor politically smart.

Canada had just entered a technical recession, with two consecutive quarters of no economic growth, yet Mulcair was siding with Harper's conservative view -- likely in order to not appear too scary to moderate voters.

Trudeau's team understood the opening right away and pounced, promising to run "modest" deficits that would boost the economy with additional government spending.

That neatly shoehorned both Mulcair and Harper into the same box and positioned the Liberals as the change agent they knew the country wanted.

Earlier this month, Trudeau made that clear speaking to a New York audience, saying that after Mulcair reconfirmed his balanced budget position and the Liberals announced they would "invest" in Canada, he was elated.

"I got home to my wife and I said, I'm pretty sure we just won the election," Trudeau claims he said after hearing Mulcair's statement during the campaign.

"We said, we know this is the right thing to do. We know this is what Canadians want to do. It's just not lined up with the political orthodoxy of the past decades. But Canadians are looking for change. And let's be bold about saying what needs to happen," Trudeau explained.

Trudeau's playbook was on display long before the 2015 election -- it was the same campaign Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne ran in 2014 -- with many of the same key political staff providing the same advice to Trudeau later.

Yet the federal NDP seemed oblivious to the parallel and fell into the same trap as the Ontario party did, despite all the warning signs.

As David Herle, a key Wynne strategist who worked on the Trudeau campaign put it: "To judge from the NDP campaign and the NDP platform, it's like they didn't watch the Ontario election."

Perhaps more tellingly, the NDP weren't watching the federal Liberals or their advisors either.

One key resource to the Liberals was U.S. economist Larry Summers, a former Bill Clinton treasury secretary and ex-Harvard University president -- and friend of Liberal International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.

In a blog post after the Liberal victory, Summers spelled out why he believes the Liberals won and NDP lost on the deficit issue.

"In an era of extraordinarily low interest rates and slow growth, it is becoming increasingly clear that progressives do best when they reject austerity and embrace public investment," Summer wrote.

"The British Labour party and the Canadian NDP sought to demonstrate their soundness by embracing budget balancing as an objective. Their results were terrible."

"The Canadian Liberals on the other hand were rewarded for a very different choice. As incoming PM Justin Trudeau told the Financial Times, "people keep telling me we have made a risky choice in this time when there is this political mantra of balanced budgets as a way to demonstrate responsible leadership. I am on the side of economists who say: Why put off investing when we have an opportunity now?"

"More infrastructure investment is not just good economics. It is good politics," Summers concluded.

But Trudeau's transformational change doesn't end with the deficit.

In what has to be one of the easiest and yet highly popular political programs Canada has ever seen, the Liberals merely need to reverse the right-wing excesses of Harper's Tories in order to look like conquering heroes.

Repealing ill-advised Conservative anti-union labour laws Bill C-377 and C-525; letting scientists once again talk to the media; returning the long-form Canada census; launching an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women; increased funding for the CBC and First Nations; giving big city mayors public transit and infrastructure money they couldn't get from Harper; appointing non-controversial and mostly non-partisan new senators... it's all low-hanging political fruit that Trudeau can pick at his leisure for years.

And so long as the public believes Trudeau is on the right track with his intended program, the only place left for the NDP to go is further left.

No Bernie Sanders here

But despite many NDPers' loving U.S. Democrat Bernie Sanders' quixotic socialist run for the presidential nomination, Mulcair is not Sanders, not even close.

And while Sanders' anti-authoritarian, corporation-kicking campaign appeals to many, it is simply not winning against Hillary Clinton.

In fact, in a telling profile of Mulcair by The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson that was mostly overlooked by New Democrats, the party leader's former Quebec Liberal cabinet colleagues painted a less-than-progressive picture of him.

"We never had any sense there was a socialist bent in Tom," former Liberal premier Jean Charest told Simpson in an interview. "He was more viewed on the right side of cabinet. I would describe him as a fiscal conservative."

And ex-Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Monique Jérôme-Forget had the same opinion.

"To tell you the truth, when he left, I was very surprised that he went to the NDP because I regarded him as... I wouldn't say right-wing but certainly not left-wing. Not at all... When he went with Jack Layton, I couldn't believe it. I thought he might go for the Liberals, or even with the Conservatives," Jérôme-Forget told Simpson.

"Today, when you see the NDP saying no to tax increases, and recommending a balanced budget, my reaction is, 'Exactly, it is very much Tom,'" she concluded.

But this month Mulcair almost claimed to be more socialist than Sanders.

"I am a democratic socialist. I am a social democrat. Essentially what I want to make sure is that the institutions in our society serve people. Sometimes it means public ownership," Mulcair said.

To be sure, the NDP's only hope for success is to position itself as a progressive alternative to the Liberals and skewer them when they inevitably cross back into centre-right politics to betray and dismay the middle class voters who elected them.

But that's both a tall order and a long game to play, given Trudeau's approach that doesn't harken back to Jean Chretien cutting expenses to balance the budget.

Somehow expecting the NDP leader who moved the party closer to the centre than ever before --- and kicked a few sacred cows to get it there -- to develop and execute a sophisticated strategy to finesse the Liberals on the left in just three years seems, well, unlikely.

And, as an aside, please forget the minuscule NDP "socialist caucus" -- it's never had influence in the party beyond an ability for a few members to get disproportionate media coverage for criticizing every leader as not left enough.

Team changed, a little

Second, Mulcair to date has not shown what he has learned from the bitter defeat or how he would fix it.

"I could have done a better job," Mulcair wrote to party members in one of the most obvious but banal observations any losing leader can make.

"I agree with the over-arching assessment that our campaign came up short. As Leader, I take full responsibility for these shortcomings," Mulcair said in response to an interim NDP review of the campaign. "It is my duty to the party and to you, our members, to learn from and to apply the lessons of the review."

Listening to caucus and party members' views may be a change, but it is mandatory for all leaders, not innovative.

Many of the Mulcair strategists who ran the 2015 campaign into the ditch have departed, such as campaign manager and national party director Anne McGrath, who moved to Alberta as deputy chief of staff to Premier Rachel Notley to rejoin forces with Brian Topp, Notley's chief of staff and the failed 2013 BC NDP campaign manager.

And Mulcair's senior campaign advisor Brad Lavigne has also left the leader's side since the election.

But one of Topp's key veteran Quebec allies is now Mulcair's new chief of staff, Ray Guardia.

And Mulcair's former press secretary Karl Belanger -- who also held that role with Jack Layton -- has taken over as NDP national director, running the party.

So will the same leader take the same approach in the 2019 campaign and get different results? Or will Mulcair forge a new direction that so far has not been described?

What confirmation means now

Third, how will an NDP that has dramatically dropped in the polls, lost all its members in Atlantic Canada and over half its former Parliamentary caucus, and dropped 1 million votes between 2011 and 2015 raise the money needed to fund not just a national political party but one that needs significant change to succeed?

How will Mulcair inspire first his own caucus, then party members, and finally Canadian voters with a new vision worthy of support?

And what new policies, what programs, what improved approaches will Mulcair prescribe to lead the NDP out of its current misery?

So far the only change seen is that Mulcair's former determination to balance every budget and reject Trudeau's deficits has now evaporated.

"If the economic situation today required us to run a deficit to be able to do the types of things that we have promised to do to help people, that's what we would do," Mulcair said earlier this month.

Fourth, if convention delegates give Mulcair the benefit of the doubt, will the party re-evaluate that support if change and progress are not forthcoming?

The NDP constitutionally puts party leadership up for a vote every two years. If the party is still stuck in the doldrums in 2018, is it either reasonable or possible to then hold a leadership convention just a year out from a federal election without courting disaster?

So delegates voting reluctantly to reject a leadership review now must realize that the odds are that a confirmation means Mulcair will lead the NDP in the 2019 federal election.

Those who question Mulcair's leadership are not keen to forfeit the next election to the Liberals three years in advance, and to convince them otherwise will require a monumental effort from Mulcair -- not just a stunning speech but a framework for change and success in 2019.

New Dems divided

To be fair, Mulcair says he is up to the task, that he wants to rebuild, retool and return the NDP to contention for government.

And Mulcair is widely acknowledged to be a superb performer in Parliament, shining in Question Period when he prosecuted Harper and his cabinet over the Senator Mike Duffy affair and other dubious dealings.

Mulcair has strong supporters in the NDP, including B.C. MPs Peter Julian, who penned a defence of his leadership, Nathan Cullen, and others who have called on members to reject a review.

"Tom has been called the best opposition leader of the past half-century by some. I have seen first-hand how effective he has been in the House of Commons," Julian wrote in The Tyee. "I know he is effective, eloquent, and determined to hold a new Liberal government to account for what seems to be an almost pathological ability to break promises made during the recent election."

"This brings me to the important issue of our vote next month at the NDP national convention in Edmonton. I will be voting against holding a leadership convention. I believe Tom Mulcair has proven his ability to hold a government to account," Julian said.

Another strong public supporter is Canadian United Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann: "To see movement on these important issues, we need a tough, articulate and experienced question period fighter like Tom Mulcair to lead our movement and hold Justin Trudeau to account," Neumann wrote to union members.

"Liberals do not adopt progressive policies unless they are forced by the public to do it. It is Tom's brand of fiery questions in the house that will help move our issues forward."

I respect Julian, Neumann and Cullen, and their views must be considered seriously. But others are less convinced.

Ontario NDP Member of the Provincial Parliament Cheri de Novo has been the most outspoken, saying of Mulcair that "he's got to go" in January.

"Blaming the mainstream media and the Liberal strategists is a little like farmers blaming the weather. The only entity we can change as the New Democratic Party is ourselves," DiNovo also told the Toronto Star in December.

Others are less scathing but negative.

Former Mulcair leadership backer and veteran New Democrat Gerry Caplan wrote of his disenchantment in February:

"As someone who loudly endorsed Mr. Mulcair for leader, what bothered me so much about the campaign was how many bad judgments he and his advisers made, judgments that were quite clearly off-base at the time.

"Instead of a campaign that mobilized NDP activists by making them proud of their party, Mr. Mulcair and his team instead presented a set of ideological conservative propositions that demoralized party members from the get-go," Caplan wrote.

When NDP support began to plummet, with one month left in the campaign, the team stuck tenaciously to the same conservative dogmas. It was deeply disheartening," Caplan said, adding that he has little enthusiasm left for Mulcair's leadership.

NDP MPs Nikki Ashton and Charlie Angus were less direct but both declined to express public support for Mulcair's continued leadership.

And former Newfoundland NDP MP Jack Harris said that: "There's a wave of disappointment, so (Mulcair) must present himself as the person who can lead us going forward, and it's really up to him to do that."

Ultimately, NDP members at convention will decide.

But bad polls, a better-than-good opponent, similar NDP staffing, and no new strategy in sight could seriously undermine Mulcair's ability to get a second chance at fighting for first place.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Will the BC Conservatives’ Surge Last?

Take this week's poll