From the Regina Manifesto to the Leap Manifesto : new directions or big mistake for federal NDP?

Apr 12th, 2016 | By | Category: In Brief

Surprise : you can never quite figure out what they’re going to do next.

[UPDATED APRIL 13]. One thing that keeps our free and democratic Canadian politics going these days — in spite of many good reasons otherwise — is its recurrent capacity for surprise. It’s like the woman (or man if it also works in that direction) who continually fascinates you, because you can never quite figure out what she’s (he’s) going to do next.

In any case I count myself among the many observers who were genuinely surprised (and even “shocked” in some cheap horror-movie sense) by what finally transpired at the New Democratic Party of Canada convention in Edmonton this past Sunday. When Thomas/Tom Mulcair managed only 48% of the assembled delegates in the ultimate leadership-review vote.

It wasn’t just that the case for staying with Mulcair for a while longer anyway seemed so persuasive to me, several days before the event.  I had also briefly looked in on some TV coverage of his crucial speech to the delegates. And it seemed to me that he was getting pretty warm applause at frequent strategic points.

NDP supporter uses phone during lunch break at the NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton, Saturday, April 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan.

Such things can be expertly organized by supporters, of course, and perhaps especially at federal NDP conventions. I know this, but as a longtime student of politics I am also too impressed by the organizing, technically, so to speak. (Even though I know a sign-campaign expert who wisely says you should never judge anything from a sign campaign.)

In any event when asked by a resident bystander how I thought the Mulcair on our TV set was doing, I wildly predicted he would get what he needed on the vote. (The latest number for which among the wiser pundits seemed to be, oh say 65%.) In my defence, I hadn’t seen more than five or 10 minutes of the speech. And I did not closely follow what TV and other coverage of any part of the Edmonton convention there was.

Even so, when I was first advised of Mulcair’s 52%–48% defeat, from the depths of the TV room, I left my computer and went to consult the TV myself, because it just seemed so hard to believe! [UPDATE APRIL 13: O and btw, note the always interesting Éric Grenier’s posting on the CBC News site today : “Keeping Tom Mulcair may have been safer bet for NDP, history suggests … Parties that have lost seats but kept their leaders have had more future success.” And for UPDATE 2 APRIL 13 — HELLO NATHAN CULLEN click on “Read the rest of this page” and/or scroll below.]

Plunging the NDP into “its most divisive debate since the constitutional wars of the Meech Lake era in the late ’80s”?

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley at 2016 federal NDP convention in Edmonton.

The first thing I heard on TV that helped me start to understand what had happened was a report about how there were a lot of Albertans at the convention, because they were so close geographically. (I hadn’t figured on that prospect in my own earlier calculations.)

They wound up voting against Mulcair over his too pro-environmentalist compromise on pipelines for getting Alberta oil to market.

I have subsequently found  Chantal Hébert’s on-scene report in the Toronto Star (“Writing was on the wall for Mulcair: Hébert”) helpful as well. (“The writing was on the wall when twice as many delegates than had originally been expected showed up.”)

Ms Hébert explained what it was finally like “inside the convention bubble.” My brief impression of Mulcair’s speech on TV was misleading at best. Inside the bubble even if Mulcair “had delivered a speech for the history books, he would have changed few minds. Predictably a text designed to please everyone essentially ended up pleasing no one … It did not help that by the time Mulcair finally spoke, two speakers — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and former Ontario leader Stephen Lewis — had significantly raised the bar he would have had to reach to score a hit.”

Former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis at 2016 federal NDP convention in Edmonton.

Chantal Hébert concluded her remarks with : “A resolution committing the party to debate the so-called Leap Manifesto and its contention that there should be a moratorium on all future pipelines was adopted in the face of the strenuous objections of — among others — the delegates from Alberta … Mulcair tried to straddle the divide of the debate … Neither camp saw him as a worthy defender for its side of the argument.”

She went on :”The battle is far from over … It will be fought by proxy over the course of the leadership campaign … It will plunge the NDP into its most divisive debate since the constitutional wars of the Meech Lake era in the late ’80s … Mulcair was only the first casualty of this potentially self-destructive battle for the soul of the federal NDP. There will likely be others.”

The Liberals will continue to eat the New Democrats’ lunch, for a while longer at least

I took all this in while contemplating another article on the Toronto Star site, by Jim Coyle : “Trudeau Liberals continue to soar high, poll shows.”

Prime Minister Trudeau talks to reporters, December 2015.

As explained by Mr. Coyle : “ A new poll by Forum Research Inc. shows 51 per cent of Canadian voters would vote Liberal if an election were held today — producing a super-majority of about 256 seats — or 75 per cent — of 338 Commons seats … The poll found the Conservatives at 28 per cent — good for about 74 seats — and the NDP at about 12 per cent, which would produce no more than five seats … Two-thirds of Canadian voters reported being satisfied with the outcome of the 2015 election, and more than a third — 36 per cent — said they are very satisfied.”

My own jaded view is that the federal New Democrats have made a number of mistakes this past weekend. As someone who did finally vote for them last October 19 (after having also given a modest sum to the Liberals, at that later point in the campaign when it briefly seemed Mr. Harper might actually win at least another minority government), I feel I’m entitled to complain too.

Meanwhile, I suppose I have become part of the 2015 NDP vote that has subsequently migrated to the Liberals. After having voted exclusively NDP for my first several Canadian elections I have since then intermittently voted Liberal when that seemed more strategic. I guess I’m now in the Liberal camp for a while. And I can’t imagine just what the New Democrats might do to win back my vote in 2019 (in the unlikely event they were interested, of course) …

“L-R) Executive Producer Alfonso Cuaron, Producer Pamela Anderson, Journalist Naomi Klein and Director Avi Lewis attend the “This Changes Everything” photo call during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre on September 13, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.”

The last thing I saw on TV about this past weekend’s convention in Edmonton was an interview with Stephen Lewis and his son Avi — both great supporters of the Leap Manifesto (and apparently the aggressive environmentalism lately promoted by Avi Lewis’s wife, Naomi Klein). Again I only caught the last few minutes of this interview. But it was long enough to help me remember that this has never been a side of the NDP I’ve found attractive myself.

Still, the New Democratic Party has been one of the Canadian institutions in which I have from time to time taken some particular interest over now more than seven decades of being recurrently surprised by Canadian politics. And I wish I felt a little better about its future than I do right now.

UPDATE 2 APRIL 13 — HELLO NATHAN CULLEN : As a further testimony to the strength of the surprise tradition in Canadian politics, already I have come up with a qualification to my statement of yesterday above : “ I can’t imagine just what the New Democrats might do to win back my vote in 2019 … ” More exactly, I admired Nathan Cullen recently for supporting Thomas Mulcair in advance of the convention. And I’m intrigued to hear today or even last night that Mr. Cullen is now contemplating running for the leadership again. If he were federal NDP leader in Canada, that just might prompt me to vote NDP again, as I did already in 2015 (and many times before). Well … that at least is how it strikes me now at 1:20 PM on a Wednesday afternoon. (Waiting until it’s time to go to Tim Horton’s, say around 4 or 4:30. The business day ends early at our age.)

I should also say quickly that I at least think I also recognize the lure of what Jason Markusoff and/or some editor at Maclean’s has called “The NDP’s hard left turn into an existential crisis.” Maybe this is where the majority of serious activists who have always been the life of the party want to go. On this view the NDP is not a party like the others. The old Farmer and Labour parties were first, then the Progressives, then the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and then the New Democratic Party. Who knows what might be next? The Green Democratic Party? And then as well it is also true that the Tommy Douglas and David Lewis  federal New Democrats of an earlier age cultivated a strategic role as the indispensable creative “half” in a two-and-a-half party system. I can even see myself voting for this kind of party (and I certainly did in the past). But not, I think, if something like the Leap Manifesto is the underlying great cause. Anyway that’s how it looks to me at what is now 2:25 PM on a Wednesday afternoon (and after an unexpected short visit from the northern marshes of this city neighbourhood). Time to get on to something more urgent, before the medically prescribed walk to Tim Horton’s, right across from Kew Gardens — the one on the North American  great lakes.

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