Mulcair faces tough battle to remain NDP leader

Tom Mulcair’s decision to stay on as NDP leader after his party’s disappointing losses in the federal election was controversial. Now, as the party prepares to gather in Edmonton on April 8 for its federal convention, Mulcair is faced with convincing his party that he’s still the right choice.

One of the tasks of convention attendees is deciding if Mulcair, the MP for Outremont, should remain leader. He will likely need at least 70 per cent of the party’s voting delegates to support him in order to do so, NDP president Rebecca Blaikie said on Everything is Political on SiriusXM last month, though she backtracked from the statement a couple of days later. But any convention vote of more than 50 per cent in favour of a leadership race will trigger one — one which Mulcair could still enter, if he so chooses.

Mulcair, who succeeded the popular Jack Layton after his death in 2011, took blame for his party’s losses in October in a letter released last month. At the same time, he asked for the chance to turn things around.

“If members grant me the honour of continuing to serve them, I am determined to make the necessary changes so that mistakes of the campaign will never be repeated,” Mulcair wrote. “Some of the changes have already started.”

Now the NDP leader is travelling the country to speak to party members and telling them why they should continue to support him as their leader. But he faces challenges presented by his own caucus, NDP riding associations, left-leaning members, and even the prime minister.

His party

Mulcair has faced harsh criticism from some in his party, including current and former members of the NDP caucus. There is, of course, disappointment about the party’s performance in the fall election, when they went from being the official Opposition with 95 seats to losing that status to the Conservatives and holding only 44 seats.

In particular, left-leaning party members have been outspoken about a need to return to the socialist core values the NDP is known for. Part of the plan for that return, for some in the party, is a change in leadership.

The NDP’s socialist caucus is pushing for a review of Mulcair’s leadership ahead of the April convention, a continuation of their calls for Mulcair’s departure that began two days after the Oct. 19 election. Sid Ryan, former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, told the Globe and Mail earlier this month that the party desperately needs renewal, citing Mulcair’s “overbearing personality” as a factor preventing that. To that end, the NDP’s socialist caucus will put forward a team of candidates for the NDP executive and council at the Edmonton convention.

Other prominent NDP politicians, federally and provincially, have spoken out against Mulcair. Toronto MPP Cheri DiNovo criticized the leader’s campaign in multiple media outlets, and said in January that Mulcair has to go as party leader. Montreal riding association head Alain Charbonneau also called for his departure. NDP members from McGill and Concordia universities called for a change in leadership in an open letter.

Perhaps of the most concern for Mulcair is the open letter released Tuesday — signed by 37 Quebec New Democrats, including three former MPs — calling for party renewal. That’s the same day Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, considered by some to be a rising star in the party, declined to confirm her support either for or against Mulcair at a news conference.

The Liberals

Next week the Liberals will table their first budget under Justin Trudeau, and it’s expected to carry a significant deficit. That budget could be another reminder of the contrast between Trudeau’s election promises about spending and Mulcair’s comments about presenting balanced budgets under an NDP government.

Mulcair surprised many of his party’s own supporters by not only promising during the campaign that the NDP wouldn’t run deficits if the party won, but also saying that balanced books were part of his own personal nature. It left his party in the position of appearing to be right of the Liberals, who said they would run deficits in order to spend on priorities and stimulate the economy.

The NDP leader initially blamed his support for the right of Muslim women to wear niqabs at citizenship ceremonies for his party’s significant losses during the election. The problem was that the Liberals and Trudeau expressed the same opinion during the campaign and picked up considerable votes and seats from the NDP.

The NDP’s postmortem of the election said that Mulcair’s campaign commitment to avoiding deficits tied the party to “cautious change,” which the electorate apparently didn’t want. Now Mulcair will have to figure out how he and his party should criticize a budget that might not look that different than a hypothetical NDP budget under Layton. At the same time, he has to position himself against a young Liberal leader who has been lauded internationally for bringing in refugees, speaking in support of feminism and pushing for gender parity in government.

The Leap Manifesto

The Leap Manifesto is a document asserting support for indigenous rights, environmental protection and economic reform. First conceived in spring 2015 after Toronto meetings among many like-minded activists and advocates, it’s been signed by famous Canadians, like David Suzuki, Judy Rebick and Naomi Klein, and endorsed by organizations including Black Lives Matter Toronto and CUPE Ontario.

What complicates matters for Mulcair is that it has also been embraced by more than a dozen NDP riding associations. The party will consider hundreds of resolutions submitted by riding associations and commission across the country, and that will include the Leap Manifesto itself, which has nearly 35,000 signatories so far. The Vancouver East NDP riding association, along with former MP Libby Davies, has proposed a resolution similar to the manifesto. Former MP Craig Scott told The Canadian Press late last month he plans to promote a resolution adopted by his Toronto-Danforth riding association that uses the Leap Manifesto as a starting point for policy discussion.

Though he welcomed the input of new ideas, Mulcair himself didn’t officially endorse the manifesto when it was released in September. But given the support the Leaf Manifesto has within his party, along with the push by some in the NDP to orient the party more solidly to the left, he will likely have to address it.

Bernie Sanders

Even a candidate for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination could cause some problems for Mulcair. Bernie Sanders is not young or suave, and he lacks the charisma of President Barack Obama. But he has still managed to invigorate young voters in the United States, a group that many politicians have struggled to engage and excite.

Mulcair has often fallen on the negative side of comparisons with his predecessor Layton, who was lauded for focusing on engaging young voters. During the campaign, Mulcair was criticized by some for moderating his reputation as “angry” into something that failed to resonate. And the NDP failed to galvanize young voters last fall: youth were seen as supporting the Liberals, not the New Democrats.

But the success of Sanders with millennials shows that a candidate doesn’t have to dazzle in order to win support from a group that is often accused of staying home on voting day. Hillary Clinton’s rival also appeals to the grassroots of his party — a group in his own party that Mulcair has mentioned often in the lead up to the convention. Whether those efforts pay off in Edmonton next month remain to be seen.

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