Monday, March 26, 2012

Post-#ndpldr, with Mulcair change will be more personality than politics

Leadership contests tend to create the appearance of stark differences where none really exist – it’s in the interests of both candidates looking to differentiate themselves and media looking for a meaningful race to cover. In reality, these differences are usually exaggerated, and governing tends to be a moderating influence anyways.

That’s certainly the case with the recently completed NDP race which crowned Thomas Mulcair the successor to Jack Layton. If there was one real contrast in the field, it was over Nathan Cullen’s proposal for joint nominations in select ridings with the Liberals. More broadly though, Mulcair, Paul Dewar and others all spoke about reaching out to other progressives, even if they ruled-out Cullen’s specific proposal. The difference that got the most attention though was the perception that Mulcair wanted to move to the party to the centre, while candidates like Brian Topp and Peggy Nash were traditionalists that wanted the NDP to hold to its roots.

Frankly, there’s less to this supposed contrast (mainly painted as Topp vs. Mulcair) than meets the eye. Jack Layton did more than anyone to move the NDP toward the centre, so far in fact that there is comparatively little distance left for Mulcair to travel. It was a key part of the success the NDP enjoyed under Layton. And right there by his side during this shift to centre as one of his key strategists was Brian Topp.

So where Mulcair seems to want to move the party is hardly in a new direction, and to the degree that it will upset traditionalists, it’s likely a fight that was fought (and lost) long ago. The only question is, will the traditionalists be less willing to accept compromise with a perceived outsider at the helm than they were with Layton. Time will tell, but I wouldn’t be overly worried.

It’s worth remembering too that governing tends to be a moderating influence, even governing a political party. Mulcair will need to bring rivals into his tent now and work with caucus and the wider membership, so he’s unlikely to get too far ahead of them.

It’s about policies and personalities more than political positioning

All this talk about moving to the centre, about usurping traditional Liberal territory, is frankly a little irrelevant. Outside the bubble no one says “well I’m centre-left, so I’m going to vote…” Canadians think in terms of issues and ideas that impact their everyday lives, communicated by leaders they can relate to and trust. Where Layton and Stephen Harper succeeded recently was in clearly defining their value proposition with Canadians, communicating a clear set of relatable, relevant ideas and policies that are more every day than pie in the sky, and being seen as leaders that can be trusted to do their best to deliver their promises. In sort, people knew what they stood for and trusted them to do their best to do it. As for why the Liberals have struggled, it’s the opposite of all that.

So if Mulcair is going to shift the dynamic as opposition leader, for better or for worse, it will be with his personality. To cement the gains the NDP made under Layton, and to build on them, as important as the policies he brings to the fore will be the tone with which he does it. His opponents will be looking to bring out his famous temper; he’ll need to keep it in check if he’s going to connect with Canadians. Harper has managed to do the same, so it’s hardly mission impossible.

And, of course, there’s the old define or be defined battle. Mulcair is a known quantity in Quebec, which will be helpful given the importance of that province to the NDP’s future. Outside of Quebec though, he’s an unknown. Much of the NDP’s success in the last election was driven by Layton’s connection with Canadians. A Conservative negative ad onslaught to define Mulcair, if unanswered, could prove deadly in the so-called Rest of Canada.

What are the Liberals to do?

I really don’t think the Liberals need to particularly react to Mulcair’s selection, in the sense that our essential challenge was and is the same no matter whom the NDP picked. It’s not about left, right or centre. It’s about the marketplace of ideas, and we need to get in there and compete. We need better ideas, and we need to communicate and sell them better. We’ve too long been pie in the sky when Canadians want meat and potatoes.

Our challenge is what it has been all along. Rebuild and streamline the party infrastructure for the modern era, finally figure out fundraising, revamp the policy development process to generate ideas from the ground-up that resonate with Canadians, and develop the capacity and skill to clearly communicate those ideas. We need to develop an identity Canadians can identify, and identify with. And then, next year, we need to elect a permanent leader to help us bring it to the people.

In short, we need to get our own act together and worry less about our opponents. I will give special mention though to Quebec, as it’s touted as the one key advantage for Mulcair, and challenge for his opponents. And rightly so; Mulcair is well-regarded in the province and Quebecers like voting for one of their own. He definitely has the potential to hold and grow NDP support there. But he’s not invincible.

I’ve long been calling for the Liberals to adopt a more stridently pro-federalist position in Quebec, and I think with Mulcair’s election, the NDP’s ascendency and their Sherbrooke Declaration-based Quebec policy it’s a smart strategy now more than ever, not just in Quebec but in the rest of Canada too. Point out the gap between Sherbrooke andthe Clarity Act (the NDP has liked to say one thing in Quebec and another elsewhere) and the NDP’s mirroring of Bloc positions on policies such as language and other issues.

With the Conservatives also championing asymmetrical federalism (although for other reasons: they want to weaken central government), the ground is clear for a staunch defender of a strong, pan-Canadian federalist option. And there is support to be carved out for a party that takes such a position. It would also have the benefit of providing personality and definition to the Liberal Party. If Quebec is to be a four-party province for the foreseeable future, it’s not enough to be just one of three non- sovereignist parties fighting for the same pool of voters. We need to differentiate.

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1 comment:

Vancouverois said...

Yes, yes, yes!

The Liberal party should ABSOLUTELY stand as the strong federalist voice in Quebec. It's foolish to try to win separatist votes: everyone in Quebec knows that it was the Liberal party that brought in the Constitution, and no amount of pandering would ever change that. It only weakens the federalist cause.

Instead, it's crucial - both for the party, and more importantly for the country - that the Liberal party be extremely aggressive about exploding separatist myths about the Constitution and how it was patriated.

It's a win-win for the Liberals. They can both expose the dangerous NDP flirtation with separatists, which will increase Liberal popularity outside Quebec; and expose separatist lies for what they are, rehabilitating the Liberal image within Quebec.

I was very glad to hear that the Sherbrooke Declaration was the subject of the very first Liberal communique after the Mulcair win. I hope very much that the party will continue to press the NDP on this issue.