While there were signs that the New Democratic Party’s rank and file were somewhat ambivalent about Thomas Mulcair’s leadership, the magnitude of the party’s rejection of him Sunday was stunning. Fully 52% of delegates to the party’s national convention in Edmonton voted for a leadership convention, in effect ousting Mulcair as leader.
The NDP, having almost never been a serious contender for government, has generally been accepting of a leader’s inability to win federal elections. But never had the party been so tantalizingly close to power as it was after Jack Layton’s 2011 result, which catapulted the party into official opposition for the first time. In last October’s election, under Mulcair’s leadership, the party returned to its historic levels: a poor third place.
Mulcair’s ability to remain as head of the party after that showing was destined to be a challenge. Many New Democrats never viewed Mulcair as ideologically pure, coming as he did from the Quebec Liberal party. He became leader in part because many believed he had the experience and capability to build on the Layton legacy and lead the NDP into government for the first time. His failure last October to realize that dream was, in retrospect, the end of the story.
The coup was fairly bloodless. There was little overt campaigning against his leadership and each delegate seems to have made their individual decision, which led to a collective rejection unprecedented in federal politics.
In his short speech to the delegates after the vote results were announced Sunday, Mulcair urged the party to come together in unity behind whoever is to replace him. Yet that seems like extraordinarily wishful thinking.
Mulcair, because he embodied the prospect of electoral success, was able to keep a lid on some of the most extreme elements in his party, including the far-left and the anti-Israel extremists (between which there is a great deal of overlap). At the convention that ousted him, the party gave a thumbs-up in principle to the so-called Leap Manifesto, a hard-left document that could probably guarantee electoral failure for a generation. The party also divided sharply between those who see climate change as a priority challenge and those who believe the party must continue to support workers above all, including those in the host province of Alberta whose industries often contribute to global warming.
So, the question may not be whether the party will now take a left-leaning lurch, as the U.K. Labor party has done, or whether it will pursue the more pragmatic path set by Layton and Mulcair, but rather whether the hard-core leftists and the pragmatic centrists can coexist at all. Especially with the Liberal party sucking the air from the centre-left of the political spectrum, whether the NDP can maintain any sort of cohesion is a bigger question than who will be the next leader.