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The NDP now and after the leadership race

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"Frankly, it's doubtful the Liberals or Conservatives could field a group of eight such intelligent [leadership] candidates."

No, it's not Olivia or Ed or Roy or one of those partisan spinners who appear on TV panels. These are the words of the Globe and Mail's Ottawa columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, a man who doesn't throw such opinions around casually.

Think of the implications. Stephen Harper's cabinet -- his majority government cabinet -- has almost 40 members (are you old enough to recall when he embraced lean, cost-saving cabinets?). Mr. Simpson is saying that fewer than eight of them are the equals of the NDP leadership contenders. This is a fairly chilling assessment since this gang is going to manhandle our country, virtually without constraint, for another three and a half years. And to compensate for their bush-league stature, they are mean and vindictive. They will neither forget nor forgive Jeff Simpson for this extraordinary put-down. Although Mr. Simpson is a fearless man, he should be very afraid.

As for the Liberals, if I too may speak frankly, I'd be surprised if they could field a group of more than one person who's of the calibre of the NDP Eight. In fact, so far as I can determine, they presently have only a single member of Parliament, a white-haired gentleman moving ever-closer to his best-before date who now constitutes the Interim Leader, wannabe leader and entire front bench of the Liberal Party of Canada. Bob Rae has become the Walt Whitman of our time. While his party tokes up in the background, he too can sing a Song of Myself and proclaim: "I celebrate myself. ... Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."

Of course Stephen Harper's bully-boys are also gleefully familiar with Mr. Rae's multitudes, like, just to take one incarnation at random, those unforgettable years when he was the NDP premier of Ontario. Of course much of the country wasn't even born then, but the Conservative war room intends to make those years unforgettable to them as well. In fact the National Citizens Coalition, the Conservatives' avant-garde, have already produced a YouTube ad with the devastating if fraudulent message: Don't let Bob do to Canada what he did to Ontario.

Liberals know only too well, and fear intensely, the moment that Bob Rae becomes the actual leader of his latest party and the Harper goon squad goes to work on his career and reputation. Besides, there are always the real historians to remind us that in the entire history of Canada no provincial premier has ever gone on to be elected prime minister.

That's why the huge hullabaloo about the defection to the Liberals of one of the new NDP MPs from Quebec was mere sound and fury signifying nothing, a molehill touted as a mountain, and many similar expressions. As it has on a regular basis ever since election night, the mainstream media and much of the punditocracy can't ever resist an opportunity to announce the NDP's breakthrough to Official Opposition was a complete fluke and is already flaming out.

Of course for the NDP the incident was unquestionably an unwelcome distraction; there's no way to pretend otherwise. It can't help the party much, in Quebec or anywhere, to have members slip away, however enigmatic the circumstances.

But then, so is the entire leadership race an unfortunate bit of timing. First fate suddenly steals away the party's greatest single asset. Then the leadership contest borrows the best and the brightest for six months, leaving a huge vacuum in Parliament, which both the media and Bob Rae are more than happy to have Bob Rae fill. This also means the absence of the only well-known member of the Quebec team as well as a bevy of bilingual senior New Dems. So of course you lose your effectiveness, for a few months. It was entirely inevitable that the NDP's presence would fade temporarily.

But we need to get a grip here. In the May election, the historic Jack Layton election, the NDP got 30 per cent of the vote; Mr. Layton had never gotten more than 18 per cent before that, and the NDP had never gotten more than 20 per cent in its history. Now look at the poll released just this week showing the Conservatives down, the Liberals up at 25 per cent, and the NDP still in second place at 28 per cent. In Quebec the latest poll showed the NDP at 33 per cent and its closest rival, the Bloc, at 20 per cent. These are, by any measure, remarkable results. And they've been achieved under an interim leader who never asked for the job and knows perfectly well she's not a natural. And they've been achieved in the face of all the other hurdles that can't be overcome until the new leader is chosen in March and returns with his/her team of fellow contenders to take on the Harper government. Jeffrey Simpson's Magnificent Eight -- okay, okay: the Intelligent Eight -- back where they belong.

Mr. Simpson has also applauded the way the NDP leadership candidates have highlighted the ever-increasing inequality that characterizes Canadian society and their strong commitment to dealing with the crisis of global warming. So he can hardly be dismissed, as New Democrats may too easily be inclined to do, as just another apologist for the 1 per cent. Mr. Simpson is independent, thoughtful and knowledgeable, and anyone serious about running the government of Canada, as the new NDP claims to be, should pay close attention to him and his trenchant criticisms of some of the areas where the NDP is traditionally most vulnerable, including economic policy and funding the many needed programs the candidates all put forward.

So there are two great tasks for the party beginning the day after the new leader is elected. First is to hit the House of Commons running and establish its rightful claim to be the unrelenting Official Opposition to this very dangerous government. The other is to bring together all the best thinkers on the left, from caucus staff to sympathetic academics to the formidable intellectuals associated with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to the many fine economists working for trade unions,* to forge policies that will stand up to the intense scrutiny they're sure to get. Anyone watching the British Labour Party flounder embarrassingly in these areas knows this is no easy challenge. But if the NDP is to be taken seriously, it's the challenge that needs to be confronted.

* This group is unlikely to include Jeffrey Simpson

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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