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Can Thomas Mulcair and the NDP ever win in Canada?

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Thomas Mulcair wants very badly to be prime minister of Canada and I for one say go for it. Of course all his predecessors had the same dream. Yet in its entire history until Jack Layton's final campaign in 2011, the NDP only once received as much as 20 per cent of the national vote. Thanks to Mr. Layton's personal popularity in Quebec, the NDP broke through to 30 per cent in 2011, but beyond Quebec it remained mired in low numbers. Since Mr. Mulcair became NDP leader and Justin Trudeau Liberal leader, the NDP has been hovering in the low 20s, behind the Conservatives and way behind the Liberals. This week a poll actually shows the Liberals at 39 per cent, Conservatives 31 per cent, NDP a shocking 19 per cent.

How does the party finally become a contender? Why have over 80 per cent of Canadians routinely voted against the NDP and how can the party change to attract another 20 per cent or so of voters -- while still remaining the New Democratic Party?

Over the years, any number of explanations for the party's electoral ceiling have been offered. Canadians may not have the same visceral antagonism to a democratic socialist ideology as Americans do, but there are distinct limits to how much power they will grant to those holding that ideology. Yet neither the NDP nor any other democratic left-wing party in the world really any longer subscribes to socialism in the sense of massive government intervention in the economy. Does that make life easier for Mr. Mulcair?

Many believe the NDP's historic association with the trade union movement has on balance hurt the party. The benefits are thought to be outweighed by the unpopularity of unions and their "bosses," as elected labour leaders are invidiously called. Is this true today and how should the party deal with it?

Most Canadians appear to believe the NDP is simply not competent to run the country. That the party for many years ran successful governments in Saskatchewan and still does in Manitoba seems largely unknown. Yet the turbulent times of the Bob Rae government in Ontario, much distorted by other parties and the media, somehow still reverberates two decades later. The widespread belief that the NDP has neither administrative competence nor economic sense is obviously a major hurdle the party must overcome to be a real contender. But how?

A good majority of Canadians have always welcomed a contingent of NDP MPs in Parliament because they believed the NDP could be trusted to keep the Big Guys honest. That's all they wanted from the party, and it's been a recipe for permanent third-party status. That's exactly the role Mr. Mulcair played so effectively during last year's Senate scandal, but while he was acclaimed by the Ottawa press gallery, the party's numbers did not move.

Where can New Democrats turn for policies that are reassuring to Bay Street, broadly appealing, and consistent with the party's bedrock commitment to greater equality and social justice for all? How can NDP economic policies ever satisfy the highly politicized credit rating agencies? Where would an NDP government find significant new funds to build the kind of Canada New Democrats have always fought for? How can it offer serious responses to the global warning crisis without being accused of sabotaging the economy? How can it at least neutralize the deep visceral antagonism of Canadian business to the NDP?

There are, alas, no easy answers. Looking to other left-wing parties across the world brings few convincing answers. In Europe, most are floundering helplessly. As always, social democracy of an enviable kind seems to thrive in the small nations of northern Europe, if you ignore ugly anti-immigrant sentiments, but somehow what works pretty well for them is not easily transferable elsewhere.

In the recent Ontario election, the NDP attempted to expand its base by offering random cost cuts to some individuals instead of serious universal programs, and by openly wooing the small business vote. Chasing something called "small business" has in fact been an NDP fantasy forever but with little payoff, as Ontario again demonstrated.

Mr. Mulcair has the capacity, crucial in the NDP, to inspire his troops. He's shown as much in by-election rallies in Toronto for rising NDP star Joe Cressy. When he's on, Mr. Mulcair can instil his own boundless confidence in his listeners while exuding idealism for the great values of social democracy. Often he seems ready to rule.

Yet to mollify the business world, he's already sworn off any attempt to raise personal taxes on rich Canadians. This is hard to fathom. Yes, understanding businesses' legitimate needs is essential, a priority; but pandering to the 1 per cent is just wrong. And it won't work. Canada's chief executives saw their compensation increase again in 2013 by 11 per cent, while ordinary workers got an average increase of 1.8 per cent. So inequality and the glaring gap between the top few and the many grows and grows. Yet business fears of the NDP will hardly be allayed by inauthentic promises such as this while party loyalists will surely be alienated. Just ask Andrea Horwath.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: Flickr/canadianveggie

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