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Judy Rebick is one of Canada's most celebrated and well-known feminist thinkers, critics and writers. She is the founder of rabble.ca.

Understanding the victory of Thomas Mulcair

| March 25, 2012
Understanding the victory of Thomas Mulcair

Most of the mainstream media, with the help of the Mulcair and Topp campaigns, constructed the leadership battle at the NDP convention as a battle between those who wanted to move to the centre to win government and those who wanted to win maintaining the "traditional" social democratic values of the NDP.

Brian Topp's bold-sounding declaration that he was a proud social democrat made those of us who have spent decades on the left of the party cringe. Isn't the NDP a social democratic party? Hasn't the history of the party been the struggle between a democratic socialist left --  best represented by the Waffle but succeeded by a series of progressive groups, ending with the New Politics Initiative -- with the social democratic establishment? Is that establishment now in the position of opposition pushing the party to the left? If it is true, it is depressing on the one hand and deliciously ironic on the other.

What is left out of this narrative is that there is a new force in the party that I would consider the new left and it was best represented in this campaign by Nathan Cullen. Cullen's language was very close to the politics of the New Politics Initiative. He speaks of social struggles and the alliance between the party and First Nations and environment groups. He speaks from the heart without the spin that has infected almost everyone else. He is at heart a democrat. This left is less sectarian. Many of them supported strategic voting in past elections and this time the more strategic electoral alliance with the Liberals. I don't agree with them on that but there is no question that they are the most progressive force in the party right now and the one closest to the social movements who are flooding into the streets and the parks across North America.

The strength of Cullen's campaign came from the power of this youthful movement  represented by Lead Now's support for his proposal on an electoral alliance as much as from his winning personality and charisma. No one mentioned that Lead Now got 5, 500 people to join with the NDP to support what they call "co-operation." There were days when the women's movement had this kind of power in the party, reflected especially in Audrey McLaughlin's victory as leader. Peggy Nash's unjust defeat early in the balloting showed that this movement is much less a force today.

It is too bad that Peggy Nash or Paul Dewar didn't seize the chance of an alliance with this group or that Brian Topp, seeing that he couldn’t win, didn't throw his support to Cullen who could have won. But then I think the party establishment represented by Topp, with a couple of important exceptions like Libby Davies, are more worried about Cullen's politics than Mulcair's.

The other narrative promoted by the Mulcair campaign, Chantal Hebert and Gerry Caplan, is that a defeat of Mulcair would have been seen as a slap in the face to Quebec. After all, polls showed that Quebecois massively supported Mulcair as the leader of the NDP and he had majority support from the Quebec caucus of the party and a lot of endorsements and financial contributions from outside the party.

This is more complicated. It may be true that the initial reaction to the vote will be positive and that most media in Quebec supported Mulcair, but there is also intense criticism of him here. What people in the NDP don't seem to understand is that the massive move from the BQ to the NDP in the last election was less a move to federalism and more a move to the progressive party most Quebecois thought could defeat Harper. If the NDP moves to the right of BQ under Mulcair, it risks losing a lot of that support. Since no one including Chantal Hebert has any idea what the Quebec electorate will do in the next federal election, supporting Mulcair or opposing him for this reason makes no sense. It is positive that the NDP membership showed that they understood the importance of the gains in Quebec by giving their support only to the candidates who are fluent in French.

The third narrative is what has been called a whisper campaign against Mulcair. It was a pretty loud whisper turned into a shout by Ed Broadbent. No one can get along with this guy. He is a bully who doesn't brook opposition. Kind of like a certain Prime Minister we know. It was also suggested that Mulcair had nothing to do with the victory in Quebec. Quieter but just as widespread was the knowledge that not very many women who have worked with him for more than a few months were supporting him. I was shocked by how few women were among his publshed endorsers.  Some of these whispers are true from what I can tell. On Quebec, he did establish a foothold in Quebec but he was not a major player in recruiting candidates or organizing the last election campaign. He is, however, the only one of the leadership candidates who is known in Quebec.

NDPers don't like whisper campaigns, which is to their credit. They may also have figured that we need a bully to face a bully or that Brian Topp's lack of charisma or ability to connect with a crowd was as big a problem as Mulcair's authoritarian streak.

My view is that the NDP has elected an old-style patriarchal politician who has the same politics vis-a-vis Quebec as the pre-Jack NDP, seeing sovereigntists as bitter enemies instead of potential allies, is more of a liberal than a social democrat and who will move the party to the right especially on international issues, including free trade and Israel, two issues at the centre of Harper’s agenda.

I didn't participate in this campaign because I see the hope for change in the new movements that are emerging around the globe rather than in electoral politics. That is where I am putting my energy these days but it always helps if the social movements can see their reflection in the social democratic political party. This hasn't been true in Europe for a long time which is why we see just a dramatic contradiction between what is happening in the Parliament there and what is happening in the streets.

In Canada, whatever the weaknesses of the NDP, we have always managed to have a strong alliance between them and the social movements. That alliance strengthened the women's movement, the anti-war movement, the labour movement and others. I fear under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, that alliance will be lost and it will be a loss for all of us.



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