Columnists

Duncan Cameron
A Quebecer wins the NDP leadership

| March 27, 2012
Photo: David P. Ball

Quebec. The NDP membership's primary concern is that the party hold its 58 Quebec seats in the next election: this determined the outcome of the leadership campaign that began officially September 15, 2011, and ended March 24. Party members sensed that Thomas Mulcair understands Quebec, could appeal to Quebecers, and believed he was the best choice to lead the party into the next election.

The NDP holds 58 of the 75 Quebec seats (out of 102 NDP seats in total). It obviously needs Quebec to form the next government. No other concern registered at near the same level of intensity, for the about one in two party members that chose to vote. Not policy, not ideology, not personality, not even the second concern -- the ability to take on Stephen Harper (not thought to be a threat in Quebec ) -- ranked very high.

The Member from Outremont received 57.2 per cent of the vote to win on the fourth ballot. These 59,210 voters included those who had previously expressed themselves in successive preferential ballots, and a considerably smaller number (about 5,000) that were still voting in real time in the convention centre, or from home, after delays of more than 12 hours due to Internet problems.

Faced with the prevailing sentiment about Quebec and its ties to the NDP future -- readily apparent to participants at the Toronto convention centre last weekend --- no other candidate really had a chance to eke out a win.

There was a race for the leadership, however, as evidenced by the fact Mulcair received short of a one-third support on the first ballot, leading with 30.2 per cent. He grew to 38.3 per cent on ballot two, and to 43.8 per cent on ballot three.

The "movement" candidates Niki Ashton, Paul Dewar, and Peggy Nash (my candidate) failed to meet expectations, disappointing themselves with lower than expected support, but earning enhanced respect for their willingness to put themselves through a rigorous test. The campaign was a six-month marathon of pub nights, debates, meets and greets, and extravagant demands for travel, plus bad food, and interminable germ-sharing hand-shaking. Party members gathered to talk and debate about local concerns, the Conservative threat to the common good, and the way to advance the public interest.

Niki Ashton ran a campaign for new politics, youth, and international human rights issues. The only candidate to get a full standing ovation for her speech, she still finished behind Martin Singh, who ran a mostly single-issue campaign promoting pharmacare as he signed up new party members with vigour.

Paul Dewar had wide support for his visions of grassroots politics, where the NDP riding associations would become the locus of party activity, and the party would be made of active members, who were more than donors. His poor command of French sunk his campaign, despite his ability to attract devoted, respected followers.

Peggy Nash showed well early in the race, as the first NDP figure in recent memory to make economic issues the priority. Her social unionist supporters in the CAW and CUPE, and her women's movement allies, did not show the expected ballot box support for Sister Nash, and her activist approach to politics. Her campaign was fuelled by the energy of young activists, and her numerous admirers. The third-place finisher, Nathan Cullen was able to take his green focus and political co-operation approach all the way from the huge under-populated territory of Northern B.C. that is his riding, and bring it to national prominence.

Major party insiders (how many soon to be outsiders?) had serious doubts about the eventual winner. Coalescing successfully around Brian Topp, the modern, pragmatic team, that worked well with Jack Layton, tried to counter a Mulcair candidacy with a quick start, and a show of significant names in support, highlighted by an endorsement from Ed Broadbent.

Topp was hindered as a first-time candidate by not having a seat in the House of Commons. His political inexperience hurt his campaign, but his mastery of French and his Quebec roots, plus a professional campaign organization, helped him to a strong second-place finish.

Thomas Mulcair attracted his share of high profile support. These included provincial co-chairs from across the country, who he singled out by name, for good reason, during his (disappointing - you can listen to it here) acceptance speech. Campaign co-chair Lorne Nystrom, a former leadership candidate himself (losing to Alexa McDonough in 1995), and long-serving (1968-93, 1997-2004) Saskatchewan MP brought considerable knowledge, and experience of the sort needed for the Mulcair camp to make Canada-wide connections to party members. Big support from caucus members helped dispel concerns about Tom Mulcair not being someone who inspires trust.

Sunday morning, following the new leader's initial caucus meeting, the sentiment was positive, MPs upbeat. As they ran off to catch a train for Ottawa, or headed home before coming to the capital for the leader's first question period, the outcome was clearly past history for most caucus members.

Using his Quebec base, new leader Thomas Mulcair promises to lead an NDP fight to the finish with Stephen Harper, and his Conservatives. On that priority he has lots of support from the party membership, and he will be judged accordingly.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.