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Mulcair and the new NDP: A time of change

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At times of significant political change, it always helps to wait a while before reaching ultimate conclusions. So it is with the election of Thomas Mulcair as the new leader of the New Democratic Party.

After four ballots and more than 24 hours of voting, there was a sense that something had changed when Tom Mulcair emerged the winner. At 57 per cent his victory was hardly decisive, but it was nonetheless a clear win which allowed the convention to close ranks and for all camps to pledge unity and support for the new leader.

Nevertheless, the tensions in the party over this choice were palpable and reservations hung in the air at the celebration Saturday night. Among the disappointed were longtime party leaders and organizers in English Canada who took very seriously Ed Broadbent's warning over political direction and style. There were others -- labour activists and some from the left of the party -- with a fear that this decision represented a departure down some kind of "third way" road.

But the perceived shift in the party remained intangible and circumstantial. By Sunday morning, Mulcair's announcement that Libby Davies would remain Deputy Leader and Anne McGrath would stay on temporarily as Chief of Staff had reassured somewhat that there was no immediate new course for the party.

It has to be noted also that many progressives with no interest whatsoever in a "Blairist" agenda had found their way to the Mulcair camp. They supported Mulcair for two reasons -- to maintain the party's base in Quebec, and to immediately step up to the role of Opposition Leader in Parliament and Prime Minister-in-Waiting.

Of course, there are also some in the party and labour who see the Mulcair win as an opportunity to realize a long-held goal of a "big tent" centrist party. But this leadership campaign and decision most definitely did not deliver any such mandate.

Over 65 per cent of party members gave their first choice to candidates with far-reaching social change agendas. Nathan Cullen presented a radical program of asserting environmental and First Nation interests ahead of resource development. Peggy Nash took the spirit and language of the Occupy movement and translated it into a populist agenda to support workers and communities. Brian Topp presented the most clearly articulated call for equality and wealth redistribution that has been heard in the federal NDP leadership for a generation. The strength of these campaigns overpowered any substantial alternative discourse about moderating -- or in political code, "modernizing" the NDP.

Tom Mulcair won a mandate instead to do what he obviously was the best prepared to deliver -- an immediate, polished, professional competence as an Opposition Leader and potential Prime Minister. And it's on this basis that Tom Mulcair begins his leadership with the support and goodwill of a much larger majority than his votes at convention.

Still, there is clearly a change in the style and substance of the NDP leader. The promised continuity for the party will be tested in the coming weeks as a large number of veteran organizers and political staff take their leave, and the front benches of the party are recast sometime after the budget debates. The replacements will tell a lot about where the leader's office wants to take the party.

I have to admit, and I suspect many are like me, that I still know little about the long-range political goals of Tom Mulcair or his position on a number of social and economic issues. My cautionary note is that hauling out old statements, or relying on the politics of even the recent past, won't be very helpful in getting to know and building trust with the new leader.  In times of change, we should expect leaders to also change and develop.

There is no doubt that there is a new NDP and the change that has taken place over the past two years is far bigger than just a new leader. The thousands of new members, the new Quebec reality, and the new politics presented by Topp, Nash, Cullen and others have also changed the party fundamentally. Tom Mulcair will shape this dynamic and also be shaped by it.

For now, it is time for change; there will be time later to draw conclusions. 

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