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Cloud of uncertainty over NDP convention puts Mulcair's future at stake

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People keep asking me how Tom Mulcair is doing and I forthrightly answer with my own question: How do you think he is doing when the latest poll shows the NDP at 11.7 per cent, its worst result since Jack Layton first became leader?

On the same day, an NDP assessment of the 2015 election stressed what a lousy campaign the Mulcair team ran. So I confidently predict that he is having an entirely lousy week, and it won't get better before his leadership is reviewed at the NDP convention in Edmonton this weekend.

But you never know with politicians. They get so wrapped up in their bubbles that they believe whatever they want to. I once ran a campaign for one of Canada's top thinkers who believed until the night before the vote that he would win pretty easily. He lost by 24,000 votes. True story. Similarly, Mr. Mulcair was confident the night before the last election that he would sweep Quebec.

Both Mr. Mulcair and his adversaries have their portents. He must be thrilled that Professor Chuck Taylor, possibly Canada's smartest man, is enthusiastically backing him. I love Charles, but I doubt his influence among party activists.

More important is Mr. Mulcair's support from MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau -- you know, elected in 2011's Orange Sweep of Quebec even though she spent part of the campaign on vacation in Las Vegas. She emerged as one of the bright lights of the last Parliament, easily won re-election while Quebec colleagues were getting mowed down all around her, and speaks (now bilingually) with the highest regard for Mr. Mulcair. If I was on his team -- if he has a team -- I would inundate the delegates with her endorsement. She is leadership material herself.

Mr. Mulcair did end up with 16 Quebec MPs elected and they're all backing him too. That should send a strong message to the undecideds. But -- there's always a but -- a group of 37 Quebec activists including three former MPs have issued an open letter calling for renewal in the party, saying the NDP under Mr. Mulcair has "lost its way." They are far from alone.

Yet there's strong support for Mr. Mulcair from some of his senior caucus colleagues. Similarly, while a controversial former trade unionist named Sid Ryan opposes Mr. Mulcair, as does the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, six CLC-affiliated unions have declared for him. If they all send their quota of delegates to Edmonton -- a big "if" -- his chances go way up.

Of course, there are opponents and opponents, like the so-called Socialist Caucus within the NDP, resolutely anti-Mulcair. Listen up: These folks have as much influence within the NDP as I have with the Pope. Maybe less.

All this makes the party establishment mildly confident that Mr. Mulcair will receive a solid vote of confidence, which for some arbitrary reason has been set at a floor of 70 per cent. But there's no hard and fast rule here and the choice will be his. The NDP is forever expressing confidence in its leaders, and it seems that none has received less that 85-per-cent approval. At this stage, anything in that range would be a great Mulcair victory.

But no one is overconfident. It's no secret that the election result was a deep wound to most New Democrats, including bitter long-time loyalists who had waited a lifetime for this opportunity. Most place at least some, if not all, of the blame on Mr. Mulcair's poorly conceived campaign, for which he has apologized. But one of the big questions is whether he and whoever his advisers are can be trusted to do better next time. NDPers could taste power last year, but ended up eating crow. No one can bear to repeat that experience.

Much of Mr. Mulcair's future depends on how he handles himself at the convention. There are lots of legitimate questions he still must answer. How will he deal with the exciting idea of making the Leap Manifesto a learning tool for the rank-and-file? Why does he want to remain leader anyway? What ideas does he offer to take us into the future? How will he re-energize a traumatized party? Will the real Mr. Mulcair stand up -- the neo-con from last year's election or the newly rededicated democratic socialist? What does democratic socialism even mean to him?

Mr. Mulcair will have lots of opportunities to convince delegates he has answers, and good ones. So far he hasn't done so.

Unless he succeeds, my informants believe that the 70 per cent is out of reach. My impression is that most delegates are off to Edmonton open to persuasion either way. Most want to be convinced that he is their boy. But they are very much open to the opposite. Put another way, if there were a credible opponent challenging him, he would be chopped liver by now. Bernie and his equality crusade would win in a landslide.

Then there's the question of numbers. Joe Clark resigned as Conservative leader with 66.9-per-cent support, but that's because he knew a large number of his adversaries within the party were going to spend full-time trying to sabotage him. That wouldn't be the Mulcair case. I think Mr. Mulcair could hang in with anything over about two-thirds of the vote, which would be both a disappointment and a moral victory.

But maybe moral victories are no longer enough for the NDP.

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Image: Flickr/Laurel L. Russwurm

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