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The NDP should play the long game with Mulcair

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NDP members from across Canada will soon gather in Edmonton and when they do, the biggest decision facing them is whether or not Tom Mulcair should continue as federal party leader.

But with Convention only weeks away, many New Democrats still haven't reached a decision.

In a sense, their Edmonton choice comes down to forcing a leadership contest as a knee-jerk response to a botched 2015 campaign versus playing the long game of ensuring the party is a progressive and competitive challenger going forward toward 2019.

For many, this writer included, 2015 was the first time New Democrats really believed we could win and, as such, the loss was traumatic. We still haven't got over it.

To be fair, Mulcair has publicly taken responsibility and it is widely acknowledged within the party that the campaign directors made a host of strategic and tactical blunders. An inexplicable decision to avoid the media on writ drop day; A debates strategy that seemed wrong at every turn; an inability to articulate a comprehensive vision for the future of Canada; Failing to advertise on CBC in the critical Toronto market; Insulting voters by repeating right up to E-Day that "only New Democrats can beat Harper" and, an inexplicably stubborn rigidity on four straight years of balanced budgets. These are just a few examples.

In truth, the NDP campaign also had many virtues. We had a stellar slate of candidates. Many of them front-bench material. We had strong local campaigns. Our platform was dominated by high-profile, progressive planks including a national child-care program, a $15 federal minimum wage, increasing the corporate tax rate and undoing the worst Harper legislation, not to mention highly principled stands on Bill C-51 and the niqab.  

But it's also true that most New Democrats shared in our biggest miscalculation. We believed we could win, not by the virtues of our campaign, but simply because Canadians wanted Harper gone, we were the official opposition with a strong numerical seat advantage over the Liberals and because Justin Trudeau was incapable (sic) of rising to the occasion and waging a vigorous campaign.

It was as if we didn't have to earn victory, as much as we just had to not "lose" it. 

That was the "strategic" thinking from Campaign HQ on down and, good soldiers all, we marched forward in August accepting that wisdom, or at least not openly challenging it. We did not get the central campaign we needed and Justin Trudeau performed far beyond all expectations.    

But that was then. Edmonton will soon be upon us and we have to make a choice about how to go forward.

For some, what would feel best, is to expunge the pain by laying the blame entirely on the leader, retiring him from that role and making a fresh start with a new leader who has no responsibility for past errors, but also no experience leading a national campaign and precious little name recognition among voters.  

That's one option. 

Another option would be to think more about what Canadians need from a progressive opposition facing a Liberal government and how the NDP will best position itself in voters' minds when the inevitable time comes, as it will, that Justin has disappointed once too often and the "progressive" paint job starts to chip. 

That is, we could play the long game.

What will voters be looking for over the coming years of a Trudeau majority and in 2019? Quite likely what they so often look for  a leader they recognize and know, someone with a proven depth of experience and who is progressive, principled and a person of integrity.    

So there's the choice: A knee-jerk response to make NDP members feel better, go back to the beginning and start again; or an experienced and effective opposition in the House now with someone acknowledged by one former Prime Minister as the best opposition leader in 50 years and who will be a familiar, respected alternative in 2019.

We can choose one or the other, but we can't pick both.

For me, I have no interest in going back to having a leader no one has ever heard of and with no national campaign leadership experience. It took Jack four tries to find his stride and I believe Tom Mulcair has the substance to get there if we give him the chance.

Let's play the long game in Edmonton and give Canadians the representation they deserve today and the choice they deserve in 2019.  

Chris Watson served as NDP National Director under both Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton.

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