As its convention approaches, the NDP faces its biggest test yet

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I wonder if the 1,500-plus NDP delegates headed to their Edmonton convention in a couple of weeks realize just how critical their vote on the leader will be. While there have been a few voices pro and con Thomas Mulcair, no one seems willing to bet on what the grassroots will do. But if they recognize that their party is facing an existential crisis, they will soundly reject Mr. Mulcair and come to grips with the hard reality that Justin Trudeau is making their party almost completely irrelevant. It is an interesting paradigm shift: for 10 years, Stephen Harper fantasized about disappearing the Liberal Party. Now the Liberals are in a position to destroy the NDP -- tossing them into the dustbin of history along with the Social Credit Party.

The chances that the party can find its way out of this crisis are very slim because getting rid of Mulcair is just one requirement. Finding a new leader who actually embodies the social democratic values of the founders of the CCF/NDP will be extremely difficult because such a process depends on a politically engaged membership who actually own their party. And that's the problem, one that goes back a very long way to when the CCF joined with the labour movement to form the NDP. That was the starting point of the party's embrace of professionals to run their till-then genuine movement. Following that merger, members have become increasingly marginalized -- called upon only for donating and election door-knocking. Professionalization reached a high point under Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair.

Denial of responsibility

The end point is today, where the NDP has to grapple with a disastrous situation brought on by having made a deal with the devil when they chose a conservative, over-weaning autocrat as leader -- one who now believes he can lead the party to victory into the next election. One of the most amazing aspects of Mulcair's post-election musings is that very few people have seriously called him on a series of humiliating declarations and months of denials that he or anyone in the NDP hierarchy is responsible for the drubbing the party endured on election night. First, the claim went, the only reason they lost was because they were principled on the niqab issue (though so was Trudeau). Then the focus shifted to "reminding" members that despite the loss of over half its seats and opposition status in a total rout, it was the "second-best result" ever for the party.

After three full months of avoiding the media and any substantive comment on the leadership question, Mulcair formally addressed the media on January 18, 2016. He wanted to talk policy, but the media wanted to know about his future. Mused Mulcair: "It wasn't there for us this time. As a team, we haven't been to the finals very often, and I can tell you that we learned a lot. Next time, we'll be there to get the cup." Seriously? A hockey analogy? "Next time" isn't the game next week, it's four years away -- an eternity in politics. It's notable that the response was in the passive voice: "It wasn't there for us." What we didn't hear, and should have, was: "We completely bungled the election and betrayed our supporters and the thousands of people who worked their butts off for months and gave us millions of dollars to campaign for their values. I am resigning."

And when asked what percentage of the delegate vote he would consider a vote of confidence, Mulcair, according to the Huffington Post: "told reporters that he needs 50 per cent plus one vote to avoid a leadership race and that he hopes to get more than that ...but he refused to set a floor and say how much support he wants in order to remain the party leader." More than almost any other statement by Mulcair it is this one that demonstrates his political narcissism: what sort of leader truly dedicated to his party would continue to stay in the job if almost half of the convention delegates rejected his leadership?

Mulcair's musings about staying on as leader reveal a disturbing inability to think about what is best for the party. It's all about him. Asked in the same interview if he had ever thought about stepping down, Mulcair replied, never, not once: "It's not in my nature." He did a self-serving interview with the Canadian Press where he revealed the moment he "decided" to stay on: "I finished that evening; Chantale was with me, we drove back to Montreal and I said, 'We are going to continue the fight.'" There was no hint of awareness that this might not be his decision to make -- that in these circumstances his feelings were secondary to what the party needed.

For almost four months, Mulcair refused to formally accept any responsibility for one of the most catastrophic election debacles in Canadian history. It was not until February 10 that he sent a letter to members, saying "[O]ur campaign came up short. As leader, I take full responsibility for these shortcomings." This conventional mea culpa is meaningless, of course, because taking responsibility means recognizing that there are real personal consequences, a price to pay. If I borrow my friend's car and smash it up, I "take full responsibility" by paying for it. In the NDP, no one really takes responsibility.

To their credit, yesterday the party released a frank report on the election that did identify the weaknesses of the campaign -- basically confirming what most commentators had already observed. But the other shoe is unlikely to drop: no one will be held responsible in any meaningful way.

Budget deals further blow

All of Mulcair's responses to the election loss suggest a sort of political post-traumatic stress disorder -- an almost pathological inability to grasp reality. But whatever remained of the notion that the party could survive by keeping him on took a further, probably fatal, hit on budget day. That's when Trudeau brought down what Armine Yalnizian of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called "the most progressive budget in 40 years."

Tossing out the "run from the left and govern from the right" formula the Liberals have relied on for decades, Trudeau has single-handedly moved the Canadian political centre a huge step to the left, leaving the NDP completely stranded. It simply cannot craft a credible response to this budget given its own policy platform and Mulcair's deeply conservative politics. It can't come back from where it is.

The party's recent missive to its members -- "Top 10 ways Budget 2016 shortchanges Canadians" --  reveals in spades how trapped Mulcair is. The response is cynical and misleading: "The Liberals' budget was long on rhetoric but short on dollars when it came to keeping their promises to Canadians." How a leader who ran on a balanced budget platform (which, by the way, was not party policy) could pen this line with a straight face is beyond me. Should the Liberals have racked up a $40-billion deficit so they could keep all their promises? The NDP -- which should support virtually every Liberal expenditure -- would have had zero dollars.

The document then proceeds to list a number of unkept (so far) promises without ever acknowledging or explaining the long list they did keep. Some budget items they don't mention at all and for obvious reasons. For example, the NDP had promised to cancel the $115-million cuts to the CBC announced by the Conservatives in 2012. The Liberals' budget commitment: provide additional funding of $675 million over five years.

At this point in the political calendar, pundits and party members alike should have been confident that the party would reject Mulcair and commit to returning to its social democratic roots and its traditional role as a party of big ideas. But this is the NDP and many commentators have made the point that the party historically hasn't dumped its leaders for losing. The implication in this observation is that this is an admirable thing. I am not so sure. I remember heated arguments I used to have with an NDP friend in Saskatchewan who expressed his contempt for my involvement in "useless" social movement organizations. My response, in kind, was to suggest to him that the NDP was not so much a political party as it was a cult. I was only half kidding. There was a siege mentality in the NDP rooted in feelings of ideological marginalization reinforced by a hostile media. They hated extra-parliamentary groups because they couldn't control them. Any criticism of the NDP was tantamount to heresy -- and disloyalty.

In fact, decades of observing this party from the outside has convinced me that loyalty is far and away the most important principle in the party's culture. It is more important than political philosophy, more important than party democracy, more important than member engagement and even more important than winning. In the NDP, it seems, so long as you have been a loyal member since you were 14, chances are you will never be held accountable, no matter what mistakes you make. Loyalty is obviously an important principle in any party and if it had a leader who knew when to get off the stage, it need not be a problem, even for the NDP. But when a leader like Thomas Mulcair is prepared to shamelessly exploit it for what appear to be purely egotistical reasons, it is tantamount to a political suicide pact.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee.

Photo: anne campagne/flickr

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