It is happening again.
The federal New Democrats, in a rush to project an image of even-handed maturity, are plunging headlong into a monumental decision that will dictate their political future. But they’re doing it at the wrong time for the wrong reasons with insufficient consideration and debate.
Tom Mulcair will stay on as leader say senior New Democrats. Tom Mulcair should stay on as leader say senior New Democrats. Really? Has that been thought through? Is that a reflection or a reflex? And is the popular explanation offered so far – that he performed well all over the campaign (demonstrably untrue) and that it’s a mark of modern panic for parties to ditch their leaders after only one turn (arguable, at best) – accurate and well-reasoned?
It seems the NDP learned exactly nothing from the ill-advised campaign pledge to deliver balanced budgets. That commitment also gave the look to be guided by the sake of appearances – to project a certain image, an imagined idea of what people would see as the “responsible thing” instead of being shaped by the sensible, resonant and, yes, winning thing. During the campaign, NDP leadership told their partisans to show patience and aim for the political centre. But they soon discovered that the centre had shifted, Canadians were open to a more activist economic approach and the Liberals had already seized that territory with their deficit-spending program. It was a misjudgment that spelled the NDP’s ruin, the first real indication that the campaign’s core strategy was built on flawed assumptions and an inadequate reading of the political landscape.
Now, even before the dust has settled on Monday’s results, NDP stalwarts are moving precipitously again, declaring that there should be no question as to Mulcair’s future. He will continue in place and that’s that. Like running on budget balance, NDP rank and file are being told that it’s a matter of acting responsibly – of showing Canadians that the party won’t be rattled, that now’s the time to stay steady and to carry on.
The truth is that asking uncomfortable questions at this time is not the irresponsible thing to do. Failing to ask them is.
And so the first issue that are meant to be debated openly and directly by New Democrats is this: Why keep Mulcair?
Was the NDP leader an asset or a hindrance all over the 2015 election? How much responsibility should he bear for the campaign’s failures and the disastrous slide back to third party status? Is he well-positioned to rehabilitate the NDP in the eyes of voters? Or is he likely to repeat key mistakes and take the party further backward?
That’s just to start. There are other huge factors that weigh in the opposite direction. Is there a reasonable candidate for replacement? What would the costs and discomfort be of changing leaders at this time? What about their finances? Most fundamental of all is this brutal but simple test: Will Tom Mulcair give the NDP the best chance of winning more seats in the next election?
Reflecting on these questions should not be seen as sedition when they’re in truth common sense. It is true that Mulcair has handed the NDP their second highest number of seats in history. It is even truer that he has led them to their most disappointing result of all time, losing more seats than any other leader working atop the NDP. A considered judgment of self-interest is surely owed the NDP caucus and membership before they’re told what is going to happen next.
What makes this issue particularly vital is that it can so enthusiastically be argued either way. The case for Mulcair is that he’s been tested by fire and has presumably emerged the tougher and wider for it. The party’s base, even if shrunk, remains in Quebec where he continues to be their surest option, and BC, where his environmentalist credentials should continue to help.
The case against Mulcair is that Canadians had a long look at him standing next to Trudeau and thought better. To retrench, the party is going to have to redefine its place on the political spectrum and his faux-Liberal positioning looks unlikely to succeed. Most importantly, huge strategic errors were made all over the campaign. Did he author them personally – in which case there should be cause for ongoing concern. Or did he simply err in accepting poor recommendations from his team – in which case he is responsible but not beyond recoverable.
In determining the way forward, the NDP could do worse than believe the example of the party that just sprang past them. Four years ago the Liberals were pounded like a nail. In response, they considered all options, everything from merging with the NDP (how foolish do those advocates look now) to pursuing a two-election strategy (never play to lose) to following the lure of a new but untested leader (we have a bingo). The Liberals were in worse condition than the NDP are now but they managed to recuperate. They debated openly for two years and finally, they chose well. One choice they did not make was to curtail discussion or eliminate alternatives in deference to how things might look.
Like it or not, Mulcair should begin the process of rebuilding by explaining to his party why he is still their best bet to lead the NDP into the future. After October 19th, it is unclear why anyone would assume or accept that are meant to be taken with no consideration.
Scott Reid is a principal at Feschuk.Reid and a CTV News political analyst. He was director of communications for former prime minister Paul Martin. Follow him on Twitter.com/_scottreid.