The Dawn of a New Era for Social Democracy in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities Abound

Andrew Perez


Last weekend Thomas Mulcair defied the odds. After four ballots delayed by a mysterious cyber attack against the NDP’s sophisticated voting system, the former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister sailed to victory garnering a decisive 57.2 per cent over Brian Topp’s 42.8 per cent among NDP members. Just how did this transpire?  In short, tens of thousands of New Democrats rebelled against the party establishment – a coalition of union leaders, academics, journalists, and youth – to elect an outsider without traditional NDP pedigree.

Mr. Mulcair’s rapid ascension to the NDP throne concludes an astonishing career resurrection for the man dubbed ‘Grizzly’ for his hot-tempered demeanour in the Quebec National Assembly. Less than six years ago, Mr. Mulcair was without a job: in late 2006, he had abruptly resigned from Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s cabinet on a point of principle. But within months, the late Jack Layton actively recruited him as the NDP’s Quebec lieutenant. Wasting no time, Mr. Mulcair romped to victory in a 2007 by-election in the Liberal bastion of Outremont (he won the first Quebec NDP seat under Layton’s leadership and the second Quebec seat in NDP history). He then racked up commanding wins in 2008 and 2011, paving the foundation for the NDP’s historic 59-seat breakthrough in La Belle Province. This remarkable sequence of events now has the Ottawa commentariat wagging their tongues in pursuit of one question: will Mr. Mulcair ultimately win the keys to 24 Sussex Drive?

To tackle this question is premature, for it’s first worth underscoring that Mr. Mulcair is the unlikeliest leader the NDP and its predecessor – the CCF – have ever had at the helm. To say the 57-year-old fluently bilingual lawyer has politics engraved in his blood would be an understatement: Mr. Mulcair’s lineage on his francophone mother’s side includes that of Honore Mercier, a Quebec Liberal premier from 1887-1891. He can appear bourgeois or patrician and launched his political career with the centre-right Quebec Liberal Party in the mid-1990s. Even more controversially – not least of which for New Democrats – is the Conservatives’ claim Mulcair would have joined the Harper government had the Conservatives agreed to his demands for a cabinet post in 2007. While Mr. Mulcair adamantly denies such claims, he has acknowledged he entered into discussions with the Tories prior to eventually joining the NDP.


In spite of his unlikely ascension to the NDP leadership, the elite chattering classes of downtown Toronto and Montreal have already begun to wax-poetic on the merits of a Mulcair-led NDP. Could he eventually secure his place in the Canadian left’s pantheon by forming the first national NDP government? Perhaps, but not without explicitly altering the trajectory of Canada’s NDP. In other words, Mr. Mulcair will need to swiftly refurbish the NDP as a centre-left, pragmatic brokerage party open to cooperation with the third-place Liberals. As Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin recently articulated, Mr. Mulcair is uniquely qualified to accomplish just that. According to Martin, Mulcair boasts four precious qualities:

1. He’s an eloquently bilingual politician with deep roots in Quebec who holds the single best shot at consolidating Mr. Layton’s Quebec breakthrough last spring;

2.  Mr. Mulcair is a seasoned political operator who boasts executive experience in government: he can hit the ground running as Leader of the Official Opposition in Ottawa;

3. He is a man of strength and political-savvy ready to confront his equally talented adversaries: Stephen Harper and Bob Rae; and

4. Mr. Mulcair is a quintessential centrist – that is, he is not weighted down by dogmatic ideology and is therefore well positioned to modernize the party, and – to borrow his own words – demonstrate the party’s capacity for ‘good public administration.’

Now that Thomas Mulcair is entrenched as the Leader of the Official Opposition, watch for the dynamics in Parliament and in the NDP to quickly change. And while she was thrust into the unenviable task of leading the party on an interim basis, it’s now clear Nycole Turmel’s brief tenure as leader did little to inspire rank and file New Democrats. Over the past few months, it became painfully apparent that Mme. Turmel – a rookie Quebec MP and former union leader – was most unsuited for the interim leadership position. This was, after all, on showcase for months in Ottawa’s daily Question Period, where Mme. Turmel consistently underperformed due to her lack of political experience and poor proficiency in English. The net result: Liberal leader Bob Rae hastily assumed the role of the ‘Leader of the Unofficial Opposition’, garnering considerable media attention – and in doing so – bolstering his party’s public opinion standing considerably.

But with Mr. Mulcair’s victory last week, the Liberals’ competitive edge in Parliament is on the cusp of dissipating. Since arriving in Ottawa, Mr. Mulcair has exhibited a razor-sharp focus in Question Period, on committees, and in media scrums; now that he is leader, expect Mr. Mulcair to focus his ammunition exclusively on Prime Minister Harper. Buoyed by a recent poll that had them tied for first place with the Conservatives, for the first time in its history the federal NDP can smell power. As Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert recently observed: “In politics, little is more irresistible than the alluring scent of power.” In this vein, Mr. Mulcair’s election as leader confirms a large faction of the NDP now places political expediency above traditional social democracy, as championed by party luminaries Broadbent and Layton.

The essential question remains a simple one: can Mr. Mulcair shrewdly navigate the turbulent waters of Canadian democracy and shepherd his party from protest to power? Astute political observers will recall a book entitled: ‘From Protest to Power’ – in fact it’s the name of Mr. Rae’s memoires; indeed it’s a rich irony that Mr. Mulcair, a former Liberal, now leads the NDP and Mr. Rae, a former New Democrat, leads the Liberals. But in spite of swapped allegiances among the NDP and Liberal leaders, the NDP – buttressed by official opposition status – are now most suitably positioned to dislodge Mr. Harper from power.


Understood in this light, Mr. Mulcair’s victory last week sparked the dawn of a new era for social democracy in Canada. To be fair, the late Jack Layton set the party on a more pragmatic path upon assuming the leadership in early 2003. From that critical point onward, Mr. Layton incrementally transitioned the party from political obscurity – a rural rump of 13 MPs – to that of a robust national party holding seats in every region of the country. But in defeating Layton confidante Brian Topp, B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, and Ontario MPs Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash, the adroit Mulcair has been handed a clear mandate to take the party in an even more ambitious direction – toward the corridors of power.

It’s an entirely new pathway for the party: one that acknowledges the challenges facing – not merely the union movement – but the business community and other societal actors not customarily associated with Canada’s NDP. To that end, it would seem Mr. Mulcair is intent on eschewing his party’s erstwhile pacifism and aligning it as unconditionally pro-Israel, while preaching an economic centrism that seeks to champion environmental sustainability without jeopardizing Canada’s fragile economic recovery. Among the political class, many perceive him as a Liberal dressed in NDP apparel.

But Mr. Mulcair’s brand of centrism is bound to alienate a large swath of core NDP supporters – perhaps even some of those who actively supported him for leader. For years now, the NDP has undergone futile resistance to modernizing and adapting to the New Labour philosophy as implemented in Great Britain by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. As political observers will know, the NDP is the only social democratic party in the western world that has not presided over genuine modernization in the New Labour/Third Way mould. Oddly enough, New Democrats have long championed this historical footnote as a badge of honour, illustrative of their steadfast resolve to reject political pragmatism in exchange for honouring their CCF-era roots.

Enter party icon Ed Broadbent. It was precisely this – the fear of moving the NDP too close to the political centre – that thrust Mr. Broadbent into the political spotlight in recent weeks, cautioning rank and file NDP members against the perils of crowning Mr. Mulcair as the new face of social democracy in Canada. And it wasn’t merely Mr. Broadbent who felt compelled to break his silence: his views were reinforced by core supporters, many closely aligned with the Brian Topp and Peggy Nash campaigns.


As the Mulcair New Democrats actively prepare for the next election over the coming years, they will invariably confront new challenges and opportunities. Their first public test will be party unity and cohesion. Thus far, it appears Mr. Mulcair is extending an olive branch to political rivals within his own party. Upon assuming the leadership, he signalled he would keep Vancouver MP Libby Davies as deputy leader – a clear concession to the left flank of his party. But in due course, expect the new leader to reward his most ardent supporters with influential positions, both within the caucus and in the Opposition Leader’s Office (OLO).

In essence, Mr. Mulcair’s central challenge will lie in distributing key positions equitably, among caucus supporters and former rivals reluctant to accept his leadership. Moreover, as Chantal Hebert notes, Mr. Mulcair should be under no illusion as to the terms of his mandate as leader. Hobbled by dwindling polling figures, the NDP has historically proven rather patient with its leaders; after all, Jack Layton’s last campaign was also his fourth one – a prolonged tenure neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives would extend to a leader losing consecutive elections. In this regard, it’s unlikely Mr. Mulcair will be afforded the latitude Mr. Layton clearly benefitted from. Put plainly, his strongest supporters – those that propelled him to victory amid establishment opposition – will just as easily reverse their support should he not deliver convincing electoral results.

NDP-Liberal Cooperation?

Another challenge and possible opportunity will likely manifest itself in the manner in which the new leader responds to the media’s fixation on potential cooperation with the third-place Liberals. While New Democrats have gone to considerable lengths to rule out such a scenario, rival candidate Nathan Cullen’s insurgent campaign was premised on formal cooperation with the Liberals as an antidote to Conservative rule. In boldly proposing joint candidates between both parties – enabling local New Democrats and Liberals in Tory-held ridings to run a single candidate – Mr. Cullen has stoked the once taboo subject among NDP partisans. And while many New Democrats continue to scoff at Cullen’s idea, it did find traction among the broader Canadian public. According to a recent Harris-Decima poll, Canadians said they felt the Cullen proposal had legs.

Less than 24 hours into his new role, Mr. Mulcair had already ruled out formal or informal cooperation with the Liberal Party. Said Mulcair: “It’s absolutely not in the cards,” responding to a question on a potential merger from the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. Added Mulcair: “We’ve got all these great ideas in the NDP but now for the first time we’re poised. We’ve got to take a state of fact – because the Official Opposition is just the party that gets the second-highest number of seats – and turn it into a state of mind…that the NDP can actually form the next government.” In spite of Mr. Mulcair’s tough language, it’s unlikely the perennial question of uniting the centre-left will dissolve in the near future. What is more, the rationale underpinning NDP-Liberal cooperation is compelling on numerous fronts.

The fundamental argument is that, in spite of Mulcair’s current advantage, Canada will not enjoy a progressive majority government in the foreseeable future without a structural realignment of the party system. If Mr. Harper is to remain in power, he must do all he can to maintain the current party system in tact; that is, he must ensure the Liberal and NDP parties remain divided in pursuit of the progressive majority. As long as these two parties continue to claw back at the same pool of progressive voters, the Conservatives win.

Albeit, the merger idea remains a highly controversial one among Liberals and New Democrats. At some point, however, Mr. Mulcair will need to confront the political reality on the ground as he contemplates election strategy moving forward. Of all the challenges he will inevitably rub up against as leader, this may prove to be the most confounding.  In many respects – the presence of Mr. Rae, a former New Democrat and Mr. Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal – as leaders of their respective parties produces the ‘perfect storm’ for NDP-Liberal cooperation. Moreover, Mr. Mulcair’s centrist policies and focus on ‘good public administration’ would seem palatable for the Rae-led Liberal Party.


The real battle begins this week as Mr. Mulcair will be tested on his response to the Conservative’s 2012 Budget. He says his years in Quebec politics convinced him of the need to build a structured Official Opposition, with an emphasis on thorough opposition research. Said Mulcair: “We’re going to do that work and bring the tough fight in 2012 and 2013 to the Conservatives, and in the last year really prepare for the election of 2015.” But as the party seeks to turn the page after a divisive leadership campaign, top-of-mind for the NDP are the fresh Conservative attacks against Mr. Mulcair.

There is a real fear within the party that the Tories will be able to effectively tarnish his reputation, just as they tarred Mr. Dion and Mr. Ignatieff. In fact, the Conservatives have been quick out of the gate, already attempting to brand Mr. Mulcair as ‘hard left’, vicious, and overly aggressive. Said NDP MP Francoise Boivin: “No organization should allow its leader to be attacked. Still, we can’t change who we are and we can’t get down into the gutter like the Conservatives and start throwing mud around – that’s not our style”

But perhaps the NDP’s most arduous challenge in the lead up to the next federal vote will be selling their leader – not to Quebec – but rather, to Ontario and the West. Indeed, as the old adage goes: ‘Elections are won in Ontario.’ Despite the incessant media coverage surrounding the ‘Orange Wave’ in Quebec, it’s worth noting the NDP made few gains elsewhere in the country. Of the 233 seats outside of Quebec, the NDP won an underwhelming eight more seats than it had in the 2008 election. In raw numbers, the party gained a mere seat in the West, two in Atlantic Canada, and five in Toronto. In order to gain power in 2015, the NDP has two mutually exclusive strategies to draw upon. The party could seek to marginalize the Liberals as a spent force – a task that will prove dubious and short sighted. Alternatively, the more prescient strategy would see the NDP seek common cause with the Liberal Party, looking for avenues in which to build informal or formal cooperation, whether it be in Parliament or in an extra-parliamentary environment. For this strategy to succeed, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Rae will need to join forces in some capacity; while this prospect might be unlikely in the near future, it will prove necessary if the will of the progressive majority in this country is to be realized.

Andrew Perez attended the NDP Leadership Convention in Toronto March 23rd-24th, on behalf of the PPGR. He is a second-year student in the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and previously worked for several elected officials of varying political stripes on Parliament Hill, Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., and most recently at Queen’s Park in Toronto.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew,

    As a fellow blogger, I figured that I may as well reply here. Overall, I like your piece and find your argument well-structure and persuasive. I would, however, suggest on the last point about the merits of Liberal-New Democratic merger or cooperation that we may need to wait until the results of the next election in 2015 before seeing real any kind of decision on that front.

    For instance, the Progressive Conservatives lingered on for two elections and two majority parliaments after their near eradication in 1993. Mulcair’s strategy of “rallying all progressives under the New Democratic banner” seems logical at this point, given that the New Democratic Party is the Official Opposition and therefore the alternative government. The Liberal lacks any regional base, but Quebec is always a wild card, as you say. I suspect that the Liberals and New Democrats won’t decide to cooperate unless the Harper government retains its majority support in the next parliament.


  2. George Rahbani says:

    Part of the confusion for Anglophone Canadians right now is that most of us aren’t prepared to have Pauline Marois and a Parti Quebecois government be elected on Sept. 4th, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s