For those who greeted the news with surprise that federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair had been given his walking papers by party faithful over the weekend — don’t be too surprised. Fail dismally as a leadership candidate in a federal election — for any party — and the word “inevitable” should literally be branded on your forehead.
That is, at least when you’re referring to the past three decades. Here in Alberta in the recent past, during the ill-fated last years of a decrepit PC dynasty, lacklustre leaders and premiers were being shuffled out the door with a regularity that no doubt contributed to their party’s eventual staggering defeat at the hands of Rachel Notley’s provincial NDP. Across the country, there are numerous other examples of leadership candidates being quietly — or not so quietly, as the case may be — shown the door at the conclusion of a failed campaign.
Traditionally, federal politics hasn’t always worked that way in Canada. There are many examples of leaders — the CCF’s Tommy Douglas comes to mind, as does the Conservative’s John Diefenbaker — who spent many years in opposition through successive elections without achieving real power, while still maintaining popularity in the party ranks. Both are, perhaps, special cases — Diefenbaker had once been prime minister, while Douglas enjoyed a towering reputation as a man of social conscience achieved through years in provincial politics, while representing a party that almost no one at the time considered a real threat to achieve majority government.
At the same time, no one would argue leadership turnover hasn’t accelerated in Canada in recent decades. Coming back to the inevitable for the moment, Mulcair’s fall from grace would seem to have been recognized by almost everyone but himself, as it always seems to be for leaders who apparently can’t appreciate the writing on the wall. Former prime minister Stephen Harper, for instance — a possessor of sharp political instincts no matter what your verdict on his government or leadership capabilities — was at least intelligent enough to realize on election night his time at the top of Canada’s federal Conservative establishment had definitely run its course. Not so the stodgy Mulcair, whose centrist leanings and fiery tirades in the House failed to inspire more than a fraction of Canadians to cast a ballot in his direction in 2015.
Instead, despite taking it on the nose in the 2015 federal election, Mulcair — like others before him — pledged nauseatingly to soldier on as leader of the federal NDP. It would take an embarrassing slap in the face from the party rank-and-file at the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton over the weekend before a stubborn Mulcair would be forced to throw in the towel. So much for the man many had touted as Canada’s next prime minister, and potentially the first to be swaddled in NDP orange. Stepping aside on election night, as did his sworn political enemy, might have saved this semi-socialist Ozymandias a modicum of face. No one wants to make political history for failure — the unfortunate Mulcair is now the first federal leader ever to be rejected by a majority of delegates (52 per cent) at a party’s national convention. So much for that political legacy — next stop the talk-circuit before cashing in on a bitter autobiography that nobody reads.
The other fallout from this week’s convention, the adoption of the so-called Leap Manifesto — an aggressively-socialist document that in a modern context does the previous CCF’s radical Regina Manifesto proud — will be leading the federal party away from Mulcair’s drive to the centre that so dominated his leadership style.
Anti-pipeline and anti-fossil fuel rhetoric may appeal to the more deeply left-of-centre core of a left-leaning party, but it is likely to do untold further damage to the already-sullied image of Alberta’s Notley NDP government, through no fault of its own.
Probably dripping with anticipation over the decision, it hasn’t taken long for Alberta’s conservative opposition to begin lambasting Notley’s government over the manifesto’s implications — which incidently calls for a full transition away from fossil fuels in a decade — even though the provincial NDP share only a passing affiliation with the federal party.
The apparent surging of leftist factions in the federal party, while probably pleasing to those elements that desire it (such as the fringe Socialist Caucus, who took fist-pumping agitation to new heights in Edmonton) will do little to help appeal to more mainstream Canadians looking for a leftist alternative to the federal Liberals in a future election.
Not unlike a deep drive to the right in the U.S. Republican Party under a leader like Donald Trump, in democracies parties that increasingly attempt to please only their more radical elements while ignoring the mainstream majority are ultimately doomed to perennial failure.
Unfortunately for the NDP, ignoring that truth has often proven to be a recipe for political suicide in Canadian politics.
As for Thomas Mulcair, that red light you saw in the back of the room on election night wasn’t a dizzying strobe indicating unprecedented success.
It was marked, “Exit”. You should have used it.