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A different kind of NDP

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Unendingly boring and endlessly fascinating. It beats me how a political convention can be both these things at once, but the NDP Leadership convention, as broadcast on CBC yesterday, managed to leave me with both these impressions.

Through it all, the mantle of leadership moved relentlessly toward Thomas Malcolm, ending in his fourth ballot victory with 57.2 per cent of the vote, against long-time party organizer Brian Topp.

Peter Mansbridge et al did their best to maintain an aura of suspense throughout the 12 hours of broadcasting. All were loathe to concede that the outcome was actually predestined, at least insofar as over 90 per cent of the votes were concerned. Those were the advance ballots cast by 55,000 members before the convention ‘s opening. It was the second choices of those who had voted for candidates who fell off the ballot or withdrew — five of the seven — that cinched the outcome.

Out of it, a different kind of NDP has emerged. Members rejected the advice of the party establishment to stick with the social democratic principles that had been bedrock in the NDP. They preferred to flirt with the ideas of relative newcomers like Mulcair and Nathan Cullen who preached, each in different ways, of the need for the NDP to broaden its appeal and opt for a more centrist vision if it hopes to turn its new-found status as Official Opposition into a launching pad for power at the next election.

Only Cullen went so far as to advocate outright cooperation in selecting joint candidates with the Liberals in ridings held by Conservatives. His surprising third place finish is a tribute both to his own effectiveness on the platform, and the willingness of many Dippers to give serious thought to finding ways of uniting the “progressive vote.”

The fact Mulcair, in his first interview as NDP leader, rejected the possibility of cooperation with the Liberals and Greens does not mean some type of alliance cannot eventually emerge.

Mulcair had to play the party unity tune, and he did so by pledging ever-lasting loyalty to core NDP principles. Instead of moving to the centre, he wants to bring the centre to the NDP. His position is categorical, he said, that there will be no merger with the Liberals. “We tried that, and they turned up their noses,” he said. Yet the pressure to win (something new in NDP circles) will become powerfully compelling as time goes on.

Bob Rae, for his part, seemed a little disappointed with Mulcair’s stance  in an interview he gave Sunday morning. Rae noted that Canada is into a four or five party system, suggesting that the making of alliances will become a necessity if the Conservatives are to be dislodged.

The TV coverage of this convention, tedious as it was, had one interesting new feature. Twitter messages crawled across the screen, spontaneous comments from people expressing their 140-character views of the world. A refreshing innovation, and another example of how social media are changing our conventional view of the world.

A closing note: The convention produced a second surprise, after Nathan Cullen’s remarkable performance: Martin Singh, the immensely personable sixth-place finisher. Asked how he felt about his quite respectable showing, he cracked,  “I didn’t die but I went to heaven.” Surely the best turn of phrase of the convention.

Flutterings and flops at the NDP convention

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The fight for the leadership of Canada’s New Democratic Party is in its final 24 hours, but there are signs aplenty of flutterings and flops among the seven candidates still in the race.

Bran Topp, the backroom fixer who was the first out of the gate in the race to replace Jack Layton, must have embarrassed his establishment supporters (Shirley Douglas, daughter of the sainted Tommy Douglas put his name in nomination) with the dullest performance in an afternoon of candidate speeches. Having no experience as an MP, he was unable to connect emotionally with the convention. Topp made a great mistake by not running in the recent Toronto-Danforth by-election to name a replacement to Layton. Topp would have won, and he would have come into the convention with the momentum of that victory.

(Disclosure: I joined the NDP a few months ago out of exhaustion with the failures of the Liberal party, and a conviction that Thomas Mulcair offers the best hope of a progressive alternative to the ruling Conservatives of Stephen Harper.)

But my man disappointed me with his platform performance. He came on stage after a long and elaborate build-up that began with a musical entourage and included a video that was so badly produced and over-exposed that it was painful to watch. Topping it off, he raced through his speech, reading it with eyes downcast on the text, his time having evaporated with clunky and clumsy introductions.

Pat Martin, the Winnipeg NDP MP, summed it up succinctly: “Tom Mulcair is a great orator and that wasn’t great oratory.”

The third of the front-runners, Peggy Nash, had her own problems. She had far too many people take up precious time with boring nomination speeches. She ran out of time, too, although to give her credit, her apparently extemporaneous speech (is there such a thing at leadership conventions?) was delivered smoothly and effectively.

Mulcair and Nash both reminded me of the Stephane Dion fiasco at the Liberal convention in 2006 when Dion allowed the cheers of his supporters to steal valuable speaking time. He got cut off in mid-sentence when his time was up.

The most refreshing speech of the afternoon came from the candidate who is bound to be the first knocked off the ballot, Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh. His animated video about his personal life and his political convictions was a delight to watch. His 10-year-old son rendered a great fiddle performance and Martin spoke earnestly and knowingly of the issues. He was especially appealing when he spoke of his experiences in his father’s pharmacy that led him to advocate a national pharmacare program. It would be the final plank in the national healthcare program launched in the 1960s by Tommy Douglas.

My hunch is that none of this will greatly affect the way delegates are voting. The majority are already decided on who they’ll support, and the convention is designed to give each candidate the opportunity to lure over those already leaning to their side. Mulcair came on stage with the aura of a winner, and it’ll probably carry him through in the end.

The real test will come in Parliament, and across the country in the three years and a bit remaining before the next election. Thomas Mulcair’s ranking as the senior NDP member in Quebec, and a former provincial Liberal, might be what is needed to bring together the progressive majority in this country behind a single party.

Voting started at 5 p.m. Friday, with the results of the 55,000 advance votes scheduled to be announced at 10 a.m., (ET) on Saturday.The partying hits high gear Saturday night.