Mulcair’s dismissal is latest escalation in NDP’s civil war

Image description: a close up of Thomas Mulcair’s face, from bearded chin to eyebrows. Mulcair looks happy, euphoric even. There are smile creases around his eyes and his teeth are showing. The lighting is low and blue-tinged. (Image credit: Youtube)

It’s trite and commonplace, in the aftermath of a surprising turn of events, to say that we all should have seen it coming. And many pundits, struggling to explain the stunning rejection of Thomas Mulcair by the NDP’s membership, are already hastening to reassure us all that the signs were there all along that Mulcair was done for.

Chantel Hébert, writing in the Star, insists that the “writing was on the wall for Mulcair”, and that it should have been obvious to everybody that the record-high turnout for the NDP convention foreshadowed a shakeup at the top. The pundits on CPAC, reeling from the shock of the result, anxiously rattled off a long list of signs that things hadn’t been going the way Angry Tom had planned.

But all those same pundits had spent the last few weeks talking about a hypothetical 70% approval rating threshold, and whether or not Mulcair would be able to cling to power had he failed to achieve that magic number. A lot of attention was paid to many scenarios, from a commanding Mulcair victory to a mid-50s approval, but not one professional commentator I heard or read even suggested that outright rejection at the hands of the party was possible.

In retrospect, yes, it seems obvious that Mulcair was doomed. But if we’re gonna get all retrospectively prognosticatory, why cast our gaze back only a few days? Why not cast it back even further than last October’s disastrous election night, in which the NDP lost more than half its seats and its best-ever chance at forming government?

We should have seen it all coming the day that Naomi Klein launched her Leap Manifesto with the support of an all-star line-up of Canadian activists and leftists.

In case you’ve forgotten, the Manifesto, which you can read here, was unveiled in the midst of last year’s election campaign, and was read by many observers as a direct repudiation of the NDP’s platform. The NDP, you’ll recall, was running a tepid, cautious, thoroughly middle-of-the-road campaign, eager to maintain their early lead in the polls and create an image that they were responsible and ready to govern. This plan must have looked great on paper at NDP headquarters, but was faring disastrously in the real world.

For one thing, the strategy required Mulcair and his team to take precarious positions straddling both sides of some of the most contentious issues of the campaign. They pledged, for instance, that they would balance the budget while introducing the two largest new social programs of a generation, pharmacare and national daycare. They tried to thread a vanishingly thin needle on the issue of military intervention and when it was appropriate. And, of course, they did their best to reconcile talk of a more environmentalist approach to government with their policy of getting the tar sands to market.

This particular balancing act caused them a lot of grief, especially early in the campaign. By mid-August, I was drawing attention to the fact that there was a war on for the soul of the NDP.

Celebrity candidate Linda McQuaig was hastily gagged and hidden from the press’s view after she had the temerity to suggest that at least some of the tar sands would have to stay in the ground if humanity wants to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This is about as scientifically controversial as suggesting that the earth orbits the sun, but both the Liberals and Conservatives pounced, with Justin Trudeau deriding McQuaig’s position as “extreme” and Stephen Harper citing the quote as evidence the NDP would “wreck our economy”.

Mulcair publicly threw McQuaig under the bus, and insisted that the NDP were all for “sustainable” and “responsible” development of the tar sands. He even tried to sell the NDP as the party that could get oil infrastructure built, citing Harper’s miserable record when it came to winning social license for pipelines.

Understandably, this position didn’t exactly sit well with much of the NDP’s traditional base. Mulcair found himself hounded on the campaign trail by protesters demanding that he reject the Energy East pipeline and take a stronger stand against the tar sands.

It was into this context that the Leap Manifesto was launched. With its calls for a complete moratorium on pipeline construction and a rapid transition to a carbon-free economy, the Manifesto was a breath of freshly idealistic air in the midst of a fetidly pragmatic campaign, which by this point had degenerated into a three-way dogfight between the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP.

But the fact that it was launched by Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis, both of whom have strong connections to the NDP (Lewis’s father, Stephen, was a long-time leader of the Ontario NDP and an outspoken advocate of the Manifesto as well) was not lost on media commentators, who fretted nervously over the internal tensions in the party:

Just as Tom Mulcair attempts to convince Canadians that the NDP is a safe, moderate choice in the Oct. 19 election, some of his party’s highest profile supporters are issuing a manifesto calling for a radical restructuring of the country’s economy.

The “leap manifesto,” signed by more than 100 actors, musicians, labour unions, aboriginal leaders, environmentalists and other activists, aims to pressure the next federal government to wean Canada entirely off fossil fuels in as little as 35 years and, in the process, upend the capitalist system on which the economy is based…

The dramatic transformation envisioned in the manifesto is in stark contrast to the pragmatic platform Mulcair is offering: balanced budgets, an openness to free trade deals, sustainable development of Alberta’s oil sands, no tax hikes except for a “slight and graduated” increase in the corporate tax rate.

Smug condescension aside, the Globe nailed the glaring contradiction the Manifesto presented. It highlighted the gaping abyss between the NDP’s traditional left/socialist grassroots and the party’s leadership and executive committee, which was desperate for victory and seemed willing to be willing to turn the NDP into a kind of counterfeit Liberal Party if that was what it took to win.

The Manifesto was not the opening salvo in the NDP’s civil war; discontent has been brewing in the party for many years, over issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hell, during the Ontario provincial election of 2014, Stephen Lewis’s wife, Michele Landsberg, along with a few dozen other prominent Dippers wrote a public letter castigating provincial party leader Andrea Horwath for her tepid, disappointing, centrist campaign.

But the Manifesto represented a dramatic escalation of the internal conflict. For the first time, the leftist wing of the NDP was essentially putting forward its own platform, not caring that it may undercut what it viewed as the ineffective and neoliberal leadership of the party. The divisions within the NDP were laid bare for all the world to see. No wonder the party badly underperformed expectations in October.

Fast-forward to this past weekend in Edmonton, when the Leap Manifesto was referred to the party’s riding associations for review and discussion, with a view to incorporating some or all of it into the party’s policy at 2018’s NDP convention. Meanwhile, Mulcair got his marching orders from the party’s membership, although he obstinately suggested that he’ll hang on as leader for another twenty-four months until his replacement is selected.

One can draw a straight line from Klein and Lewis’s September 15 announcement of the Manifesto to Mulcair’s turfing earlier today. Both were escalations of an internal conflict that threatens to tear the NDP apart.

Already, the more centrist wing of the party is making its concerns clear. On resolution after resolution, delegates from Alberta voiced their concerns that the party didn’t care about the economic struggles that they are facing and failed to recognize the need to continue extracting oil.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley make a speech at the convention this weekend which aggressively pushed pipeline construction and tar sands expansion – a speech which was closely followed by an address from Stephen Lewis, who made a passionate case for rapid action on climate change. The Edmonton Journal characterized the party’s adoption of a pro-Manifesto resolution as a “stab in the back” to Notley. And although Notley may soon be the only NDP premier in Canada, she finds herself out of touch with the direction in which the party is moving (for now).

Pushback from the pro-business neoliberal centrist wing of the party is inevitable, and it’s gonna be ugly. The leadership contest is going to be a bruiser, and it’s hard to see how the NDP will be able to come out of it both united and strong. A split in the party is already in evidence – 54% of NDP voters recently said they were satisfied with the Trudeau government – and one can envision the Alberta NDP taking the Calgary Herald’s advice and effectively declaring its independence from its federal cousin, much as the B.C. and Québec Liberals did long ago.

There are a lot of criticisms that can be levelled against Thomas Mulcair – and I’ve made quite a few of them myself. But he did prove himself capable of holding together the disparate wings of the party, at least for the first few years of his leadership.

However, last year’s disappointing platform and election campaign demonstrated that he was attempting the impossible in trying to hold together a coalition of leftists, socialists, environmentalists, centrists, neoliberals, and power-hungry pragmatists. The Leap Manifesto’s introduction last September made that point clearly, and its effective adoption by the NDP convention today hammered it home unequivocally.

There’s still a war on for the soul of the NDP. Today’s events represent a stunning escalation in this power struggle. Although at this point it’s impossible to say which side will emerge the victor, the Layton/Mulcair/Notley centrist faction has been powerfully repudiated by the party’s membership, and is now fighting from a position of weakness.

Whether this will doom the party to obscurity or revitalize it and renew its chances at victory is something for the pundits to endlessly debate (and doubtless get wrong). I won’t venture a guess until the dust has settled further. All that’s certain at this point is that the next few years will be interesting for the party, to say the least.


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