Thomas Mulcair won the leadership of the New Democratic Party Saturday night — giving Canada an Opposition Leader for really the first time since the 2011 general election.
That general election, you may or may not know, scrambled Canadian federal politics, not so much by giving the Conservative Party, so resurgent under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and so much closer to the American right than the British right in its back-from-the-dead revival, an outright parliamentary majority, but rather in reducing the long-standing Liberal Party to just 34 of the 308 seats in Canada’s Parliament and becoming the Official Opposition on the back of a popularity wave that started, of all places, in Quebec.
Odd surges have happened — and recently — in Canadian politics. The Conservative Party’s precursor, the Progressive Conservatives, were nearly wiped out, reduced to just two seats in the 1993 election, leaving the separatist Bloc Québécois as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. But this was the natural party of governance, if Canada ever had one — Mexico’s PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) may have governed for 71 years in the 20th century, but the Liberals governed Canada for nearly 69.
All throughout those long years of Liberal dominance and decline, the New Democratic Party stood by, stage left, prodding Canada toward ever more progressive policy. In its prior form as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, it was instrumental in the birth of universal health care in Canada and in its current form as the NDP, it has been a voice for federalist social democracy all the while — in the 1970s, it boosted Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal minority government and extracted pension indexing as a price for its support.
Of late, the Grits had suffered greatly under a string of weak leaders, first under the hapless Paul Martin, the understudy to the last true master of Canadian politics, Jean Chrétien. Martin’s pale imitation of Gordon Brown presaged Brown’s own ignominious defeat in the UK. The Liberals then trudged through the ever more hapless leadership of Stéphane Dion and then under the yet-more hapless — and Harvard haughty — Michael Ignatieff.
But the real actor in the 2011 election wasn’t any Liberal. It was Jack Layton, the late NDP leader.
The NDP waned throughout two decades, first under Brian Mulroney’s Tory reign in the 1980s and then under Chrétien’s dominance in the 1990s. It found its voice in Jack Layton when it elected him its leader in 2003, who steadily built increasing trust and success for the NDP, culminating in the 2011 breakout. If anything, Canadians in the last election entrusted to him — more than to the NDP — the 103 seats that his party now holds. No one, not even Layton probably, expected that Canada — including a Quebec that handed a federal landslide to a non-sovereigntist party for the first time in two decades — would warm so much to his campaign.
Take a look at the list of new NDP MPs in the current Parliament — it’s not the slate of candidates you might have picked if you had expected to have an arguable shot at governing.
His untimely death — Layton succumbed to cancer last August, at the height of his opportunity as the most popular politician in Canada — transformed one of the most bravura political performances in Canadian history into one of the greatest what-ifs, as documented in his final letter to Canadians.
So. Now to Mulcair.
Mulcair is now not only the NDP leader, but the Leader of the Opposition. Everyone agrees he has a tough road ahead, but given Harper’s majority, the next general election will not likely come until 2015, so there is much time for Mulcair to grow into the job, and he starts off as NDP leader with more goodwill than not. In time, we will know more fully how Mulcair defines himself — and is himself defined.
For now, I’m more struck by what Mulcair is not:
He is not clean-shaven. In fact, he would be the first bearded prime minister in over a century. That shouldn’t matter, but I can’t decide if it makes him seem somehow more authentic and genuine or if it makes him seem less serious a candidate for prime minister. He represents, as much as any of the other NDP leadership candidates, the sudden novelty of the NDP’s position.
He is not Brian Topp. Mulcair defeated party strategist Brian Topp on only the fourth ballot, although Mulcair went into the weekend’s voting as favorite and came out as the leader. But Topp’s campaign, which was supported by some of the older barons of the NDP, did not sell an incredibly subtle pitch — it painted Mulcair as a leader who would pull the NDP too far to the center and further away from the values that have made the NDP such an authentic voice for social progressivism (although the majority who backed the more centrist Mulcair would argue that it’s made the NDP unelectable as a true party of government). Mulcair’s win effectively locks the NDP on a path that’s committed to becoming a party of governance, not just a party of protest.
He is not from English Canada. This works, probably, to Mulcair’s favor, given that the NDP owe their 2011 electoral surge to Quebec, where the NDP had never fully registered as a political force. But Mulcair had previously served in the province’s not-so-popular Liberal government, however, under not-so-popular Liberal premier Jean Charest (who, in yet another bizarre twist of Canadian politics, once served as the leader of the two-member post-Mulroney Progressive Conservative caucus back in the 1990s). So the NDP leader was, until 2006, a Liberal, which brings me to my next point…
He is not Bob Rae. It is another weird twist of Canadian politics that the interim Liberal leader (and, increasingly, it looks like the person who will become the permanent Liberal leader after that contest, scheduled to be held in 2013) is a former NDP premier of Ontario. While the NDP has been busy choosing a new leader, Rae has warmed to the role of the unofficial leader of the opposition, taking the fight to Harper’s government in the absence of an opposition leader from a party that’s never filled the role of the Official Opposition. Although Mulcair will certainly waste no time in providing a robust contrast to Harper, it seems unlikely that Rae will suddenly fall back. With the merger of the eastern Progressive Conservatives and the western Canadian Alliance into today’s Conservative Party only nine years ago, it is not out of the question to suppose that the way back for Canada’s left is a Liberal-NDP merger. This seems all the more natural given that the Liberal leader is formerly of the Ontario NDP and the NDP leader is formerly a Quebec Liberal. Its yin-yang is all too perfect to ignore.
He is not Jack Layton. This is a point of which everyone is so acutely aware that it is rarely made in the open. In many ways, it is patently unfair to compare Mulcair to his predecessor… and yet. The ghost of Jack Layton and the great “what if” will be difficult to vanquish — Layton, with his calm clarion call for progressive values and the kind of respect that made him the odds-on favorite to become the next prime minister, embodied how the NDP could be both a voice for social progress and a party of government.
That skill took Layton a lifetime to develop –and it won’t come easily to Mulcair.