Understanding the NDP Convention – Alex Cullen

Andrew Foulds, TBSN, Tom Mulcair NDP Leader, John Rafferty MP TBRR
Andrew Foulds, TBSN, Tom Mulcair NDP Leader, John Rafferty MP TBRR

New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair in a lighter moment at the NNL Office in Thunder Bay
New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair in a lighter moment at the NNL Office in Thunder Bay

Analysis and Insight into NDP Edmonton Convention

OTTAWA – POLITICS – I was a delegate from the Ottawa West-Nepean NDP to the recent federal NDP convention in Edmonton – this is my take on what happened there: Mulcair, Leap Manifesto, Notley, Lewis, etc.

Over 1800 delegates attended this event, the first federal convention since the 2015 election with its disappointing (for the NDP) results. Our constitution has an automatic provision for a question at such a convention on whether or not to have a leadership review. For a lot of NDPers I knew, they blamed Mulcair for the election loss. So Tom, upon entering the convention, had to deal with this anger.

Of course the mistakes in the campaign weren’t all his. The NDP entered the campaign in solid second place, had a progressive platform focussed on childcare, pharmacare, $15 minimum wage, higher corporate taxes, etc. The Harper Conservatives were targetting Liberal Leader Justine Trudeau as “not ready for prime time”, so the NDP brain trust felt that Tom needed to be shown as PM-ready, and decided to run a front-runner’s campaign. And it seemed to work for the first month of the campaign.

I hate front-runner campaigns – playing it “safe” because victory seems near. It makes the campaign vulnerable to a more dynamic campaign that takes the initiative. We saw this in the last B.C. election, where the NDP lost after initially leading in the polls. And it happened here.

Unfortunately our campaign was wounded by a series of mis-steps as well: Tom not answering media questions at the campaign start (he was hurrying off to Flora Macdonald’s funeral), the NDP refusing to participate in a women’s leaders debate (because Harper wouldn’t be there). There were others: the biggest being Tom’s flat performance in the televised Leaders Debates (he was told to act Prime Ministerial). And then losing traction in Quebec, which lost our party the credibility to be the alternative to Harper. People wanted to get rid of Harper and went with the person they felt could do that, and it wasn’t Tom Mulcair and the NDP anymore.

We expected better from both Tom and the central campaign. And it was worse because we were starting from a much higher position than ever before.

So it was a bad campaign – then what? The people who ran the campaign moved (or got moved), the party did a campaign review to identify lessons, and Tom went around the country meeting New Democrats to take responsibility and campaign for his job. One factor in his favour was that there was no obvious replacement for him and he was performing well in the House of Commons (his best asset).

But clearly Tom Mulcair arrived at the convention wounded as Leader of the NDP. However, the coup de grace was the convention debate over the Leap Manifesto.

The Leap Manifesto came out in mid-campaign by a group of NDPers rightly concerned about climate change and perturbed by the perceived centralist campaign of the NDP. Its timing was not helpful to the NDP campaign – it helped validate that the Liberals were more “progressive” by questioning our campaign values.

It is also presents a very radical notion that, given climate change, no more fossil fuels (the main contributor to greenhouse gases that lead to climate change) should be extracted in Canada, i.e. no more oil sands or other oil and natural gas development and therefore no more pipelines. Clearly, this would have a major impact in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, where oil and gas development exists or is occurring.

The Leap Manifesto was/is attractive to many New Democrats who are concerned about climate change. There are other (14 other) elements to this manifesto, but the climate change element is its most salient feature.

The Manifesto arrived at the Edmonton Convention via a resolution that sought to finesse the issue, by recommending that the Convention refer it to all the NDP riding associations across Canada to discuss, amend or reject, with the matter to be resolved at the next (2018) federal NDP convention.

But the 2016 federal convention was in Alberta, chosen because there was an NDP government in power. And that NDP government, led by Rachel Notley, saw the Leap Manifesto both as a threat to Alberta’s economy and to their political fortunes. They came out to the convention, guns blazing, talking about practical plans to green their economy while at the same time calling for an oil pipeline to tidewater in order to sell their oil. The Alberta economy was suffering and jobs were at stake.

This issue exposed the divide(s) within the NDP: the BC NDP are dead set against any pipeline coming to BC ports, given the risk of pollution from oil spills. Environmentalists decried using oil sands given the GHG costs of extracting this oil. Ontario and Quebec NDP spoke against any pipeline crossing their terrain, threatening communities and habitat (conveniently forgetting the more dangerous alternative of oil transported by railcars).

It was a perfect storm, and it sank Tom Mulcair. All he had done was commit himself to listening to the party as it debated this issue and came to a resolution. It didn’t help him with the Leap Manifesto crowd (who weren’t his friends in the first place) and alienated the Alberta NDP. The result: 52% of the voting delegates said yes to a leadership review. Tom’s role in Jack Layton’s project – to bring the NDP to government – was done.

We in the NDP are now faced with 2 years of leadership campaigning and debate about the Leap Manifesto: how to deal with climate change. Hopefully the NDP can grow from this. The 2 years will provide opportunity for leadership candidates to prove themselves, increase membership, and raise our profile – all good things. The debate over the Leap Mamnifesto will be more difficult, as it has exposed not only divides in the NDP, but the real hard choices that are needed to deal with climate change. That, in my view, is the larger challenge.

Onwards and upwards.

Alex Cullen


Alex Cullen is a community activist, and politician based on Ottawa Ontario.

Views expressed by writers and columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NetNewsLedger.com