The NDP needs Mulcair to run, but it's hard to see how he can win

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tom Mulcair has no choice but to run for the New Democratic Party leadership. The party needs a strong candidate from Quebec, and it needs a competitive race, rather than a coronation of the front-runner, Brian Topp.

But it is difficult, and almost improbable, to see a path to victory for Mulcair, which is probably why he's been spending weeks channelling his inner Hamlet.

Part of Mulcair's problem is process, and part of it is personality - his own.

In terms of process, Mulcair won a small victory when he persuaded the NDP national council to postpone the leadership vote from January, the date suggested by Jack Layton in his political testament, to late March. That gave Mulcair two more months to organize the country and make himself betterknown to party members outside Quebec.

But he is seriously handicapped by the other process issue: this is a one-member, one-vote race, and all but 1,800 of the NDP's 90,000 members are outside Quebec. Stated another way, while 60 per cent of the party's parliamentary caucus is from Quebec, only two per cent of its members are in Quebec. The rest are primarily in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, provinces where the NDP has strong provincial associations and where it has formed governments. There is, of course, no provincial NDP in Quebec.

Moreover, when the NDP was co-founded by the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961, it was established that the trade unions would have a weighted 25 per cent of a leadership vote. And the unions are solidly behind Topp, recently executive director for the Toronto region of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. Mulcair has railed at the unfairness of this, but there's nothing to be done about it, and fundamentally Topp starts out nearly 25 points ahead. He's also been campaigning for the last month.

Mulcair's second problem is his personality, one that gives off a lot more heat than light. He is a polarizing rather than a unifying figure, the exact opposite of Layton. Leadership campaigns are all about winning friends and influencing people, and that's not Mulcair's strong suit.

With Mulcair, what you see is what you get: a skilled parliamentarian of obvious rhetorical skills. But he is also known for berating opponents in Question Period, and badgering witnesses in committees.

Well, if nothing else, we'll find out if Topp can take a punch. And it's important that he be tested. The obvious point of reference is Michael Ignatieff in the 2009 Liberal leadership, which was transformed into a coronation.

Mulcair has already turned his guns on Topp, dismissing him as a backroom boy "who has never been elected to anything in his life."

That's fair comment, and Topp, as the front-runner, is fair game. But here's the thing: Topp has spent his entire life in the NDP, much as Brian Mulroney, before winning the Conservative leadership in 1983, had spent his entire life in the Tory party.

It doesn't matter that most voters have never heard of Topp. Broader name recognition and the building of his brand can come later. What matters in the leadership is his network and levels of support among party members. His network is broad and his support is deep.

The network and support levels come from the places he's been, and the people he's seen.

First, in the 1990s he was deputy chief of staff to Roy Romanow in the Saskatchewan premier's office, where the fiscal story was one of balanced budgets. It's no accident that Romanow and former federal party leader Ed Broadbent have endorsed Topp, who happened to be sitting directly behind them at Layton's funeral. This is a party with an establishment, or at least a hierarchy, and Topp is the establishment candidate.

Topp later became a close member of Layton's inner circle, one of the tightest and most talented leaders' teams ever assembled in Canada.

None of them is taking sides publicly in the leadership campaign. They don't need to; everyone knows they're privately supporting Topp.

One who has taken sides with Topp over Mulcair is Raymond Guardia, the NDP's top organizer for Quebec. Though Guardia ran Mulcair's successful byelection campaign in 2007, he has a higher loyalty to Topp, who brought him into the party as a young organizer more than 20 years ago.

It also turns out that Topp's personal narrative qualifies him as a favourite son of Quebec even though, as Layton did, he lives in Toronto. Topp was raised on the South Shore of Montreal, and his mother tongue is French.

Which neutralizes Mulcair's competitive advantage in that department. All in all, Mulcair has a very steep hill to climb.

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