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How does the NDP begin its climb back to relevance?

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former New Democratic Party national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.

The weekend before last year's Oct. 19 election, before voting began, all three parties believed they knew what the results would be. They had the latest public opinion polls plus their own internal surveys. The Liberals understood that a last-minute movement of voters to them from the NDP plus the enthusiasm of younger voters for Justin Trudeau meant a majority was theirs. The Conservatives realized their government was as dead as Monty Python's parrot – kaput, defunct. And the NDP leadership believed it was going to win easily, at least in Quebec.

Both Tom Mulcair and his team revelled in this expectation. The leader waxed excitedly about the huge turnout for his meetings in Quebec, surely presaging the NDP's second successive sweep of the province. A senior adviser assured anguished New Democrats that 50 Quebec seats were in the bag. Since virtually every public poll agreed the NDP was by then chopped liver, partisans listened but more plausibly believed the campaign was now totally delusional.

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In 2011, Quebec had delivered an astonishing 58 of its 75 seats to Jack Layton and his Quebec lieutenant Tom Mulcair. Never before had the NDP held more than a single Quebec seat.

Last October, instead of 50 seats as the campaign leaders believed, the NDP won 16. It seems those running the campaign had pretty well lost touch with reality. Campaign bubbles can do that.

Last week a new poll suggested that the Liberals were still flying high. They had 49 per cent approval, the Conservatives were holding at 32 per cent. The NDP had plummeted from the 19 per cent it received in the election to a derisory 10 per cent. Only twice before in its 54-year history, in the elections of 1993 and 2000, has the NDP ever sunk this low.

So while the Conservatives are holding their entire 2015 election support, the NDP has collapsed. It seems that about half of all last October's NDP voters have now migrated to the Liberals, while the Conservative base remains unshaken at about a third of the electorate.

Now I don't blame the NDP defectors. It's undeniable that the Trudeau government has to date been a breath of fresh air, although it's increasingly obvious that much trouble lies ahead for them. They have bitten off far too many new challenges, at least some of which are going to return to bite them back, as we've already been seeing.

On the other hand, look at the last couple of weeks alone. Omar Khadr will no longer be harassed by his own government. Refugees will begin getting health care again. On two of the most dishonourable Harper files, the Liberals have rushed in to restore decency and humanity. No wonder many NDP voters are gratified and have moved to back the new government. I presume (pray?) many of them can be won back over time, but their very fickleness reflects poorly on their commitment to the NDP.

So the Liberals are in good shape for now and the Conservatives smugly recognize that they'll always be likely to get around a third of the national vote. So all they need is another 4 to 7 per cent support and they're back in majority territory. It ain't impossible, sports fans.

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And how does the NDP begin its climb back to relevance? Well, there's a ready-made opportunity for the rejuvenation to be launched. In April, the NDP holds its regular convention, this time in Edmonton. It's universally being seen as a leadership convention, because the delegates will indeed have the opportunity to re-affirm their confidence in their leader, as I fully expect them to do. But if Tom Mulcair is smart – and we all know he's that – he'll move the spotlight away from the leadership question and on to more substantial areas.

I continue to be obsessed with how little new thinking is being done to help us confront the vast challenges we face. Everyone knows what they are. No one seems to have creative solutions or policies for them. Bernie Sanders's resurrection of democratic socialism in the United States offers, I'm afraid, little more than the welfare state. In much of Europe, the refugee/immigration crisis has given rise to semi-fascism that has intimidated most social-democratic parties.

Has the great history of socialism no insights to offer us at a critical time like this? Is Tom Mulcair thinking about such issues? Does he have a plan to restore the party's confidence in him? We will know soon enough. That means April in Edmonton.

Mr. Mulcair has certainly insisted he's open to new ideas. This is the exact time to demonstrate it. He tried playing it safe and it badly boomeranged. If I were advising him, I'd strongly urge that he and the party should boldly organize a convention that excites NDP members and former supporters with feisty approaches to some of these crises. Let there be open forums for presentations and debates based on the latest thinking taking place on the democratic left. Let the renewal begin.

Make New Democrats proud of their party again, Mr. Mulcair, and make them confident again in you. It shouldn't be very hard to do.

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