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The NDP can polish its brand - and Mulcair must refurbish his

Thomas Mulcair, NDP deputy leader and candidate in the riding of Outremont, talks with a supporter during Canada's federal election day in Montreal, Monday, May 2, 2011.


The federal NDP has launched into a game-changing leadership contest, one that promises to be important to the future of Canada's political landscape.

Blessed with more media profile and financial resources than ever before, the New Democratic Party is not just choosing a leader, it is making a fundamental choice about its path forward – and the stakes couldn't be higher.

On the one hand, the party could choose to proclaim that its extraordinary success on May 2 proves that it has been right all along and really needs no change. Or it could use the fact that more people are paying attention to what it has to say to make an aggressive push to own the centre of the spectrum – and along the way rub some of the ideological edges off its brand.

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Nothing can provoke an existentialist crisis as much as a leadership race. The NDP candidates and members may choose to spend the time speaking to and battling one another, and largely ignoring the rest of the population. Or they might look at this as an opportunity to showcase a new, more broadly tuned identity, in an effort to prevent any erosion of their support in the polls and to ensure a new standard of competitiveness, not only in Quebec but elsewhere too.

It's not hard to figure out which approach makes the most sense.

Party president Brian Topp is out of the gate first and off to a good start, in my estimation. In his news conference, he was anything but a vitriolic renegade or pious ideologue, the postures that have made voters shy away from the NDP in the past. Nor did he look or sound like a nefarious, snarling union boss as the Conservatives seem to want to portray him.

His manner was a blend of humility, optimism and humour – the latter deployed sometimes at his own expense. He talked about wanting to prepare his party to govern for all Canadians, implicitly acknowledging that this hasn't always been the NDP's focus. He made it clear that win or lose, he will be a force for unity in his party, adroitly ensuring that a similar commitment is table stakes for any candidates who follow him into the race.

The most frequently discussed other candidate, Thomas Mulcair, is not yet in the race but may already be losing ground. Madonna, one of the most successful personal brands in the history of modern entertainment, lamented that we reduce public figures to small, easy to understand caricatures. If so, the one-sentence description that routinely follows Mr. Mulcair's name in news stories seems to say only two things about him: He's from Quebec and he's had trouble making friends.

I'm certain Mr. Mulcair is a man of many impressive qualities, but the Mulcair brand needs a refurbish – and pretty fast. It's not that being seen as crabby is fatal, but it usually doesn't draw the biggest crowds. And being a Quebecker is obviously a good thing given today's NDP coalition, but being able to connect with British Columbians and folks in downtown Toronto is no less important.

I confess to knowing next to nothing about the membership dynamics within the NDP and suspect that, like many Canadians, I'll come to know a lot more about them in the months ahead. In the meantime, this race has unusual importance for the country; here's hoping it draws as much talent, media attention and public interest as it deserves.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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