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Thomas Mulcair's unorthodox path to NDP leadership

Deputy NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Oct. 7, 2011.


Traditional political orthodoxy says that during a U.S. presidential primary or a leadership race in the Canadian context, you spend the internal battle running toward your base and once the general election comes around, you tack toward the political centre.

Well, political orthodoxies don't apply to Tom Mulcair. Or more accurately (and less snarky), he realizes that if he follows a traditional path in the NDP leadership race – appealing to traditional New Democrat power bases among organized labour, Prairie farmers and other left of centre party activists – he has no chance of winning.

So he's decided to instead run against the people who make up the NDP.

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Organized labour? "We have to recognize the importance of the work .... and the heavy lifting done by the union movement to help the NDP, but I also know that we have to connect with Canadians as widely as possible, and that the only interest we should be serving is the public interest" In other words, Mulcair doesn't think the NDP can "connect with Canadians as widely as possible" if they maintain their close union ties.

Activists who want a big-federal government? Anti-Wall Street, anti-globalization types? Mulcair thinks the NDP can only succeed if "the approach that we take is one that shows that we are conscious that there are limits to what government can do, then the NDP will win the next election,"

He keeps going "In particular, Mr. Mulcair said he wants to lead a fiscally prudent government. 'We have to convince people that the NDP is capable of providing top-quality administration of their money, in the public interest.'"

That should inspire the kids in the streets. I can hear the chants now: "What do we want? Fiscal responsibility! When do we want it? By fiscal year 2015-2016! Fiscal prudence! Fiscal prudence!"

But Mulcair is also running against the Man. Or more accurately, the men – Roy Romanow, Ed Broadbent et al: "I have to be very understanding of the fact that the behaviour that I am witnessing where the old guard in the party, the party brass has simply said we don't want anything to change, we don't like the types of changes we have seen, we want to stay with one of our guys."

Ya, Romanow, Broadbent seem like agents of status quo. Now, I am obviously a NDP outsider so I have no idea what "changes" Mulcair is actually referring to. The main critique I have of Brian Topp's campaign so far is he hasn't uttered a single word that is in any way different from what Jack Layton said. It is impossible to imagine that Topp agreed with Layton on every single issue. But so be it – Topp is running to continue along what Layton built with the only change being the face on the poster. A solid strategy for the leadership if you're Topp.

I presume when Mulcair says that "the party brass has simply said we don't want anything to change, we don't like the types of changes we have seen" he means Topp wants to keep things where Layton had left them at his death? Ok, and Mulcair wants to take them in a different direction but the "party brass" doesn't agree? What else could he mean? Has Mulcair tried to usher in a bunch of changes since Layton's death that have flown under the radar but that Topp and the OLO are fighting against? So they've been thwarting Mulcair? Or – and I'm going out on a limb here, I know – is Mulcair defining "change" as "Mulcair" so the sentence should actually read "party brass has simply said we don't want Mulcair, we don't like the Mulcair we have seen, we want to stay with one of our guys"? Who knows.

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But in its totality, this is quite an unbelievable positioning for a leadership race. Remember, this is how the race is being defined BY MULCAIR – Topp, ya, you get the Layton legacy, the most respected figures in the NDP, traditional NDP support and traditional NDP positioning, I'm going to piss all over all of them, run against all of them and win the leadership with the support of, um, a lot of Quebec MPs who don't actually have many members to bring on board.

Mulcair may not have had a choice to do anything other than take this path. I just don't see how he wins the leadership with this strategy.

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