Takeaway from the NDP debrief: 'Keep building, keep dreaming.'

Instead of tough talk, an NDP session on the collapse of the 2015 campaign turned tame

Tom Mulcair watches the campaign review during the 2016 NDP convention. (Jason Franson for Maclean's)

Tom Mulcair watches the campaign review. (Jason Franson for Maclean’s)

When Rebecca Blaikie took the podium at the NDP’s convention in Edmonton on Friday evening to introduce a session on what went so badly wrong for the party in last fall’s election, there was, if only briefly, a sense of nervous expectation, even tension, in the convention centre air.

As party president, Blaikie had led a task force that toured the country hearing party members’ grievances about the campaign that saw the NDP collapse from first place in the opinion polls when the writ was dropped to third when the real votes were counted. Recrimination seemed to be the order of the hour.

And yet, as she summarized the report’s findings, much of it factually sobering, the delegates found reason to clap now and then. They managed a quite convincing cheer when Blaikie spoke of the NDP’s part in creating the climate of progressive discontent that led to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives being soundly defeated. “We helped to make that happen,” she said, and the delegates gave her—or perhaps themselves—a nice round of applause.

Surprisingly often, New Democrats seem fully capable of separating the Conservatives’ defeat, in their minds, from the Liberals’ victory. Theirs can be an odd sort of partisanship.

The look-on-the-bright-side undercurrent in Blaikie’s reception set the tone for the session that followed. Few of the delegates who stepped up to the microphones had anything very harsh to say. Wayne Marsden, who was the NDP MP for a Hamilton riding from 2006 until he lost last fall, pointed out that the 44 seats the NDP salvaged in 2015 wasn’t nearly as bad as the 1993 outcome, when they were reduced to just nine.

Marsden suggested a big problem with the NDP strategy was that it was “predicated on Trudeau falling on his face.” When he didn’t, the NDP didn’t have a backup plan. The notion that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s campaign team couldn’t adjust on the fly to what was happening—or, in the case of Trudeau remaining upright, not happening—was raised repeatedly.

Sarah Jordinson, who managed a losing NDP campaign in an Ottawa riding, struggled for the right word for the quality of nimbleness the campaign lacked: “nimblism”? Newfoundland NDP veteran Lorraine Michael did better: “We have to build in flexibility.”

NDP Party President Rebecca Blakely speaks during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 8, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean's Magazine.

Rebecca Blakie led a task force on the collapse of the NDP’s campaign. (Jason Franson for Maclean’s)

It was mostly pretty tame stuff. Only a few delegates tried to take a tougher line, but their criticisms didn’t build, as they were invariably followed by more of the mild comments. And Blaikie’s task force was repeatedly and fulsomely praised for its work. For anyone hoping Mulcair survives the vote to be held on Sunday that will effectively decide whether he remains leader, the campaign review session’s genial tone had to come as a relief.

There were a few expressions of deeper anxiety over the campaign’s failure. Several delegates raised the question of the NDP allowing the Liberals to benefit from strategic voting—the pattern that saw voters the NDP thought were rightfully theirs switch to the Liberals out of a calculated determination to back whatever party seemed most likely to beat the Tories.

The symbol for this frustration, felt by many New Democrats, was a mass-produced NDP campaign sign that said simply “Stop Harper,” without specifying which alternative to choose. “When I saw the ‘Stop Harper’ signs around Tom [Mulcair],” said Herb Wiseman of Peterborough, Ont., “I was pretty sure we were not going to be successful in this election.”

There was little talk during the session about what had been billed as a powerful current running through this convention: the desire of many New Democrats for the party to stake out more bracingly left-wing policies. When it wrapped up, there was no sense that the delegates, as a whole, had converted their disappointment about the last campaign into a willingness to take a harder line. Blaikie sent them out for an evening of socializing, and presumably talking about how they will vote on Mulcair’s future, with the upbeat exhortation, “Keep building, keep dreaming.”

View a photo gallery from Day 1 of the convention

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