A no-name race to replace Jack Layton

Most Canadians couldn’t pick Thomas Mulcair or Brian Topp out of a police lineup

A no-name race to replace Jack Layton

Jacques Boissinot/CP

These days, after question period, Thomas Mulcair gives a little nothing-has-changed statement, through teeth clenched into an approximation of a cheerful smile, before he comments to reporters on the issues of the day. What hasn’t changed is Mulcair’s indecision over whether he’ll run for the leadership of the New Democratic Party. He is widely assumed to be a candidate. He isn’t a candidate yet. He’ll get back to us.

So will Niki Ashton, Paul Dewar, Peter Julian, Robert Chisholm and maybe more. Decent people, maybe more than that. But not really names to set the heart pounding. “There’s no excitement about this race,” a veteran New Democrat told me. “People aren’t excited about this. But it makes sense that they wouldn’t be. Their guy just died.”

Indeed. Jack Layton is gone barely five weeks. The NDP leadership convention isn’t until March 23. There’s half a year between the party’s last leader and its next. The hesitation of potential candidates is natural. The breakthrough party of 2011 is heading into a world of uncertainty.

Who knows? Maybe everything will go tickety-boo. Maybe there’ll be a respectful exchange of views among candidates from a range of philosophies and geographies. A clear winner. A united party moving onward to greater heights. Stranger things have happened. Or the NDP’s future could look like the Liberals’ recent past: fratricide and a downward spiral. New Democrats are determined not to go in that direction. But so were the Liberals.

Already New Democrats are having a hard time keeping their thumbs out of one another’s eyes. The leading candidate so far is Brian Topp, a key Layton strategist with no experience as a candidate for any elected office. The other day Topp trotted out two MPs who support him. One was Alain Giguère, a tax lawyer who has run for the NDP in most federal elections since John Turner was prime minister. This time he actually won. “We have to win 100 ridings in the next election,” Giguère said. “Those 100 ridings won’t come from Quebec. Brian is much better placed to do that.” Mulcair’s appeal is seen, at least by Giguère, as too restricted to Quebec.

Right away some of Giguère’s colleagues called high-sticking. “That’s not respecting the legacy of Jack Layton,” Quebec MP François Lapointe said. You can expect to hear a lot of that before March.

Mulcair, who’s seen by some (well, by me) as a bit of a hothead, has taken his own shots at Topp. Topp “hasn’t been elected to anything in his life,” said Mulcair, who had a long career in Quebec provincial politics before knocking off a weak Liberal in Outremont four long years ago.

So why doesn’t Mulcair run, if he’s so full of spit? Because the contest seems almost custom-designed to make it hard for him to win. The next leader will be selected on a one-member, one-vote basis. Where are the members? Not in Quebec. It’s the only province that does not have a provincial party. In most provinces, members belong simultaneously to the federal and provincial wings. Since nobody’s been selling Quebec NDP cards, only two per cent of all NDP members live in Quebec.

This will not be an insuperable problem for Mulcair if he has, or can come up with, a lot of support outside Quebec. He seems to have some already. An Angus Reid poll suggested the NDP would perform slightly better in an election with Mulcair as leader, at 28 per cent of the popular vote, than with Topp, at 25 per cent.

Probably most Canadians could not pick either man, nor any of their likely rivals, out of a police lineup. Romeo Saganash is running, too. Who? Precisely. He’s actually an impressive guy, a veteran of Cree politics in northern Quebec, which is perhaps not the highest-profile gig you can imagine.

No matter. Before long, Topp and Saganash will have company. The NDP, which is awfully fond of internal consensus—motions at party conventions typically pass or fail by overwhelming margins—will get used to a little discord, as candidates openly disagree on at least a few issues. Candidates’ profiles will rise. Who outside Toronto had ever heard of Jack Layton in 2003, anyway?

The worst thing for the NDP would be a coronation. I’ve been an admirer of Topp’s intelligence and strategic sense since it became obvious, in 2006 or so, that Layton grew bolder and more sure-footed whenever Topp was on hiatus from his labour-union day job to whisper in the leader’s ear. In private, on paper, Topp is the closest any party has to Stephen Harper for political skill. But the things nobody knows about him are most of the things that matter in politics. Can he fill a room with his voice? Stand up to brutal attack? Persuade people who didn’t think they could ever agree with him?

The Liberal lesson is that a problem doesn’t go away just because you wish it didn’t matter. Stéphane Dion’s incomprehensible English was a really big problem. Michael Ignatieff’s eagerness to please was a really big problem. Jack Layton’s last gift to the NDP is this: they have more to lose now than ever before. They should kick the tires on Topp and Mulcair and everyone else, hard.

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