Dr. Dawg

Leaders, leadership and the NDP

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My piece in iPolitics:

At some point this coming Saturday, all the debates will be over, and the NDP will have a new leader.

Disclosure: I’m rooting for Paul Dewar. So read the following through that lens: both on the subject of other folks in the race, and on the question of leadership per se.

Of the seven people left in the race, there are some clear front-runners, and then there are Niki Ashton and Martin Singh. And, it seems, Brian Topp.

The multi-talented Ashton has a bright future, but her time is not now. She conveys a wooden earnestness that would not serve her well in, say, a rapidfire Commons debate. Singh is just Thomas Mulcair’s Id. And Brian Topp, who started off with the advantage of heavyweight endorsements, has slipped badly. I suspect it isn’t only his lack of charisma, but also the practical problem of getting himself into the House. That could, all factors considered, take months.

The NDP has lost enough momentum from Jack Layton’s passing as it is. We need to hit the ground running as soon as a leader is chosen.

That leaves Mulcair, Peggy Nash, Nathan Cullen and Dewar. All of them are strong, capable individuals. And they offer, thankfully, clear differences to choose from — no more “violent agreement” during all those seemingly interminable, soporific debates.

The first differences are policy ones. But sometimes those differences are small. Nash and Dewar, while both highly pragmatic individuals, are committed to the core principles that differentiate the NDP from the other parties. Their focus is on social justice, with strong support for families, communities and the environment, and they are committed to a humane foreign policy. When all is said and done, their differences in policy are really matters of emphasis.

By contrast, Cullen wants to work with the Liberals, to the point of holding joint nomination meetings. Harper does have us all spooked, to one degree or another, but for many in the party, Cullen is going a couple of bridges too far. The history of the Liberal Party of Canada has always been to oppose from the left and govern from the right. Indeed, many of Harper’s “initiatives” to which the NDP objects were actually germinated by the Liberals — the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, for example, a cynical foreign policy that puts human rights aside, moves to gut the CBC, attacks on the public service, a profound obeisance to the corporate sector.

Do we want to try to bring Canadians around to the NDP way of thinking, or cave strategically in ridings where the Liberals currently predominate? Where would that thinking have gotten us in Quebec?

And that brings us to alleged front-runner Thomas Mulcair. He’s attracted strong opposition from Ed Broadbent (which, for some reason, has worried the Harper-endorsing Globe & Mail), and strong support from Gerald Caplan, a solid NDP strategist and commentator on the left side of the spectrum.

Certainly Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal who joined forces with the NDP a relatively short time ago, differs from the other candidates with respect to policy. He and Prime Minister Stephen Harper appear to share the same uni-dimensional view of Middle East matters, for example: “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances,” he once said, and he proved it by launching a disgraceful public attack on his colleague Libby Davies for taking a different view. More recently, he has voiced opposition to the decriminalization of marijuana. He favours shipping bulk water abroad, and sees himself as somehow standing up to the unions (although he has acquired support from SEIU).

Hardly classical NDP positions, but in fairness, if we don’t like those, he has others that are more simpatico.

On the question of leadership, what some see as pluses are considered minuses by others. He has a notorious temper, which always seems to be simmering just beneath the surface — he’s a match for John Baird in the yelling and finger-pointing department. On the other hand, he is a bright and fast-footed debater, one of the best in the House. But overall he prefers antagonism to consensus-building, and has reportedly managed to alienate a good deal of his own caucus with his abrasive manner.

He also possesses something that at least two commentators including Caplan have called “royal jelly,” a phrase that frankly makes me cringe. What it appears to mean is a brash self-assurance coupled with the kind of supreme arrogance that has kept him aloof from the media during the campaign — another Harper-like trait, I might add — or had him taking largely undeserved credit for the NDP breakthrough in Quebec.

Here is Caplan on the subject:

He sees himself as a leader, feels himself to be a leader, can convince others he’s a real leader. Strangely enough, this is not true of all leadership candidates, but it’s an essential attribute. I find him a natural leader.

But he goes on, somewhat defensively:

…Of course like his opponents he has his flaws, and the campaign has been abuzz with many of them. Yet he can answer these rumours readily. He can immediately reassure the entire party in two critical ways. He can in his acceptance speech give voice to those magnificent social democratic ideals and principles - equality, social justice, peace - for which the New Democratic Party has always existed. And he can show his magnanimity in victory and his understanding of the need for a strong, united, inclusive movement by embracing not only his worthy opponents but their talented and committed workers as well.

My support explicitly assumes him doing exactly that.

My suspicion is that we’ll be getting no such reassurances anytime soon.

If the contest is as much about style as policy, then, many of us are yearning for a different style. We want an alternative kind of leadership, one that is aimed at consensus-building and civil discourse, based, mind you, upon clear principles and coherent policies. Rather than Question Period histrionics, we’re looking for agile wit and ready humour, both very much on display, for example, in a television exchange between Paul Dewar and John Baird, in which the former bested the latter — and had him laughing as he was being skewered.

There is nothing weak, or hesitant, or unleaderlike about expressing an abundance of exuberant friendliness instead of red-faced anger — just so long as we move ahead effectively. Policy, even in the relatively principled NDP, is always a little fluid, and the current crop of candidates is a highly pragmatic bunch. But leadership style is a fixed quality, and two distinct versions of leadership are presently on offer. In that respect, we are just about to find out how different from the other parties we are.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on March 21, 2012 8:37 AM.

The deepening shadows of Canadian politics was the previous entry in this blog.

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