Canada: NDP leadership convention 2012

Canada’s official opposition party, the New Democratic Party (NDP) held its leadership convention on March 24, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario. Seven candidates lined up for a chance to become leader of the official opposition in addition to leader of the NDP.

The centre-left NDP has usually been Canada’s perennial third-party, perceived as the idealistic social democratic which always sought to overtake either the Liberals or Conservatives to establish themselves as the official opposition. In 2008, the NDP won 18.2% of the vote and 37 out of 308 seats. The most seats it had ever won was in 1988, when it took 43 seats and 20.4% of the vote. Under the leadership of Jack Layton, the NDP certainly grew back from the party’s near-death state of the 1990s and the NDP kept benefiting from the Liberal Party’s slow state of decrepitude following its 2006 electoral defeat. However, nothing could really prepare the NDP for the results of the historic 2011 election, when the party surged into second taking 103 seats and 30.6% of the vote.

The NDP’s success in May 2011, allowing it to form the official opposition to Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority government, came on the back of two factors: the collapse of the Liberal Party and an NDP ‘orange wave’ in Quebec. The Liberals, with 18.9% of the vote won only 34 seats – it worst result in its existence. The Liberals bled votes left and right, with more right-leaning ‘blue Liberals’ voting for the political stability and sound economic management promised by Harper’s Tories; and left-leaning Liberals voting for the NDP and its charismatic, engaging and iconic leader Jack Layton. Even more crucial, however, was the NDP’s ‘orange wave’ in Quebec where the party surged from 12% and 1 seat to 43% and 59 seats. Quebec’s electorate is fickle, but since 1993 it had been fairly loyal to the nationalist Bloc Québécois. The NDP’s orange wave clearly came largely at the BQ’s expense, which won only 23% and a mere 4 seats – down from 49 only three years prior. With the cause of Quebec nationalism increasingly falling on deaf ears and the BQ entering the campaign with no clear message, many of the BQ’s soft nationalist and left-leaning voters were attracted to Jack Layton’s party. The NDP thus entered the official opposition with a caucus which was made up, in majority, of rookie Quebec MPs. A fact made even more shocking by the fact that the NDP had until that point never won more than a single seat in the province and indeed Quebec had usually been a dead-zone for the predominantly Anglophone, Prairie-born NDP.

The NDP also entered official opposition with a popular leader, Jack Layton, taken ill with cancer. He died on August 22, sending Canada into mourning and his party into a leadership contest in which the potential candidates must seek to live up to Jack Layton’s record popularity and cross-partisan appeal. The main issues in the contest and indeed for the NDP at this point were the potential new leader’s ability to hold the NDP’s fledgling gains in the land of fickle voters, Quebec; but also expanding the NDP’s support outside Quebec to win government in 2015. This would mean, in good part, appealing to Liberal and Green supporters. The questions which mostly divided the candidates were the desirability of a “shift to the centre” in order to appeal to a broader “progressive” base but also the tough issue of cooperation with the Liberal Party as part of an anti-Harper “progressive coalition”.

Seven candidates made it all the way to the convention. Unlike in 2003, the NDP convention now uses a “one member, one vote” system with no 25% block reserved for the NDP’s allies in organized labour. All members could vote, either by absentee preferential ballot or at the convention. The convention uses exhaustive balloting with IRV, candidates needed to win 50%+1 of the votes.

The NDP came out of nowhere to score its “orange wave” in Quebec, the party had no grassroots infrastructure and a very limited membership base in the province. The issue of Quebec, so crucial to the NDP’s electoral strategy now, having a minimal role in the entire convention was a concern. There was a rather successful membership drive in Quebec, giving the party a final count of 13,987 members in the province – 11% of the party’s membership. British Columbia (39,859 members) and Ontario (36,965 members), however, remained the main NDP provinces in terms of membership, with a pretty significant base in Saskatchewan (11,243) and Manitoba (11,991) as well.

Thomas Mulcair, “the frontrunner” was also the “Quebec candidate”. Mulcair has a long political career, he was provincial Liberal cabinet minister (environment) in Jean Charest’s first government between 2003 and 2006 before he resigned to run for the NDP in the Outremont by-election in 2007, which he won, sending a first shock to the Liberal Party. Mulcair remained the party’s sole Quebec MP in the 2008 election, but he certainly played a key role as a major architect of the party’s “orange wave” in the province in 2011. He has close relations with most of the party’s rookie MPs, especially the lower-profile ‘paper candidates’ who won by surprise. Mulcair certainly argued that he was the best candidate to consolidate the NDP’s gains in Quebec and made the case for himself as the candidate who has a natural appeal to Quebec.

Mulcair has been regarded with suspicion in establishment NDP circles, both for personal reasons (his hot temper) and his alleged opportunism mixed in with ambition. His position on the party’s right, advocating a shift to the centre or something akin to a Blairite transformation of the party (despite the NDP under Layton already being a fairly moderate party) to expand the party’s base, has not been received all that well by the party’s old guard. However, Mulcair managed to build up significant caucus support, especially from Quebec’s rookies, but also in Ontario and BC. He was endorsed by Quebec MP and former 2012 leadership candidate Romeo Saganash (a Cree), former 2003 leadership candidate Lorne Nystrom, former ONDP leader Howard Hampton, former MB Premier Ed Schreyer and some more high-profile sitting MPs including David Christopherson, Jack Harris, Glenn Thibeault and John Rafferty. Though organized labour was lukewarm towards him, he did get some minor union endorsements including the UFCW Canada and SEIU.

Brian Topp, “the establishment” candidate was a nobody to most voters and even most NDP members. Topp, raised in Quebec, is fluently bilingual but has served most of his political career in party back-rooms as chief of staff to former SK Premier Roy Romanow, senior adviser to Layton in the federal election and president of the NDP since 2011. His candidacy was announced early, pushed from behind by the old guard and establishment circles wary of Mulcair. He was apparently the favourite of Layton’s old inner circle, which is deeply distrustful of Mulcair. Topp received the endorsement of party grandees including former leader Ed Broadbent (whose backing of Layton in 2003 had been crucial), SK Premiers Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert. One of Topp’s main weakness, besides the backroom image, is that he lacks a seat in the House of Commons. He has pledged to run for a seat in Quebec.

Topp positioned himself as something of a soft left candidate, more in line with the ideological orientations of the party’s old guard which is not radically left-wing but not as open to a shift to the centre as Mulcair is. He advocated, most significantly, a “tax the rich” platform with a new 35% tax bracket for those earning over $250k a year. In the run-up to the convention, he clearly placed himself to the left of Mulcair by warning members against a Blairite transformation of the NDP. Despite old guard backing, his caucus support was weaker but he did receive the endorsement of deputy leader Libby Davies (who is on the party’s left), NB MP Yvon Godin, BC MP Jean Crowder and some prominent Quebec MPs including Françoise Boivin (a former Liberal MP, elected for the NDP in Gatineau in 2011) and Alexandre Boulerice (one of the most nationalist members of the Quebec caucus). He received the support of the United Steelworkers.

Nathan Cullen was most famous for his much discussed and rather controversial idea of a progressive front, which meant joint nominations between the NDP, Liberals and Greens to oppose Harper’s Conservatives in the next election. The idea of cooperation or outright merger with the Liberals is quite unpopular with the NDP base, which is historically distrustful of the Liberals and carries an old history of mutual hostility between both parties. Cullen was the sole candidate from British Columbia, a powerhouse in terms of NDP members. He has represented the poor northern BC riding of Skeena—Bulkley Valley since 2004. Cullen cast himself as a fairly moderate but ‘urban progressive’ type of candidate (moderate on economic matters, but quite pro-environment), emphasizing his youth and the idea of change or ‘new politics’. His strong performance in debates and strong fundraising propelled him into contention with the top of the pack.

Cullen’s caucus support was limited. He received support from two BC MPs, Fin Donnelly and Alex Atamanenko but also the more prominent Ontario MP and NDP trade critic, Brian Masse.

Peggy Nash was the “labour candidate”, strong from her footing in organized labour as a CAW negotiator in the past. Nash won the downtown Toronto riding of Parkdale—High Park in the 2011 election, after having held it for a first stint between 2006 and 2008. She was one of the NDP’s high profile frontbench MPs as the party’s finance critic until she announced her candidacy. While speaking in ideological terms is not entirely accurate, she generally is perceived as being on the party’s left and closely associated with the NDP’s traditional allies in organized labour.

Her political support was not particularly remarkable, besides the backing of BC MP Denise Savoie and that of former NDP leader Alexa McDonough. Her main strength was with organized labour: she raked in the endorsements of CAW, CUPE, the Ontario Federation of Labour and other CLC provincial federations in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the NWT.

Paul Dewar was not quite at the top of the pack but not quite an “also-ran” candidate. Dewar, the son of a former Ottawa mayor, has been MP for Ottawa Centre since 2006 and has built a strong reputation as a competent constituency MP and foreign affair critic. It is hard to pin down his candidacy ideologically, but he gives the image of being somewhere in the middle in terms of the NDP’s ideological scale and gives the impression of proximity with traditional NDP supporters in the public sector including teachers. Dewar’s weakness in French was seen as a major roadblock.

His caucus supports included well-known northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, NWT MP Dennis Bevington, Alberta MP Linda Duncan and Quebec MP Hélène Laverdière, famous for having defeating Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe in his own seat in the 2011 election. Because of his family roots in Manitoba, he also raked in a surprising number of endorsements from Manitoba MLAs.

Niki Ashton was the youngest candidate in the race at age 29. Ashton, whose father is a cabinet minister in the provincial NDP government in Manitoba, has served as MP for the northern Manitoba riding of Churchill since 2008. Despite her youth, she has gained some notoriety as a talented and ambitious member. Her run was likely to build up her profile and place her into the big leagues, because her youth and inexperience were seen as significant stumbling blocks. Ashton ran a clearly left-wing campaign, which emphasized her youth and overemphasized the vague term “new politics”. She was perhaps the most left-wing candidate in the race, and was endorsed unofficially by the NDP’s Socialist Caucus.

On the endorsement front, she did surprisingly well in getting endorsements not only from MLAs in her native province but also some MPs including Ontario MP Carol Hughes and a few new Quebec MPs (for whatever reason).

Martin Singh, a ‘white convert’ to Sikhism, was the surprise candidate in the race who has never run for any elected office and who was a total nobody to almost all observers. He ran a fairly pro-business campaign and announced that Mulcair was his second choice. He did not receive any notable endorsements – even BC’s South Asian NDP establishment lined up in favour of Brian Topp.

The first ballot results were (italicized candidates dropped out or dropped if placing last on any ballot):

Thomas Mulcair (QC) 30.30%
Brian Topp (ON) 21.37%
Nathan Cullen (BC) 16.39%
Peggy Nash (ON) 12.83%
Paul Dewar (ON) 7.5%
Martin Singh (NS) 5.87%
Niki Ashton (MB) 5.74%

Mulcair emerged on top but with a rather anemic 30% of first preferences. The positively surprised were Brian Topp, who placed second (the few polls on the race had him doing very poorly) and especially Nathan Cullen who placed a strong third. The negatively surprised were Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar, whose results were below expectations. While it is unlikely that we will ever get the results broken down by province, my hunch is that Mulcair swept Quebec, the “three Ontarians” tied in Ontario with a strong Mulcair showing, Ashton and Dewar did well in Manitoba, Topp won Saskatchewan and Cullen got a favourite son vote as the only BCer in the race. In addition, Cullen’s general image as non-Mulcair/non-Topp type of urban progressive, green candidate may have won him support from younger members in large urban areas.

Ashton was dropped after placing last, while Singh and Dewar withdrew. Singh immediately endorsed Mulcair, while Dewar freed his delegates. Dewar backer Charlie Angus moved his support to Mulcair, and likely spoke for many MPs who felt the need to have a strong leader in the House by Monday to take on the Conservative government’s federal budget (expected to feature major spending cuts and public sector job cuts) in the coming week. After the announcement of the first results at 10:00, the second ballot results were announced at 13:45.

Thomas Mulcair (QC) 38.10%
Brian Topp (ON) 25.00%
Nathan Cullen (BC) 19.92%
Peggy Nash (ON) 16.83%

Mulcair was the main benefactor of the second ballot, gaining the most support of any candidate. He likely took the vast majority of Martin Singh’s first ballot support, nearly 6% while also doing well with some of Paul Dewar’s supporters. Peggy Nash was forced to drop out after the second ballot where she failed to move out of fourth, but she gained the second most votes of any candidates. Nash did not endorse any candidate. She perhaps took considerable support from Ashton and Dewar. Cullen had an underwhelming performance, as did Topp.

The third ballot voting was disturbed by attacks on the party’s internet voting system, which turned the e-voting experiment into something between a joke and a disaster. Results were only announced at 18:00.

Thomas Mulcair (QC) 43.81%
Brian Topp (ON) 31.59%
Nathan Cullen (BC) 24.59%

Mulcair’s growth was less impressive on the third ballot, but he still did fairly well considering the bulk of new votes came from Peggy Nash voters, who, based on left-wing affiliations, could be seen as benefiting Topp rather than Mulcair. In the end, Nash’s voters split fairly evenly between the three candidates, with a slight bias towards left-wing contender Brian Topp. Cullen got good transfers but ultimately failed to overtake Topp for second place. He did not endorse any candidate, but his moderate positioning made his voters possibly closer to Mulcair than to Topp. Mulcair was the heads-on favourite heading into the fourth ballot, which, after more e-voting disasters, was only announced at 21:15.

Thomas Mulcair (QC) 57.22%
Brian Topp (ON) 42.78%

Mulcair and Topp likely split the Cullen voters about 54-46 in Mulcair’s favour, on balance a surprisingly strong showing for Topp with those voters, perhaps benefiting from some Topp institutional support in Cullen’s home province. Brian Topp’s performance at the convention was stronger than most had expected, which in a way shows the backing by some of the members of the party’s “old guard” and older backrooms establishment. In the end, however, not much could stop Mulcair and his perhaps unstoppable mix of Quebec appeal/support, caucus backing and a strong fundraising base. Not even the reluctance of the party’s core base towards the “shift to the centre” idea of Mulcair could stop him. Of course, he did get 43% voting against him, but 57% is still a comfortable majority of support. Mulcair has made moves towards party unity, including keeping left-wing Topp backer Libby Davies as deputy leader of the party.

The NDP likely made the best choice in Mulcair. He was the only candidate certain of keeping the party’s fledgling base in Quebec, and his general ‘Quebec appeal’ likely played a major role for Anglophone NDP supporters outside Quebec who strategically considered Mulcair as the best possible pick for leader. Quebec’s electorate is, of course, extremely fickle and could change political allegiances dramatically come the 2015 election (indeed, the NDP has already started shedding some support in the province since May according to most polls), but Mulcair has the benefit of being the leader best able to “speak to Quebec” and hold the party’s gains there. The other main task he faces ahead of 2015, when the NDP will obviously target power as it stands today, is to expand the party’s base in Anglophone Canada. The NDP, despite the orange wave, did not do all that well in Ontario (where the Tories won their majority), lost a seat in Manitoba, was still shut out in the NDP heartland of Saskatchewan and did not take all it could in BC. The NDP needs to win not only most of the 30-some Liberal seats but also some Tory-held ridings, especially in the West. Mulcair’s shift to the centre idea could possibly be the best route for the NDP to take to score these gains. 2015 is still a long way away, and neither the Tories nor the Liberals have said their last word on the topic. Mulcair is, at it currently stands, the best possible choice for the NDP. Whether or not he can become Prime Minister Thomas Mulcair, the first NDP Prime Minister of Canada, remains to be seen.


Posted on March 25, 2012, in Canada, Primaries, leadership contests or internal party votes. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Correction: Martin Singh ran for a Halifax city council seat in 2004.


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