Don’t Believe the Mulcair Narrative

So it’s agreed then. The NDP split between a stodgy old guard and those willing to move the party to the centre and 24 Sussex Drive. The latter won. Now, Thomas Mulcair will move the NDP to the centre in a bid to take power.

Or so goes the standard narrative. But where did that narrative come from? Spin and repetition, mostly.

With a little help from amnesia.

Every serious candidate in a political campaign seeks to frame himself and his opponent in the terms that he believes are advantageous.

Sometimes those frames are contradictory and it becomes a battle to see whose frame will dominate the media and public perception. But sometimes the frames are mutually reinforcing, or even identical, because that happens to suit the interests of those involved. (Remember how George W. Bush was a Texas cowboy? That suited him and his opponents for different reasons. The fact that he wasn’t a Texas cowboy, and his ranch had been bought to serve as a stage on which he would play the part of a Texas cowboy, was seldom mentioned.)

So it was in the NDP leadership contest. The Mulcair campaign framed their guy as the candidate of “change.” Opposing campaigns, particularly that of Brian Topp, accepted and repeated that frame, but they sought to define Mulcair’s “change” as a lurch to the right and the abandonment of core NDP principles. Mulcair insisted he would do no such thing, that the “change” he sought was “modernizing” the party and bringing the centre to the NDP, not the other way around.

Almost all of this was spin as insubstantial as cotton candy. Mulcair’s concrete policy proposals were little different than Topp’s, or those of the other candidates. In fact, there was really one policy outlier in the race. That was Nathan Cullen, who called for a merger with the Liberal party. Thomas Mulcair – the candidate of “change,” remember – categorically rejected a merger under any and all circumstances forever and ever.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s absolutely nothing to any of this. The fact that Mulcair chose to emphasize “change” and winning power may, perhaps, suggest something about his general perspective. But the extent to which that will actually govern his decisions as he is challenged by unpredictable events – remember what Harold Macmillan said about “events, dear boy, events” – is impossible to know.

Or to put that more simply, don’t think that the politicking of the leadership campaign actually indicates how Mulcair’s leadership will unfold.

It seldom does. Consider Jack Layton.

Everyone remembers Jack. He was sunny and reasonable. A pragmatist. A negotiator who would sit down at any table and find a sensible compromise. By moving to the centre, he brought the NDP fully into the mainstream of Canadian politics, taking the party from the doldrums to Stornoway and the hope of finally forming government. (An aside: To see how empty political framing can be, consider Mulcair’s claim that the NDP hadn’t “modernized.” Mulcair wasn’t criticizing Layton. In fact, he praised Layton, as all the candidates did. But how is it possible to simultaneously praise Layton’s dynamic leadership and claim the party had stagnated? It’s not. But logic isn’t a necessary component of framing.)

But that’s the Jack Layton who actually led the NDP. What about the Jack Layton who campaigned to become leader of the NDP?

In 2003, there were three major candidates for the NDP leadership. MPs Bill Blaikie, Lorne Nystrom, and Toronto city councillor Jack Layton.

It was a critical moment for the NDP. The party had done horribly in several elections and many members, including union leader Buzz Hargrove, blamed leader Alexa Mc-Donough for moving the party toward the centre. In 2001, at a national convention, a movement called the “New Politics Initiative” had proposed to scrap the NDP and replace it with a more radical party that would ally with social activists and NGOs – a proposal defeated by a frighteningly thin margin of 684 to 401.

Blaikie was the choice of most of the NDP establishment. The radicals of the “New Politics Initiative” backed Jack Layton.

Layton won. Which the conventional wisdom of the day took to be a victory for the radicals. And the end of the NDP’s move toward the political centre.

This sort of thing happens all the time in politics. Just look at the current occupant of 24 Sussex.

“Harper is an ideologue,” a political scientist said after Stephen Harper took the leadership of the Canadian Alliance away from Stockwell Day in 2002. That was the standard take at the time. Harper’s campaign cast him as a principled conservative. His critics said he was rigid. But the basic frame – that he was uncompromising – was something everyone repeated. (Or almost everyone. “Mr. Harper is not simply a policy wonk,” wrote Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star. “Nor is he a ‘rigid ideologue’ as he keeps being billed by people who obviously don’t know him. In fact, he is very much a pragmatist.”)

And forget about the Canadian Alliance merging with the Progressive Conservatives! Harper had campaigned against a merger and the two candidates who supported it – Grant Hill and Diane Ablonczy – went down in flames.

If anyone at that time had suggested that one day Prime Minister Stephen Harper would boast about Keynesian deficit spending, or that he would recognize the Québécois as a nation, or that he would quash major foreign investments, or that he would stoutly defend supply management, or … it would have sounded ridiculous. Even to Stephen Harper, I suspect.

The truth is we have some hints and suggestions about who Thomas Mulcair is, what he believes, and how he will respond to the evolving political reality. But none of us really knows what he will do, not even Mulcair himself.