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The NDP Are Losers Again

04/15/2013 04:32 EDT | Updated 06/15/2013 05:12 EDT
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Whomever is in charge of event scheduling for the federal New Democrats ought to be fired today -- how in heavens did the NDP wind up holding its all-important policy convention on the same weekend the Liberals were to crown their new leader? Were Christmas eve and day already booked at the convention centre?

Had Tom Mulcair's coming-out party been held two weeks earlier, the NDP would have had a news cycle to itself to tell us what it envisions for this country (last weekend wouldn't have worked, with the Liberal leadership candidates making final statements in Toronto); held next week, the party might have taken a stab at blunting Justin Trudeau's momentum, and thereby its own decline. Instead, the NDP and Liberals went head-to-head, but with the latter holding the hammer -- Trudeau during primetime Sunday night -- and thus perfectly positioned for a political take-out Monday morning.

It was a stupid, stupid mistake because this weekend was more important for the NDP than for the Liberals. Trudeau's leadership win has been a fait accompli for so long that the discussion has moved on to whether he can beat Stephen Harper in the next federal election (recent poll results suggest he can). The NDP has much more at stake right now: (Re)introducing voters to a leader who has fallen to third in popularity (and stands now to fall even further behind), an all-important debate over whether to remove the word "socialism" from its constitution, and thus move to the political centre, and an opportunity to reaffirm what the current seating arrangement in the House of Commons illustrates -- that the NDP is no less than the government-in-waiting.

Regardless of whether Mulcair made a good showing (most say he did), whether removing socialism from the preamble to the party's constitution will bring any discernible change in policy (probably not -- the NDP will continue to be the least unsocialist party in Canada), the NDP lost this weekend to the Liberals. Its fate is now in the hands of Trudeau: if his popular surge continues, the Liberals will have no trouble overtaking the NDP, and perhaps the Conservatives, in 2015; only if he stumbles badly will the NDP be able to maintain second place. Either way, there's nothing for Mulcair and Nathan Cullen and the others to do but sit and wait and see what happens.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the way this weekend played out, for has it ever not been thus for the NDP? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with finishing third perennially, but that is essentially what the NDP always did (fourth if you count the Bloc as a federal party, which I don't). Sure, Jack Layton improved the party when he took over from Alexa McDonough, but still never enough to get a sniff at official opposition, let alone win an election. The best the NDP could ever hope for was to get to play kingmaker in a centre-left coalition government.

And then 2011 happened. Michael Ignatieff was boring as all hell (the Conservative attack ads helped, too), the Bloc Québécois imploded and, most importantly, Layton was just on, and before you knew it 4.5-million Canadians had voted for the NDP, good enough for over 30 per cent of the popular vote and 103 seats in the Commons. It was a heroic, unexpected victory, a real feel-good story.

And then Jack Layton died, and Tom Mulcair just hasn't been as good. Who could blame him? Layton would be a tough act for anyone to follow. Anyone not named Justin Trudeau, that is.

The 2011 election was an anomaly, a perfect centre-left-francophone storm ridden to perfection by a man going all-out on what was to be his final mission, dying yet smiling. I think a lot of Canadians were curious how the NDP would do playing the role that had been the Liberals' for so long, but here we are less than two years later. Canadian politics recovered its equilibrium this weekend: Conservatives on the right, Liberals on the left and the NDP somewhere off in the corner.

Saying you're not socialists anymore is easy; shedding a loser's psyche is a lot harder.

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