03/22/2012 10:39 EDT | Updated 03/23/2012 06:56 EDT

NDP Leadership Convention: Which Candidate Has The Best Hope Of Beating Stephen Harper?


Tomorrow, New Democrats will choose between seven candidates and seven different futures for their party. With one recent poll showing the NDP neck-and-neck with the governing Tories, their decision could not be more important.

While all the candidates are clearly part of the same political tradition, they do all bring different things to the table.


Nathan Cullen has the energy and charisma that helped Jack Layton bring the party into the mainstream, and he would be a strong leader in British Columbia, a province in which the New Democrats can make gains in 2015. But Cullen’s plan for the NDP to co-operate with the Liberals and Greens could cause a rift in the party, and there is little indication the Grits would go for it.

Convention Coverage, HuffPost Style: The Huffington Post Canada brings you comprehensive coverage of the NDP leadership convention in Toronto, with photos, behind-the-scenes video, opinion and reporting from the convention floor.

Follow us at @HuffPostCanada, on our Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj's Facebook Page, on our NDP leadership site, and on our politics page and our front page. Friday, we cover candidate speeches and a tribute to Jack Layton. Saturday morning, we follow the rounds of voting that will end with the new leader.

Neither Martin Singh nor Niki Ashton is likely to win, but Ashton has shown herself deserving of a frontbench position and an important role in the party going forward.

One candidate the NDP’s frontbench has sorely missed is Paul Dewar, who best embodies the party’s progressive character. Dewar is a good compromise candidate that Canadians may warm up to as an honest and forthright leader. But Dewar’s profile is not very large outside of his Ottawa home, and his French is the weakest in the group. The NDP needs to hold on to its Quebec seats if it is to have any hope of even maintaining Official Opposition status after 2015, so Dewar is definitely one of the riskier options.

Peggy Nash, who has strong support from labour organizations throughout the country, might be an ideal choice to lead the party if the relationship between labour and the federal government continues to deteriorate. The Public Service Alliance of Canada are likely to fiercely oppose next week’s budget and the Conservatives have shown little patience with striking Air Canada pilots.

But this is the sort of battle the Conservatives would love to fight, allowing them to frame the NDP as the party of big labour. And Nash, who comes from the more left-wing side of the party, may have some trouble attracting centrist voters into the NDP fold. She has also gained little traction in Quebec, despite speaking good French skills.

Brian Topp, who was born and raised in Quebec and is the most bilingual candidate after Thomas Mulcair, has had difficulty making inroads in the francophone province as well. However, Topp tends to poll above his other rivals in the province and may be able to increase his stature in in the province over the next few years. He has promised to seek a seat in Quebec if chosen leader, which would give him some legitimacy as a voice for Quebecers.

Topp is also seen as a good organizer within the party, has strong roots in the west (where the NDP needs to grow if it is to form government), and has the support of some of its elder statesmen. But former leader Ed Broadbent’s recent negative comments about Mulcair would likely cause a rift between the Topp and Mulcair camps should Topp be chosen leader, and the former party president has proven to be somewhat stiff on the hustings.

Against an unapologetic Conservative government, some may not see Topp as tough enough to go toe-to-toe with Stephen Harper. This was undoubtedly a problem for Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff when they were leader of the Liberals. Their political points, often awkwardly delivered, simply did not hit home.

This should not be a problem for Thomas Mulcair. He has a long history of battling it out with sovereigntist opponents in Quebec as a member of the Liberal Party in that province. Polls show he is the best option from a Quebec perspective, as he alone could boost the party back to the 40 per cent mark in the province, while his chief rivals might immediately bump the party down to 20 per cent or lower.

Mulcair is rich in experience and political instinct, absolute necessities for battling a well-oiled Conservative machine. He has proven himself capable of finding support in every province throughout the country and has the best chance of attracting support from centrists.

But Mulcair has some enemies within the party who see him as new to the NDP and unfamiliar with the party’s roots and core values. He has the reputation of being a bit of a loose cannon and could be the cause of an eventual schism in the party in his quest to form the first NDP government.

Thomas Mulcair gives the NDP the best chance of marginalizing the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, defeating the Conservatives and bringing the NDP to the next level. But the question of whether that next level would be recognizable to the old guard of the party is why candidates like Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, and Paul Dewar, who all have good chances of being successful in their own right, cannot be discounted in this race.


Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.

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