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Thomas Mulcair's NDP: Party Struggles To Get Back In Running

With the House of Commons getting ready to close its doors for the summer, how have the main party leaders performed? In the second of three articles, we look at Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats.

When parliamentarians returned to work last September, the Conservatives and New Democrats were neck-and-neck in the polls. Thomas Mulcair and his NDP were positioning themselves as the government-in-waiting. But then the New Democrats were overtaken by events, and one in particular: the naming of Justin Trudeau as the new Liberal leader.

Though some polls were hinting at the potential for such a shift, most scoffed at the likelihood that the NDP could be so easily supplanted by the “lightweight” Montreal MP.

The early warning signs were there, however. Once the Liberal leadership race kicked off, attention turned from the NDP and their new leader to the fate of the third party. Byelections in the fall in Victoria, Calgary Centre, and Durham did not go particularly well for New Democrats, as the party was a complete non-factor in Calgary Centre, finished well behind in Durham, and was almost upset by a surging Green Party in Victoria. Nevertheless, their win there gave the New Democrats something to gloat about.

The NDP made a play for their Quebec base through their proposed changes to the Clarity Act, recognizing a referendum result of 50 per cent plus one as the minimum needed to begin negotiations. The proposal helped solidify their nationalist bona fides within the province, but was not well received outside of Quebec. However, it was a bold move keeping in line with the principles of the party, whereas neither Liberals nor Tories have ventured anything that would further clarify a relatively vague law.

Mulcair also solidified his position as leader of the party at the NDP’s convention earlier this year, securing 92 per cent on a leadership vote that rivaled the totals put up by Jack Layton during his tenure. Mulcair also managed to get the party to adopt a watered-down preamble concerning the party’s socialist roots, and the convention was generally received as an endorsement of the direction he is taking the party, following in the footsteps of Layton himself.

But the byelection in Labrador put an exclamation point on the decreasing support the NDP has been experiencing in the polls. The riding was not a particularly good one for the New Democrats and was dominated by the local face-off between Peter Penashue and Yvonne Jones. The NDP’s third place finish did nothing to blunt the perception that Liberals have replaced New Democrats as the main alternative to the Conservative government.

After a strong performance in the House of Commons questioning the prime minister on the Wright/Duffy affair, however, Mulcair demonstrated that he has been far from supplanted as the main opposition leader in parliament. And with his party’s renewed emphasis on their long-standing proposals to abolish the Senate, Mulcair has found himself on the right side of public opinion. It puts the Trudeau Liberals in the unenviable position of defending the unpopular Senate, and it seems clear this will be just one of the many instances the NDP will use to highlight the differences between themselves and Liberals.

The polls suggest they have a lot of work to do to make up the lost ground. The party was only three points behind the Conservatives with 31 per cent support in September. They averaged five points behind the Conservatives in May — but also 17 points behind the Liberals, with only 23 per cent support. The party has tumbled from first place to second in Quebec and Atlantic Canada and second to third in the rest of the country.

The NDP needs to pull itself back in the running to remain the official Opposition before they can aspire to form Canada’s next government.

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, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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