It could never surpass the magnificent funeral, but it was the biggest and splashiest convention held by the NDP yet. Overhead the JumboTron flashed, and all around were media booths, along with a huge camera arm for shooting rock concerts. It was a chance to merchandize the party -there were framed portraits of Jack Layton for upwards of $100. For those on more modest budgets there were bobble-head dolls of Layton, and of Tommy Douglas. The NDP has become a mainstream political party.
Tom Mulcair is a career politician who has won six successive elections. He is smart and fast and ruthless. Ruthless is not always a bad thing. It served Bobby Kennedy well, another Irish politician. He is widely perceived to be the guy who can duke it out with Harper and his front bench attack cohort. Putting Mulcair in Jack Layton’s seat means that nationalist and separatist Quebecers can’t say "You see? They’re ignoring Quebec again."
After four ballots Mulcair beat party stalwart and life-long NDP staffer Brian Topp. It’s a fascinating gamble. Will Mulcair show the talent for consensus that Layton displayed on key issues?
Many members of the NDP are a free thinking and fractious lot, a bit like their brothers and sisters in the PQ. They have a clear bias in favour of what is fair and associate themselves with the underdog. They aren’t too keen on being told what to do by their elders.
When NDP elder Ed Broadbent attacked Mulcair publicly, many of the party faithful were irritated. "Il n’y a pas qu’au Parti Québécois qu’on a des belles-mères!’ ("So it’s not just the PQ that has mothers-in-law [those who look over our shoulders and judge]") said some Quebec observers.
In spite of the array of supportive heavy-hitters that Brian Topp and his campaign manager Ray Guardia marshalled, Mulcair won. He did it by performing a feat that his opponents thought he was incapable of: He built a cross-Canada movement, knowing he is very capable of working with others. "He’s the guy who can stand up to Harper" was the mantra heard all over the convention floor.
Tom Mulcair is an extremely competent guy, trained as a lawyer and toughened by Quebec’s language and cultural wars. His French is impeccable, and slightly tinged by the accent of Europe, where his wife Catherine Pinhas is from.
But unlike Layton, he has no attachment to social movements. He is accustomed to power. He takes a rather dim view of Birkenstock-wearing, bicycle-riding urban idealists, and of the union movement. Jack Layton was a guy who loved a demo, who rode a bike, who had fun when Rick Mercer asked to interview him and meet his mother-in-law. He also had a good relationship with the unions. Layton cast off the strictures of the politics of his father, Conservative MP Robert Layton, and joined popular urban movements.
The only strange note was Mulcair’s two speeches, especially his victory oration. They were not up to the moment, not even close. Imagine what Thomas D’Arcy McGee, our first great Irish orator, would have done. All those delegates were looking for a vision. Instead Mulcair read a laundry list of thank-yous. Obama practically swept to power on the basis of the brilliant speeches crafted by his 26-year-old writer Jon Favreau. Mulcair should make finding his own Favreau a priority.
The deep culture of the NDP is close to social movements like the Occupy movement and the student protests against fee hikes in Quebec. But that political culture could become a shadow of its past. A small circle of old boys has been running the place from the top down. They left more blood on the floor than Mulcair ever did. Many have already announced their departure.
Will that gang merely be replaced by a new gang of new old boys, and a spattering of women? Or will Mulcair take it as a challenge to build a new party that will give hope to the gathering army of hopeless and desperate Canadians, a party of the radical centre – a party that rhymes with the rhythm of its beautiful history?
For without a vision the people perish.