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Wednesday, March 28, 2012


March 28, 2012,  Online

The election of a new Leader of the NDP, and Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, however it may work out for the party and the country, was a process that deserves thoughtful scrutiny.

That less than half the party members eligible to vote did, was noted without much comment. Such a turnout in a national election would have prompted much handwringing and comment. But while voters have a painless choice whether to have their particulars given to Elections Canada when they file their tax returns, Elections Canada makes a big effort to find all eligible voters and get their names on the voters lists whether they are interested or not. Thus many on the voters lists are simply not interested in politics, as they may not be interested in curling or ballet. But those who sign up to be members of a political party surely must be interested in politics. and while some interested in politics may, come the election, think all on offer are satisfactory, or unsatisfactory, the range of candidates on offer for the NDP leadership, the amount of coverage they got, and the difference between the prospects of a Mulcair led party and a Topp led party make it hard to understand how anyone interested enough to become a member of the party could not have been interested enough to vote.

Low turnout at nomination meetings is common. I remember one nomination meeting when only 1,500 of the 4,000 signed up members turned out to vote. But for the NDP leadership no one had to turn out. Members could mail in a ballot or vote online. As with nomination contests, presumably over one half of the NDP members at the cut off had been signed up by candidates though they didn't much care who was leader or even about the party. In one member, one vote leadership contests, as in nomination contests, it is not a question of the party faithful having their rightful say, but the candidates demonstrating their organising abilities and appeal by signing up members and getting them out to vote. The process produces a whole lot of noise in the voters lists.

And whether the ability to mobilise a tiny fraction of the electorate for a leadership contest is any test of the candidates' likely success with the whole electorate is very much open to question.

Then there is the question of what it is to choose the leader of a party and why these people should be doing it. What Mulcair will do is lead the 102 NDP members of the House of Commons. But though they all have votes, they counted for next to nothing in the result. Mulcair is now Leader of the Opposition, shadow Prime Minister, on the strength of the NDP MPs accepting that they should support the choice of that portion of the people who happened to be members of the party at the cut off who bothered to vote. As leader of the party, he is, under the party constitution, simply one of several functionaries. But the NDP MPs must live with him indefinitely.

At a time when term limits are suggested and fixed election dates the norm Thomas Mulcair is leader of the NDP as long as he wants unless delegates to an NDP annual meeting vote 50% for a new leadership election. Unlike the recent leadership vote, the NDP annual meetings are meetings of delegates, selected not just by long term party members in their ridings, but also by unions and other "affiliated groups." The people who could put an end to Mulcair's leadership are not the people he leads in the House of Commons, or the members who voted him in, but an entirely different constituency.

Since the Liberals in 1919 chose Mackenzie King as their leader at a convention, Canadian parties have chosen their leaders roughly on the basis on which American parties have chosen their presidential and other candidates. But American conventions, or primaries, are one off affairs. A candidate is chosen and he or she is elected by the voters at large or forgotten. The elaborate process of choosing party leaders in Canada operates as a spurious investiture, making them not leaders of their parties' MPs, but their commanders. The commanding power of our party leaders is the subject of much reasonable complaint. But it results not from some failing in our received institutions but from the uncritical acceptance of party machinery that was supposed to serve our politics, not control it.

Where in one form or another the party leader is still just the leader of the party's members in the House, such heavyweights atsMargaret Thatcher in Britain and Neil Rudd in Australia have been seen off in a matter of days. In Canada the departures of John Diefenbaker, Stockwell Day, and, for good or ill, Jean Chr├ętien have been much more difficult, not just for the parties but for the country. Other leaders left of their own will, after defeats or success.

The NDP MPs will have plenty of reasons to support Mulcair beyond his getting the votes of c26% of the party’s members on the fourth ballot. But when the going gets tough, they should not think that he has to be their leader any longer than they want to be led by him<30 any="" ballot.="" be="" but="" by="" fourth="" gets="" going="" has="" he="" him.="" leader="" led="" longer="" members="" not="" of="" on="" p="" party="" s="" should="" than="" the="" their="" they="" think="" to="" tough="" want="" when="">