Thomas Mulcair Was the First Victim of the Great Schism That’s About to Swallow the NDP

Mulcair made his last stand on Rachel Notley's turf and became the first casualty in the NDP's internal civil war. Drew Brown was on the ground at the Edmonton convention. Here is what he saw.

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Apr 11 2016, 3:37pm

Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair during a speech at the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Unlike Justin Trudeau last fall, the NDP couldn't get their escalator to work.

The first thing anyone saw walking into the Shaw Centre this weekend was a broken escalator and a polite request to put up with the pains of "modernization."

There was no better metaphor for the state of the NDP in 2016. The party took the word socialism out of its constitution in 2013 in the name of "modernization." Modernization led it to spend the last election talking tough about balancing the budget, purging the party of anyone insufficiently pro-Israel, and studiously avoiding any mention of the working class.

Modernization ground the NDP to a halt in the election last fall. Now they were gathered in Alberta to have a very public (and very paralyzing) identity crisis.

Because all the political machinery in Canada is greased with booze, there were several hospitality suites in Edmonton the first night of the NDP convention. There was a $300-a-ticket reception with Thomas Mulcair at a cocktail lounge overlooking the city's scenic river valley, a few floors above the convention hall where he would be soundly rejected on Sunday. There was an invite-only shindig hosted by the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress at the Citadel Theatre, the hub of Edmonton's fine arts establishment. Elsewhere, several MLAs from the Alberta NDP schmoozed at a downtown drag show to raise money for the party's LGBTQ caucus. And in a dingy hipster bar across the street from a Greyhound bus station, a small cadre of Dipper insurrectionists were getting together to share "Beers For Renewal".

Straining away from each other that night across north Edmonton, these were the four vectors tearing the party apart.

While the escalator was being "modernized," the Socialist Caucus set up shop at the bottom of the stairs. Alongside other pamphlets about The Hidden History of Zionism and Stop the Occupation of Iraq!, they were giving out free copies of the Leap Manifesto. (I donated two dollars for a copy of Turn Left.)

Everybody coming into the Shaw Centre on Friday knew that this would be a make-or-break weekend for the New Democratic Party of Canada. When the doors opened ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday afternoon, every seat on the convention floor had a small slip of paper inviting delegates to a "New Democrats for Renewal Assembly" at 8:30 AM on Saturday morning in a nearby hotel. (I don't think it worked very well; the dozen or so people who showed up the next day wouldn't let me in the room.) Others found a six-page brochure on their chairs asking them to MAKE THE NDP THE CLIMATE JUSTICE PARTY NOW!

Despite a long list of policy resolutions up for debate—from the mundane (endorsing proportional representation) to the insane (annexing some Caribbean islands)—there were really only two questions that mattered.

The first was whether or not Tom Mulcair should keep his job as leader after the party's disastrous campaign in the last federal election.

The second was what to do about the Leap Manifesto, a pithy but explosive list of demands to reorient Canadian economic and social life away from fossil fuels and towards a more egalitarian, post-colonial, and environmentally-friendly world.

Failure to decisively answer either of those questions would consign the party to years of internal paralysis as it lurched towards its next confrontation with progressive heartthrob Justin Trudeau. It would also jeopardize its crown jewel: Alberta's NDP government.

But if there's one thing I learned over the weekend, it's that decisiveness is not in the NDP's wheelhouse.

They couldn't even decide on a hashtag.


Unlike Justin Trudeau last fall, the NDP couldn't get their escalator to work. Photo by the author

The weekend started to go off the goddamn rails within the first two minutes of official business. As soon as the convention was declared open, a member of the Socialist Caucus leapt up to the mic on a point of order. He wanted to change the timing of Mulcair's Sunday morning speech to the party.

It is no word of a lie that the party collectively spent more time arguing about the Sunday morning timeline than any other single item up for debate in Edmonton this weekend. I'm not even sure the Leap Manifesto generated as much acrimony as whether the leadership vote would be held at 10:30 AM or 11. Almost every time the floor was open, someone would go up to the microphones to argue about the agenda.

Let it be known that the NDP will follow Robert's Rules of Order to the point of absolute chaos. Troupes of people kept rising on points of order and points of privilege and points of checking privilege and points of "excuse me but the last speaker failed to sufficiently check their privilege." Someone literally got up to the mic to say "think of the children." The madness only ended when the party's visibly agitated president, Rebecca Blaikie, kiboshed the whole affair and showed the room a demoralizing video of defeated MPs lamenting the election against a backdrop of melodramatic synthesizers.

People were still sporadically rising to talk about the agenda until Tom Mulcair finally took the stage on Sunday morning. You could tell all this procedural wrangling was just displaced nervous energy. The party was coming up to a fork in the road, and there was no consensus about which way to turn.

***

The highlight of the convention was when Alberta Premier Rachel Notley took to the stage on Saturday afternoon and tried to save her party's soul.

Every great NDP speech opens like the Gospel of Matthew, with a long genealogy tracing the party's anointed Messiah back to Abraham by way of King David.

There is a checklist. You start by tipping your hat to J.S. Woodsworth and the CCF, especially if you're in its ancestral homeland of Alberta. Next comes the meditation on the psalms of Tommy Douglas and how he slew Goliath to bring our country medicare. Ed Broadbent and assorted minor provincial prophets might get a shoutout, depending on the sermon. And since 2011, everyone ends on the final epistle of Jack Layton, the man who led his people to the banks of the Promised Land but never lived to cross the river Jordan.

For large swathes of the party faithful, Rachel Notley appears to speak with the Spirit. The NDP canonizes its winners, and making Alberta the beating heart of progressive politics in Canada is a miracle on par with striding the Galilean sea. Once Manitoba's government loses its upcoming election, Notley will be the only New Democratic premier in the country.

So at this weekend's NDP Nicaea, the Alberta government made a strong play to shape the party orthodoxy. And for the Notley Crue, this involved building a progressive case for a national pipeline.

This was not surprising. A day prior to the convention's opening, Notley delivered a televised address to the province, emphatically restating the case that getting Alberta's oil to tidewater was a nation-building project on par with the Canadian Pacific Railway. On Friday, Shannon Phillips, Alberta's Environment Minister, went so far as to claim that adopting the Leap Manifesto amounted to a betrayal of the province and its people.

Notley gave a barn-burner of a speech. She reveled in the hysterical levels of grief her government has caused conservatives both at home and abroad, and laid down a very fire-and-brimstone vision of what would happen if they ever returned to power either in Edmonton or Ottawa. The crowd went fucking nuts.

Notley speaking last week in Montreal. Photo via Facebook.

But she didn't mince words to the radical environmentalists at the convention, either. Notley was emphatic that even entertaining a debate about Leap would be a disaster. Waffling on a national pipeline would keep good people out of work, rob money from social programs, and deplete the funds her government needed to subsidize the long-term transition away from fossil fuels.

It would also give conservatives a rhetorical atom bomb in their struggle to tear down the miracle of progressive Alberta: 'the NDP doesn't care about our problems.'

It's hard to underscore the gravity of the moment. Here was the premier of Alberta delivering a well-articulated, progressive case for supporting the energy sector. Her point was clear: the West wants in, goddammit, and otherwise we will lose everything. You could feel the ground of Canadian political history fracturing under your feet.

But Notley was not the only evangelist to address the convention on Saturday. Later in the evening, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis took to the stage to make the pitch for Leap—which wasn't surprising, since his son Avi helped write the manifesto. He was every bit as rhetorically compelling as Notley, and just as frank in laying out the stakes.

"The damage we've done to the planet, and our refusal to confront that damage, constitutes nothing less than a monumental crime against humanity," he told the floor. Building a pipeline to fund the transition away from an economy powered by pipelines would only be doubling down on climate crime. Instead, Leap would be the bedrock of a "Marshall Plan" for the post-petroleum economy, the "greenest job-creation program on the planet" to put the industry's obsolete labourers back to work on building a better world.

It was a full-throated progressive case for an immediate and radical break with the Canadian oil industry. Leave the dead to bury the dead up in Fort McMurray. The redemption of the planet is at stake.

No one leaving that room had an easy choice. Both Notley and Lewis had warned the congregants that the end is near and they should repent their ideological sins. But only one of them can speak the truth; the other is a false prophet. And if the party can't come to a clear consensus in either direction, the whole lot of them will wind up cast into the fire.

By the time things wrapped up on Saturday night, the Great Schism was inevitable.

***

The next morning, after a heated debate on the floor, the party resolved to adopt the Leap manifesto as a guide in local policy discussions leading up to their next policy convention in 2018. This is not the wholesale endorsement the party's critics have taken it to be—all the NDP really did was agree to give it serious discussion instead of totally shrugging it off. But the damage to the party Notley warned them about may have been done.

Almost immediately after the resolution passed, Conservative MPs Jason Kenney and Michelle Rempel were tweeting (incorrectly) that Leap was now the NDP's official policy. Alberta's Wildrose opposition issued a press release condemning Rachel Notley for failing to stand up for the province. The Alberta contingent was furious. The party had betrayed them.

You could feel the rift open up in the room almost immediately. During an emergency debate over whether the party should support aerospace workers in central Canada, an out-of-work oil worker went up to the mic and lamented that "you guys don't support guys like me here in Alberta." Party solidarity was coming apart at the seams.

And then, stuck in the middle of all this, was poor old Tom Mulcair.

It's impossible to say whether Mulcair really had a chance to plead for his job when he got up on stage that morning. If he did, he blew it, because the speech he gave to the party was a steaming pile of shit.

In what could have easily been a recycled campaign speech written in 2012, he pitched to the 100 or so Quebec delegates about how great he was on building the party in that province. Which is no small feat, but not what the Edmonton crowd wanted or needed to hear at that moment. It was a tone-deaf stump speech trying to sell the NDP to the NDP, with five sentences tacked on at the end where he asked to keep his job. It was an emotional speech, but he wasn't emotional about any of the things he was actually saying.

He knew the jig was up.

He needed to clear a 70 percent approval rating to stay on as leader. He wound up with 48 percent. They hastily announced the results in French and immediately moved to destroy the ballots. Gracious in defeat, Mulcair came back to thank his firing squad and promised to remain as interim leader until the party found a replacement.

Tom Mulcair was the first person swallowed by the pit opening up at the heart of the NDP. He will not be the last.

***

Immediately after the convention ended, there was a flood of hot takes from the pundit class about the party's catastrophic decision to embrace the radical left. But very little was actually decided in Edmonton over the weekend, aside from the fact that New Democrats aren't ready to decide on anything. Even the near 50/50 split over Mulcair shows the party is of two minds about its biggest questions.

This is the first time since 1947—the year they struck oil at Leduc—that Alberta has had a major voice in the CCF/NDP. The Albertan government is the only success story in the party right now. The ball is in their court, and they know it.

The interests of the provincial state command the Alberta New Democrats—not the other way around. This is why the party's wrangling over Leap is more about regional conflict than a struggle between left and right. There is no direct, automatic link between the left's economic vision and environmentalism or decolonization, however much the supporters and enemies of all three want to stress the connection.

The NDP did not adopt Leap. They gave local district associations two years to debate what they want to do with ahead of their policy convention in 2018, during which time there will also be a leadership race. New Democrats will retreat into each of their internal denominations and produce a candidate to champion their pet cause.

The unions will have a candidate and so will the centrists. There will also likely be a full-blooded social justice warrior, an Indigenous advocate, and someone running to eat the rich. Someone who wrote the Leap manifesto—either Avi Lewis or Naomi Klein—will probably enter the fray to push their vision to completion. And, assuming they hold off on going rogue like the BC Liberals, the Alberta NDP will throw its weight behind someone willing to carry its case for a progressive pipeline politics.

"We need to do a better job of telling the story of who we are" was how party president Rebecca Blaikie concluded her report on the party's disastrous 2015 campaign. But New Democrats can only tell that story when they work it out themselves.

The Edmonton convention kicked the party's fatal self-confrontation a little further down the road. But as delegates spilled out onto Jasper Avenue on Sunday afternoon, they could feel it coming. A house divided against itself cannot stand; it will become all one thing, or all the other.

The only question now is which pole of the party is going to find itself shut out in the cold.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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