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Canada's Left Wing Party Realizes It Might Need to Copy Bernie Sanders

Canada’s New Democratic Party is struggling to find out why it failed to resonate with voters in the last federal election that was its best chance ever to form government.

by Justin Ling
Jan 20 2016, 8:30pm

NDP leader Tom Mulcair (Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Holed up in a posh skiing lodge in rural Quebec, members of Canada's New Democratic Party had to wrestle with some fundamental questions about philosophy, strategy, and leadership this week.

It was a sleepy get-together for the third-place party, once on the cusp of government.

"I got a Bernie Sanders t-shirt," beamed one member of Parliament outside one of the meeting rooms at the classy resort, just outside of Montebello, Quebec.

But while Sanders, a self-described socialist, has momentum going into the Democratic primaries, Canada's New Democratic Party, which has purged the S-word from its midst, struggles to find out why it failed to resonate with voters in the October election that saw it plummet from 95 seats to 44. 

That Sanders-boosting NDP MP was dismayed to hear, upon visiting a Sanders campaign office while south of the border, volunteers excited about Justin Trudeau's neophyte Liberal government.

While the Liberals, a centrist party that knows how to tack left, managed to tap into a populist-style of campaigning, the NDP have found themselves left behind by the Berniemania — but indications from this week's caucus retreat suggest the NDP is realizing its mistakes.

"You cannot lose so many colleagues without making some mistakes," said Quebec lieutenant Alexandre Boulerice. "I will not say we live in a world where everything is fine."

The party's benches remained in scripted lock-step during the closely-scrutinized retreat. Clapping on cue, predicting their leader's survival in unison, and smiling, albeit somewhat forced, as journalists repeated the obvious question: what went so wrong?

Long the social conscience of Canadian politics, the NDP — really for the first time — made it into the last election campaign with a real shot at victory.

The party's rise in the polls was the careful massaging of its more hard-line socialist image into something, they imagined, that would be more palatable for the broad spectrum of Canadian voters.

The party's pro-Palestinian flank — which, at one time, voiced support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — went from hushed to outright silent. The party's Socialist Caucus, which advocates for nationalization of various sectors of the economy, was kicked out of the main meeting room at the party's 2013 convention. A motion to adopt decriminalization as the party's official policy on prostitution was unceremoniously hoisted and killed by party insiders before it could come to a vote. The party's constitution, at the behest of leader Tom Mulcair was scrubbed to eliminate its commitment to socialism.

Mulcair's popularity wobbled up-and-down since his ascension to the helm of the NDP, but crested with a healthy lead over his two rivals, immediately before a summer election call in August.

"I think we did a really great job over four-and-a-half years to convince people that we had to get rid of the Conservatives — that, Harper, after ten years, it was enough," Boulerice told reporters on Tuesday. "We did not such a great job to convince the people: then, vote NDP."

Boulerice, known as one of the more left-wing members of the party, was more blunt than some of his colleagues. Many of his fellow party members said, simply, they didn't communicate their policies effectively to the voters.

Related: A Canadian Political Dynasty Emerges as Justin Trudeau Ascends to Power

"I think during the election campaign we presented the most effective and progressive platform that Canadians have seen," said Peter Julian, member of Parliament for New Westminster-Burnaby, in British Columbia.

"We had an excellent platform. We had policies that would have concretely helped people in their lives," said Alexandre Boulerice, MP for Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie and Quebec lieutenant for the party.

While Julian and other MPs who were offered to media during the retreat refused to pin-point any specific shift in the NDP's philosophy that led to their electoral drubbing, Boulerice appeared to accept that the party's attempts to strip itself of controversy — and, thus, its trademark policies — may have backfired.

"I think it was a good idea to reassure people that an NDP government would be reasonable, but when you reassure too much, you don't create a dynamic of enthusiasm," Boulerice admitted.

The identity crisis for the party has fuelled speculation — in and outside of the party — that Mulcair and his centrist style need to be jettisoned if the party can expect to rebound.

"He's got to go," Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo told the Toronto Star earlier in January. "He's tainted."

DiNovo is considered old guard of the party who has trumpeted transgender rights, social housing, and a provincial minimum wage. Her comments on Mulcair struck a nerve with the party's left-leaning flank, but did not spur any current MP with the party to speak out.

'We're no longer new. We're certainly not democratic. And no one is having a party anywhere.'

"We're no longer new," DiNovo told the Star. "We're certainly not democratic. And no one is having a party anywhere."

But whether or not the party follows her lead and ditches Mulcair, the undercurrent of opinion in the party does appear to be that the NDP needs to be less like Clinton, and more like Bernie.

Mulcair, asked repeatedly at a press conference on Monday, said it's up to the party membership to decide his fate. His MPs repeated the line in Montebello.

At the party's spring convention in Edmonton, members will vote as to whether hold a leadership review that could ultimately de-throne Mulcair. But that's unlikely to happen. No organized effort to oust Mulcair has gone public, and the party tends to be very forgiving of its leaders — in the past, as many as 98 percent of the membership has voted against unseating the leader. Yet, should Mulcair hit anything below 80 percent, the calls for his head will intensify.

Mulcair's former rivals who he bested in the previous leadership race have mostly declined to take up arms against Mulcair.

Most notably, Nathan Cullen, a popular force in the party, appeared tempted to lead the charge, but has said privately that he couldn't imagine leaving his nearly-six-year-old twin boys for the length of time required to mount a real leadership bid.

Brian Topp — the second-place finisher who warned during the race that, given the choice between two centrist liberal parties, voters will pick "the real one" — now serves as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's chief of staff. His former campaign manager, Ray Guardia, was hired by Mulcair shortly after the party's electoral misfire after years in exile with the NDP.

Asked as to whether he'd consider getting behind another candidate for the leadership, Boulerice — who is popular in the Quebec wing of the party — deflected.

"Ask the members," he said. "The NDP is a democratic movement."

He did say, however, that the party is "united."

Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus was more equivocal about Mulcair's chances: "I have absolute confidence that Tom is going to go into that meeting in April and do a bang-up job."

Related: Bernie Sanders Has Snagged His First Lead in the Polls Over Hillary Clinton in Iowa

Mulcair's dug-in heels may be for a variety of reasons.

For one, despite soft polling numbers that show only 10 percent of the country think he's the best choice for prime minister, voters still have positive impressions of him — 57 percent have a favorable opinion of Mulcair.

The party's finances under Mulcair, too, seriously improved. Long the weakest fundraiser, the NDP pulled in over $9 million between July and September, 2015, making it one of the best fundraising efforts the party has ever seen, easily eclipsing the Liberals, and nearly beating the fundraising juggernaut of the Conservative Party.

And while the NDP were manhandled in Quebec and Atlantic Canada — losing 49 of its 65 seats there — it actually made headway in Western Canada, picking up five seats.

Slight alterations to Mulcair's rhetoric, however, suggested that the party might be looking to tap into the middle class angst that Bernie Sanders has ridden to surprising heights in his party's primary race.

"It's not enough to say everyone has the same chance in a game that's rigged against the most vulnerable," Mulcair told a row of TV cameras in a small log cabin at the resort.

"In 2015," Mulcair said to the cameras and the half-dozen journalists who made the drive. "Canadian banks — which earned a record $35 billion in profits — handed out $12.5 billion in bonuses."

As Mulcair made his pitch for relevancy under new management, Prime Minister Trudeau was gearing up to board a plane destined for Davos, Switzerland. On Wednesday morning, as Mulcair's retreat wrapped up, Trudeau took the stage at the plenary to decry income inequality, promise optimism, and swear that Canada would become the progressive nation that both he, and Mulcair, have long been advocating for.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling