NDP infighting intensifies as leadership vote nears

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

NDP leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair speaks during an all candidates debate in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday March 11, 2012. The debate is the last before the party elects a new leader to replace the late Jack Layton at a convention March 23 and 24 in Toronto. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Ideological and personal fault lines are growing in the NDP as rivals gang up against the program and leadership skills of front-runner Thomas Mulcair in the final days of the race to find Jack Layton’s replacement.

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, who has endorsed backroom strategist Brian Topp, got things going by criticizing Mr. Mulcair’s promise to move the party toward the political middle. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said it would be a “central mistake” for the party.

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He went on to raise questions about the ability of the reputedly hot-tempered Mr. Mulcair to hold the NDP caucus together, saying many veteran MPs are “supporting Brian, who doesn’t have a seat, over Tom, the man they have worked with. I don’t think it’s accidental.”

Ottawa MP and leadership candidate Paul Dewar echoed some of Mr. Broadbent’s comments, saying that Mr. Mulcair seems “uninspired” by the NDP as he insists on modernizing the party.

“What’s been lacking with Tom is what is his vision, his detailed plan of how he wants to grow the party,” Mr. Dewar said. “I haven’t seen that. Where’s the beef, if you will.”

Mr. Broadbent’s comments quickly reverberated through the NDP, leading some of the party’s 130,000 members to fear that whoever wins the leadership on March 24 will struggle to maintain unity inside the party.

“We argue against the wedge politics of the Conservative Party, and we don’t need more of the same among progressives,” said B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, who is also in the race.

James Laxer, a York University professor who ran for the NDP leadership four decades ago and is now supporting Mr. Mulcair, said the party cannot afford to see the leadership race dissolve into personal attacks.

“It’s legitimate for [Mr. Broadbent]to say who his choice for leader is. It’s quite another matter for him to suggest that the man who may well become leader is not suited to the leadership role,” Mr. Laxer said.

Mr. Mulcair has been a constant target throughout the campaign as some party members raised questions about his left-wing credentials, given his long-standing ties to the Quebec Liberals. A number of current party staff privately raise fears that Mr. Mulcair – first elected in a 2007 by-election – would be the most likely candidate to clean house if he wins the leadership.

“Some people are petrified,” a party insider said.

The Mulcair camp refused to respond to recent attacks, saying in a statement that it has run a positive and upbeat campaign with endorsements from 43 MPs, two former leadership candidates and three former premiers.

The Mulcair campaign nonetheless took a veiled shot at Mr. Topp, saying he is running a campaign with high-level establishment support but less traction among rank-and-file members.

“As this race comes to a close we are focused on keeping it a positive and unifying campaign. Now it is up to the members of our party to choose their next leader,” Mulcair campaign chair Raoul Gebert said.

Initially touted as the front-runner, Mr. Topp has failed to win over some New Democrats because of his lack of experience in elected politics. Mr. Broadbent said Mr. Topp has improved throughout the campaign, especially in the last debate in British Columbia. Still, Mr. Broadbent noted that in Mr. Topp’s first televised appearances, “he was withdrawn a bit and didn’t, as I know him in person, make a forceful presence.”

There is an intense battle going on between Mr. Topp and two Ontario MPs – Peggy Nash and Mr. Dewar – to be seen as the embodiment of traditional NDP values and the candidate offering the most continuity with Mr. Layton’s leadership. All three are hoping to make it onto the final ballot to face off against Mr. Mulcair, who is deemed the front-runner at this point.

Mr. Cullen remains a wild card, given his pleasant personality, his strong roots in the party and his unconventional plan to foster increased co-operation with the Liberal and the Green parties to defeat Conservative MPs.

Speaking from his home in Ottawa, Mr. Broadbent said he was irked by Mr. Mulcair’s recent attacks against “Laurier Avenue,” a reference to the location of NDP headquarters close to Parliament Hill.

“If there has been a real modernizer in the party, it’s been Brian Topp, working hand in hand with Jack Layton,” Mr. Broadbent said. “Whether it’s campaign techniques, updating policy or fundraising, Brian has been at the forefront.”

Stating that equality must remain a central concern of the NDP, Mr. Broadbent warned party members against trying to imitate social-democratic parties that have sought a “Third Way” between traditional left- and right-wing parties.

“The U.K. and, to a lesser extent, the Germans – they went astray with over-marketization. We have paid as a movement the cost of that,” he said.

Mr. Broadbent refused to state who would be his second choice for the party leadership, which will be decided in a preferential ballot. Still, he was critical of the French-speaking abilities of an unnamed candidate, who is widely believed to be Mr. Dewar.

“It’s obvious to me who is not fluently bilingual [among the candidates]” Mr. Broadbent said, stating the next leader has to be perfectly at ease in both official languages given the party’s 58 seats in Quebec.

Mr. Mulcair is expected to receive many second-choice votes among the supporters of pharmacist Martin Singh, a defender of small businesses who has clashed with Mr. Topp.

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