Hébert: Is having a seat a big deal?

Should Thomas Mulcair’s successor be in a position to cross swords with Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on the morning after his or her NDP leadership victory?

With rival and possible front-runner Jagmeet Singh in his sights at the party’s last official all-candidates debate on Sunday, Ontario MP Charlie Angus forcefully argued the New Democrats need a leader who can take the fight to the Liberals in the House this fall.

If he wins, Singh, who currently sits in the Ontario legislature, plans to wait until the 2019 election to run federally, leaving the NDP without a permanent leader in the Commons for the better part of two years.

On the notion that a seatless leader is not ideal, there is no quarrel, but on whether it should be a deal-breaker in the leadership vote, the evidence is mixed.

1. At the time of Mulcair’s selection as leader, the fact that he already held a federal seat was one of the arguments that helped tilt the balance against party insider and runner-up Brian Topp.

But the circumstances were significantly different. Having secured the title of official opposition for the first time in its history, the NDP needed to establish itself in that new parliamentary role or else see the Liberals assume it from third place.

Mulcair’s successor is not headed for the hot seat of official Opposition leader. As the third party in the House, the NDP has less ice time in question period than it had in its previous incarnation.

In the same third-place position, Trudeau made the best of being outshone by Mulcair daily by spending more time on the road. And ultimately he was the better for it.

2. It is hardly unprecedented for an incoming NDP leader to wait a year or more to enter the House.

Alexa McDonough was elected leader in the fall of 1995, but did not sit in the Commons until after the 1997 election. There was a similar interval in the case of Jack Layton.

The decision to sit out the first 18 months of their respective leadership tenures was mostly borne out of necessity.

McDonough was not very well known outside Atlantic Canada, where the NDP had no seats. But even if she had run and won in a byelection in another region of the country, she would still have been consigned to relative silence in question period. The NDP McDonough inherited was three seats short of the minimal number required to enjoy the speaking rights that attend official party status.

When Layton took the helm in 2003, the party’s sole Ontario seat was in Windsor, well outside the new leader’s zone of immediate influence as a former Toronto municipal politician.

Singh would face a similar predicament.

None of the NDP’s eight Ontario seats is in the GTA. The closest New Democrat seat is in Hamilton. One could argue that the electoral-demographics distance between Brampton, where Singh’s provincial seat is located, and Hamilton is more than the modest sum of the kilometres between the two communities.

3. Despite not having been seen in action in the House, both McDonough and Layton improved their party’s standings over their first campaigns. But they also beat some of the lowest seat scores in NDP history.

For instance, in 2004, Layton more than doubled the NDP share of the Quebec vote, from 1.8 per cent to just under 5 per cent.

The bar will be much higher for the next NDP leader. Mulcair’s 2015 result was the second best for the New Democrats and 16 of the 44 NDP seats are in Quebec, where the party’s roots are shallow.

Lost in the glow of Layton’s big 2011 Quebec breakthrough is the fact that his performance in his first leaders debate was tentative at best. Becoming federal leader comes with a learning curve that is more easily overcome with a steady daily dose of question period preparation.

Finally, job one at the time of McDonough’s and Layton’s first campaigns was getting the leader elected.

As a seatless rookie leader in 2019, Singh would be in a similar situation. The result could be a more GTA-focused NDP campaign. That happens to be both what many of Singh’s supporters hope for and what more than a few of his detractors fear.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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