Mulcair must stem growing unease

Canada’s New Democrats have a history of patiently playing the long game, a virtue — some would argue — that has at least partly been borne out of electoral necessity.

Canada’s New Democrats have a history of patiently playing the long game, a virtue — some would argue — that has at least partly been borne out of electoral necessity.

In contrast with their Liberal cousins, it is not in their culture to turn their knives on a leader at the first signs of potential trouble.

Given the miserable summer the party is having, that’s fortunate for NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. If he were leading a party with a strong killer instinct, he might be fighting for his political life by now.

Mulcair may not be contending with a mutiny but he may have to grip his ship’s wheel with both hands if he is to stay the centrist course he has set the NDP on, for he is sailing in increasingly choppy waters.

In politics, the success of a strategy is inevitably measured in votes and, so far, Mulcair’s approach is yielding negative returns.

On that score, the loss earlier this summer of Olivia Chow’s former Trinity-Spadina seat was a blow to party morale.

The fact that it was not offset by NDP inroads in the other three ridings at play in the July set of federal byelections compounded that blow.

Polls suggest that Mulcair’s attempts to woo suburban Ontario are continuing to fall on deaf ears.

More than a year into Justin Trudeau’s leadership and even from third place in the House of Commons, the Liberals remain widely perceived as the default alternative to the ruling Conservatives.

If anything, July’s byelection results reinforced that perception and it stands to give Trudeau a strong edge on the NDP when it comes to recruiting candidates for next year’s general election.

And then, even more so than when Parliament is sitting, the summer is a season when events determine the hand a federal opposition leader has to play.

As it happens, fate has dealt Mulcair some pretty poor cards over the past month.

The near-completion of a comprehensive trade deal between Canada and the European Union was the major economic development of an otherwise quiet domestic summer, but it offered the NDP precious little to chew on.

The final text of the agreement is still under wraps. More importantly, Mulcair has used this deal to cast the NDP as a more trade-friendly party.

The Canada/EU deal enjoys the backing of Quebec’s political establishment and the support of every current provincial government.

It would be political suicide for the federal NDP to go to the barricades against it but that does not necessarily sit well with some of its traditional allies.

Among the major federal parties, none struggles internally with the Middle East file to the degree that the New Democratic Party does and its Quebec ranks are not immune to those divisions.

The Middle East policy of the party is not a ballot-box issue in most of the ridings the NDP holds in Quebec. (Mulcair’s Outremont riding may be the main exception as it is home to a significant Hasidic community). But a vocal part of Quebec’s intelligentsia is critical of Canada’s pro-Israel stance and some of its members are increasingly taking the NDP to task over the fact that only shades of grey seem to distinguish its position from that of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In an effort to nuance the NDP’s position on energy exports, Mulcair has cautiously endorsed a plan to link Alberta’s oilsands to the refineries of Canada’s East Coast.

But Quebec’s influential environmental movement begs to differ and its opposition could resonate in many NDP-held ridings over the next year.

For Mulcair, a difficult summer has so far not turned into one of epidemic discontent. But this is the season when all parties are getting in gear for the 2015 election and the exercise is driving the New Democratic Party not on the coveted fast lane but into some potentially deep potholes.

With a year to go to the next federal campaign, popular support for the NDP is not growing but unease within its ranks is.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.