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Mulcair, the NDP and the movements

MARCH 27, 2012 – The New Democratic Party (NDP) has a new federal leader. Thomas Mulcair, has no roots in the social movements, a long history of being a senior Liberal Party member, and is someone  openly committed to pushing the NDP considerably to the right. The implications for all interested in progressive social change are sobering.

The conservative Globe and Mail praised his victory calling it a victory for “pragmatism” and a “shift to the centre” (The Globe and Mail 2012). This “shift to the centre” will be a shift against the environment. He sent a strong signal to the oil industry at his first press conference, carefully using the term “oil sands” rather than the more accurate (and pejorative) “tar sands” (Ivison 2012). This “shift to the centre” will see any residual “left” phrases in party literature confined to the history books. Mulcair is committed to ending use of the term “democratic socialism” in NDP literature (Leblanc and Galloway 2012).

Leadership candidate Niki Ashton challenged Mulcair during the campaign, saying, “you’ve attacked our [the NDP’s] opposition to unfair trade deals, our links with the labour movement, our championing of ordinary people”. His response? “Between the Ontario border and the B.C. border we now hold a grand total of three seats” (Ibbitson 2012). Progressive policies, in other words, need to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

In raising the issue of trade deals, Ashton was putting her finger on something quite important. One of the defining issues of the last generation has been building opposition to the neoliberal policies embedded in so-called “trade deals” such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Mulcair, far from profiling his opposition to NAFTA, profiles his work with NAFTA. His web site proudly announces that he was president of the Quebec Professions Board from 1987 until 1993. “The work done by the Quebec Professions Board on the Free Trade in services portion of the NAFTA had led to increased contacts with the U.S. on these issues” ( 2012). During the campaign, Mulcair announced that he had helped draft some of NAFTA’s articles which centred on the environment (Cameron 2011).

On international issues, Mulcair doesn’t occupy the centre. He is firmly on the right. He was part of a caucus revolt in 2008, causing then leader, the late Jack Layton, to withdraw NDP support for the 2009 United Nations-sponsored Anti-racism Durban Review Conference, a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism (WCAR) (National Post 2008). What was WCAR’s supposed crime? Its Declaration and Programme of Action expressed “concern about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” (WCAR 2009). Mulcair was “successful in muting NDP criticism of the January 2009 Israeli bombardment of Gaza” but was not muted at all the next year when he joined with Tory Jason Kenney and then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in condemning Israeli Apartheid Week (Shniad and Presentey 2012).

In truth, we don’t really need all this evidence. His willingness to serve for years as a cabinet minister under Quebec Liberal Premier (and ex-Tory) Jean Charest, in many ways tells us everything we need to know. Thomas Mulcair is a man of the establishment, not of the movements.

But Mulcair won, and actually won quite easily. He led the first ballot, capturing 19,728 votes (30.3%). The next ballot, his vote increased to 23,902 (38.3%), 8% up on his first result, double the rate of increase of Peggy Nash and more than double that of Brian Topp and Nathan Cullen. The third ballot was the only one where another candidate increased support faster than Mulcair, Topp’s support increasing by 6.6% compared to Mulcair’s 5.5%. On the last ballot, Mulcair’s vote soared 13.4% compared to 11.2% for Topp, giving Mulcair 57.2% of votes cast, and a clear victory (CPAC 2012).

Not that Topp would have been a particularly “left” alternative. For a quarter of a century, he has been very far removed from the social movements, serving as a backroom apparatus-man – a staffer for either the NDP or the union bureaucracy (Kellogg 2012). His principal claim to fame was pushing the party, not to the left but to the right, attempting to forge a coalition with the Liberal Party in 2008. Mulcair announced at the time, that if the NDP shared governmental power with the Liberals, they would also share the prosecution of war in Afghanistan, telling the press, “the NDP is putting aside its differences that have existed historically with the Liberals on such issues as Afghanistan” (Kellogg 2009).

There were two candidates who galvanized social movement activists. Many were understandably attracted to the youth and social movement orientation of Nathan Cullen. Judy Rebick said that his “language was very close to the politics of the New Politics Initiative. He speaks of social struggles and the alliance between the party and First Nations and environment groups” (Rebick 2012). But his main profile in the campaign became calling for an alliance with the Liberals – the same kind of approach that was so clearly wrong in 2008.

So it was Peggy Nash who became, for many, the best hope of social movement activists. Like Topp she has spent many years in full-time union and political positions. But unlike Topp, her early years were spent on the shop floor as a union activist. She has always been a friend of the social movements, appearing on the platform of many demonstrations – including demonstrations against the Afghanistan war which Topp and Mulcair were so ready to support in 2008.

But her first ballot result of 8,353 votes (12.8%), more than 2,000 votes behind Cullen and far behind Topp and Mulcair was extremely disappointing. She lasted only one more ballot. As for Cullen, he did manage to increase his vote total to 15,426 (24.6%) by the third ballot. But again, this was far behind the two front-runners. The end result was a sharp defeat for candidates associated with the social movements, and a surprisingly strong victory for the most mainstream leader in the history of the NDP.

For all the candidates, their relationship to the social movements was a more accurate standard by which to assess their politics, than by the usual NDP standard of relationship to labour. In this campaign, the message from the union movement was completely confused. Some labour leaders took a clear principled stand. Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), and the United Steelworkers Toronto Area Council, were prominent backers of the Nash campaign ( 2012). But the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) as a whole was quite happy to overlook the pro-war coalition moment of 2008, and endorse Topp as a candidate (Galloway 2011). Much worse, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada, The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Toronto’s Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) all declared for Mulcair (UFCW 2012).

Rebick’s invocation of the New Politics Initiative (NPI) points to the importance of the social movements, and also captures the extent to which the NDP has travelled to the right this century. The NPI was formed just over ten years ago, with a view to dissolving the NDP, and launching a new party rooted in the anti-globalization movement, a party “with two key objectives: promoting the environment and combatting ‘corporate globalization’” (MacKinnon 2001). This push for a new party – supported by Nash among others – was very narrowly defeated, losing by just 684 to 401 at the November, 2001 convention (O’Neill 2001).

That November 2001 vote was the high water mark for the social movement left inside the NDP. Unfortunately, the NPI became reoriented away from the anti-globalization and anti-war movements, and toward facilitating the leadership campaign of Jack Layton. When he launched his bid, he was very much an outsider – and the NPI provided a door in. The only two NDP federal caucus members to support Layton’s leadership bid in 2002-2003, were leading NPI figures Svend Robinson and Libby Davies. Riding the wave of the anti-globalization movement which the NPI reflected, and coming out openly for participation in anti-war demonstrations against the war in Iraq, Layton won a crushing first ballot victory with 53.5% of votes cast.

But this victory has proven pyrrhic. It was Layton who opened the door to Mulcair. “Jack, his wife Olivia Chow, Tom [Mulcair] and Catherine [Pinhas] had a meeting and supper together at a restaurant in 2007” leading to Layton naming Mulcair his “Quebec Lieutenant” ( 2012). The NDP did not become a vehicle with which to amplify the issues and concerns of the social movements. The NDP became a vehicle focussed on national office, and suddenly that vehicle has ex-Liberal Thomas Mulcair in the driver’s seat.

Gregg Shotwell, a retired veteran of the autoworkers in the United States, had a message for activists in last year’s Occupy movement. Be careful of orienting on the Democratic Party, “where all good movements go to die” (Shotwell 2012). The situation may not be quite so extreme in the NDP. But it’s not far off. What at first seems like a comfortable home can too often be transformed into a debilitating trap. When the focus shifted from the NPI and movement building to Layton, leadership selection, and electoral success, the end result has been the most movement-averse leader in the history of the party.

Some will draw other lessons from this process. Former leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, sees the NDP’s problem as having “rooted itself in Quebec” (Manning 2012). This is a noxious reminder of the anti-Quebec politics of Manning’s (and Stephen Harper’s) Reform Party roots. It is also completely wrong. The problems with Mulcair are not his Quebec roots. The problems with Mulcair are his establishment roots.

In a certain sense, what we need is to root ourselves more, not less, in Quebec. It is Quebec, after all, which is the home of Québec solidaire (QS) “a party of the ballot box and the streets” (Life on the left 2011). A massive student movement is sweeping the province, and QS spokesperson Amir Khadir proudly wears “the red cloth squares of the striking students” (Dougherty 2012). At a press conference March 22 before a wonderful 200,000 strong demonstration against tuition fee hikes, the other QS spokesperson, Françoise David was there, calling for taxing the corporations to pay for education (Steuter-Martin and Gallant 2012). That is the way we win our gains – building mass movements, and posing politics in class terms.

One last thought which might just sum it all up – the man against whom the students are protesting is Liberal Premier Jean Charest. We’ve met him before. He’s the ex-Tory who gave Thomas Mulcair his start in politics.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

For any who are in Toronto this week, an important discussion of the implications of the NDP leadership race, will take place at the monthly General Membership Meeting of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, 7pm, Thursday March 29, Beit Zatoun House, 612 Markham Street (west of Bathurst, south of Bloor).

Publishing History

This article has been published as Canada: Thomas Mulcair, the New Democratic Party and the social movements,” Links, 27 March.


Cameron, Duncan. 2011. “Tom Mulcair Plays a Terrible Hand on Trade.”

CPAC. 2012. “NDP Leadership – Mulcair Wins Leadership.”

Dougherty, Kevin. 2012. “10 Questions and Answers About Quebec’s Student Strike.” The Gazette, March 6.

Galloway, Gloria. 2011. “United Steelworkers Endorse Brian Topp for NDP Leader.” The Globe and Mail, October 12.

Ibbitson, John. 2012. “Enter Mulcair.” The Globe and Mail, March 26.

Ivison, John. 2012. “Mulcair Denies Cabinet Demand; NDP Leadership Hopeful Had 2007 Talks with Tories.” National Post, March 2.

Kellogg, Paul. 2009. “Dear Jack: Do You Really Want This War?”

———. 2012. “Topp and Mulcair – the Apparatus Man and the ex-Liberal.”

Leblanc, Daniel, and Gloria Galloway. 2012. “A Principled Pragmatist Who’s Always up for a Fight.” The Globe and Mail, March 26.

Life on the left. 2011. “Québec Solidaire: A Québécois Approach to Building a Broad Left Party (Part II).”

MacKinnon, Mark. 2001. “Rebels Aim to Dissolve NDP, Form New Party.” The Globe and Mail, June 6.

Manning, Preston. 2012. “The NDP’s Mulcair.” The Globe and Mail, March 27.

National Post. 2008. “Layton Backtracks on UN Racism Conference.”, June 24.

O’Neill, Juliet. 2001. “NDP Delegates Vote Against New Party: Policy Convention Leaves Some in Tears as Members Argue over Party’s ‘Mushiness’.” The Ottawa Citizen, November 25. 2012. “Peggy Nash: Announcements.” Peggy Nash.

Rebick, Judy. 2012. “Understanding the Victory of Thomas Mulcair.”

Shniad, Sid, and Fabienne Presentey. 2012. “Thomas Mulcair – Israel, Right or Wrong.” Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) Canada.

Shotwell, Gregg. 2012. “Where Workers Have Power.”, March 27.

Steuter-Martin, Marilla, and Jacques Gallant. 2012. “Hundreds of Thousands Flood the Streets.” The Concordian, March 22.

The Globe and Mail. 2012. “Editorial – Mulcair’s Moment.” The Globe and Mail, March 26. 2012. “About Tom.” Thomas Mulcair.

UFCW. 2012. “NDP Leadership Candidate Thomas Mulcair Gaining Momentum as We Head Toward Convention.” UFCW Canada.

WCAR. 2009. “Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.” In Durban, South Africa.

Published in Coalition NDP Social Movements


  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    What's not being talked about in regards to the low voter turnout is the thousands of votes that were suppressed by the DDoS attack that the NDP is not bothering to investigate. Many people online complained of not being able to get through until the 3rd and 4th rounds and this was only after diligently sitting in front of the computer hitting "refresh" for 11 hours. Not a whole lot of people have the luxury of giving up their entire day to do such a thing, and unless the party is willing to hear complaints (which the facebook discourse immediately after Mulcair's coronation would suggest otherwise) there is no way to know how many people were denied their right to vote for leader.

    I believe this was an organized attack on the NDP leadership vote by the right-wing and it could have even come from party outsiders who support Mulcair's leadership as it is sure to decimate what's left of the NDP's credibility. This is what happens when corporatist thugs like the folks on his donor list from Bay Street get involved.

    That being said, I expected more from the party members but there has obviously been an influx of Liberals since the last election who will of course be pushing the party to the far right and their first victory was the "one person one vote" anti-union initiative. That was likely another factor in his win.

  2. Thanks Doug. The forces which push in the direction of Blairism (which is one label we can put on Mulcair) are very profound. Orienting on government without an economic program that is an alternative to neoliberalism, means capitulating to neoliberalism. The contortions of social democracy in Europe come to mind. This is going to be a bit of a shock to many in and around the NDP. The orange wave was fantastic – but if the orange wave ends up with Prime Minister Mulcair, then we had better be thinking now how we will organize against and challenge his regressive policies.

  3. Good article, Paul. It's worth noting that neither the Quebec student strike or the Air Canada wildcat (which likely held up many NDP delegates traveling to Toronto) were raised during the convention (to my knowledge).

    Without collapsing into a finger-wagging "blame the electorate" line that was promoted by some leftists after Bush's re-election in 2004, I do wonder about what happened to the NDP membership. The top-three finish of Mulcair, Topp and Cullen in the first round of voting seems to reflect worrying trends: support for Mulcair's drive towards moderation in a bid to win the next election, support for Cullen's fusionist approach, and support for a sometimes-fusionist party hack (who peddled a pro-labour line but is quite critical of labour in his book about the failed 2008 coalition government). All these trends reflect some sort of move towards the centre and/or alliance with the Liberals in order to gain power.

    In contrast, there was no candidate who connected with the sentiment following Egypt, Wisconsin, Occupy or the obvious necessity of Canadian workers to resist employer attacks. However good Ashton or Nash were in comparison to the aforementioned candidates, and however much they may have been more rooted or reflective of the social movements, they still didn't define their candidacy as representing these social movements.

    Perhaps this explains why substantially fewer than half of all NDP members voted. This is surprising because it is below even the recent record low voter turnouts in federal and Ontario elections. And given the party's growth since Layton's death from 80,000 to 130,000 members, the question has to be asked: who voted? New members wanting to elect a government-in-waiting to defeat the Tories (notably those who voted NDP and not Liberal in May 2011), or members rooted in social movements and organized labour? I'd suspect the former, not the latter.

    Granted, I've made a series of unsubstantiated and tentative assumptions but I think they're reasonably plausible. The big shift to the right and the election of Mulcair is not being made in a vaccuum. I think the propulsion of the party into the opposition and the desire with which a majority of Canadians want to expel the Tories is an enormous pressure on NDP members, the NDP party establishment AND progressive Canadians of most stripes to make seriously flawed compromises on key principles in order to create a party capable of capturing enough "centre" votes to take power. This is openly stated by many NDP activists including, of course, Mulcair.

    If the NDP wasn't in the opposition, I don't think this rightward shift would be so dramatic. And maybe Mulcair wouldn't be party leader. Maybe a leadership candidate openly-aligned with the social movements – like Amir Khadir has done with the student strike – would have emerged.

    I suppose what I'm getting at is that we have to come to terms with some of the worrying trends at the base of the party and whether or not we've witnessed an important step in not simply the overt rightward shift in the political leadership of the party (as opposed to the more subtle and hidden rightward drift under Layton's leadership) but also a change in the party composition.

    And then there's the question of what is to be done for the social movements…Apologies for the length. I have much to say and nobody is talking about this in any depth…

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