As Thomas Mulcair, leader-elect from the New Democratic Party's nail-biting convention this weekend, faced off against the Tories today, he won the praise of fellow party members for targeting the Conservatives' approach to jobs and the economy in his first question to the government.
Mulcair - known for his combative approach to politics - alleviated some members' concerns about his plans for the NDP by renewing Vancouver MP Libby Davies' position as Deputy Leader. Davies was a prominent and outspoken Brian Topp backer in the race, and comes from the party's activist wing often at odds with Mulcair in the past.
But in the wake of his widely anticipated win, some NDP supporters and social movement activists across the country expressed concerns about the direction of the party under the new leader.
Veteran activist Judy Rebick - author of Occupy This! and CBC commentator - told the Vancouver Observer that Mulcair's "patriarchal, it's my way or the highway" style could merely accelerate the party's rightward drift.
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“(Mulcair) is positioned well to the right of party on a number of questions: on Israel, on the tar sands,” Rebick said. “For heaven's sake, he's not even for the decriminalization of marijuana.
“He's to the right of the Liberals on that. Will he respect party policy? I don't know. I'm not convinced he will.”
Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal, is a relative newcomer to the NDP, having joined the party in 2007 (after reportedly considering his options with the Conservatives and and Greens as well). While the NDP establishment has been unanimous in its message of unity and praise for the Quebec MP since his anointing, words of frustration and disillusionment echoed amongst grassroots activists across Facebook – decrying what many see as the social democratic party's abandonment of social movements that traditionally had a place within the NDP.
"RIP NDP," wrote Montreal activist and Media Co-op founder Dru Oja Jay on Facebook. "Whatever feeble hopes one might have had that the federal NDP would be any different than its provincial counterparts, that the federal NDP would strengthen rather than leech the power of social movements, that it would not immediately shift to the right when it gained power, can be put to rest for the next few years, can be put to rest for the next few years. Mulcair's views on foreign policy are retrograde, starting with his hateful and reactionary stance towards Palestinians."
Mulcair's past comments about the Middle East - in which he declared himself a "supporter of Israel in all situations and circumstances" -- have troubled many activists.
His seemingly softened stance toward oil sands development, as well, sugggests a blurring of lines between the NDP and the overtly pro-oil Conservatives. In a recent interview with the Toronto Star, he said: “You’ll never hear me speaking against the development of the oil sands.”
In the past, Mulcair has been critical of Alberta's oil sands development. In a Policy Options magazine, he described Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s support for the industry as "immoral", saying the "current manner of tar sands development" would be impossible without "destroying important ecosystems". Mulcair's more recent calls for sustainable development of the "oil sands", however, has some activists worried if he will make compromises to court new voters.
Losing touch with social movement
As NDP goes mainstream and is closer than ever to forming government, some activists say they feel the party has betrayed is social movement roots, which go back to populist Prairie preachers under the original Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the NDP's predecessor.
Several prominent Left commentators, including StopWar.ca's Derrick O'Keefe and Rebick, asked why there was little or no reference to current social upheaval over tuition fee hikes in Quebec, particularly considering so much of the leadership race hinged on who could maintain the NDP's wave of popularity in Quebec. Student protests in Mulcair's own province swelled in the last days of the NDP race, drawing upwards of 200,000 people to the streets on Thursday.
“The symbol of the students is a red patch,” Rebick told the Vancouver Observer. “Why wasn't it all over the (NDP) convention floor?
“I think only Peggy Nash's group was wearing them. Nobody mentioned it in their speeches. (New Democrats) need to keep in touch with social change on ground – that's the main way to stay relevant. Join the students against the tuition hikes, fight economic inequality, (take action) against the tar sands and in defence of Aboriginal land. That's what the party has to do – it needs to keep its links to those.”
She's not opposed to electoral politics, Rebick insisted, but wrote in a blog post on Rabble.ca that partisan politics need to face pressure from social movements to make meaningful change.
Rebick emphasized that in her view, the NDP has been shifting away from its left-wing roots for years, and that despite her personal friendship with late leader Jack Layton, he too facilitated this movement in order to garnish votes and professionalize the party.
Her worries were echoed by prominent political commentator Murray Dobbin.
"There seems to have been a kind of 'We'll worry about policies later, let's pick someone who can win first, ' " he wrote in The Tyee. He expressed concern that Mulcair's main appeal for NDP voters seemed to be the fact that he was as "ruthless" and as "tough" as Stephen Harper, and that his electability seemed to be more emphasized than his policies.
Mulcair's media stonewalling and "whisper" smear
During the leadership campaign, Mulcair expressed concern that he was being smeared by a “whisper campaign” about his unwavering support for Israel, his qualified support for oil sands development, and the circumstances in which he moved from the Quebec Liberals to the NDP.
Screenshot from the "Know Mulcair" campaign by NDP members.
Throughout the campaign, many journalists reported having difficulty interviewing the reportedly mercurial and temperamental MP. He declined most interviews with the CBC, would not speak to the national progressive site Rabble.ca, and outright refused to speak to multiple requests from the Vancouver Observer. However, he was interviewed by the Georgia Straight, the Toronto Star and the Huffington Post during the campaign. Some suggested his avoidance of the media was an intentional tactic to keep his campaign on track.
However, party insiders spoke only of unity, maintaining a common front as Mulcair confronted Harper during Question Period today and plans to roll out an ad campaign to preempt Conservative attack ads on Mulcair sometime in the next few weeks. Part of the problem, Rebick said, was that many criticisms of Mulcair during the campaign were not openly expressed, leading to a "whisper campaign."
“The fact that none of this whisper campaign came out in open was a problem,” she said. “Someone should have risked (Mulcair's) wrath or disunity by asking him (his position on Israel-Palestine and the tar sands).
“He's very much in the mold of an old-style political leader: his campaigning style, his debating style, are very patriarchal – it's my way or the high way. What was so refreshing about Jack (Layton) was that he wasn't like that.”