Quebec MP Tom Mulcair takes over a party unsure of its future ideological direction and facing particular challenges in Western Canada.
The leadership outcome, following four interminable rounds of balloting, had been widely predicted by pundits and pollsters. Mulcair, after all, had received the most donations and endorsements of the seven contenders through the seven-month campaign.
In a one-member, one-vote exercise, NDPers ultimately decided their most important task in picking Jack Layton’s successor was to consolidate the Quebec gains the deceased leader was credited with making in last year’s election.
Already, the party had experienced a January defection to the Liberals by Quebec MP Lise St.-Denis, who attributed her crossing to Layton’s passing.
Mulcair, a former Montreal Liberal MNA who was in the lead from the first ballot, went into the Toronto convention with backing from most of the party’s 58 Quebec MPs.
Going forward, New Democrats will try to use their strong positioning in Quebec to pitch the NDP as the party of national unity.
But the crowning of Mulcair could be problematic, particularly after Ed Broadbent’s stunning criticisms in recent days of the new leader.
The 76-year-old NDP elder statesman, supporting candidate Brian Topp, slammed Mulcair for his policies and prickly personality. He opined that the front-runner "bombed" in his Friday speech at the convention.
Those controversial opinions are causing discord within the party, adding to fears New Democrats now will have a problem staying united.
As well, under their new leader, the NDP will have challenges in the West, booming as a result of robust resource development.
The party won just three of 46 Prairie seats in 2011. This is a region where the NDP has to grow if it hopes to become government.
But with Mulcair’s home base in Quebec and his unrelenting criticism of government environmental policies related to the oilsands, it’s difficult to see how he’ll boost the party’s western vote.
In B.C., party members strongly favoured second-place finisher Topp — a former party president handicapped by not having a Commons seat — and third-place Nathan Cullen.
Others in the party worry about where Mulcair will take the party in terms of its traditional embrace of social democracy.
Mulcair has said he’s determined to "modernize" the NDP with a view to attracting a new group of voters he identifies as progressives — a turnoff for those opposing co-operation with the demon Liberals.
Mulcair also must decide how much to cosy up to the labour movement at a time when unions are perceived as self-interested fat cats and losing public support.
The convention itself, attracting more than 4,000 members, was a far from polished affair, persisting long enough to conflict with Saturday night hockey.
A plan for 90 minutes of voting time between ballots was badly hampered by computer-related delays possibly related to an external cyber attack.
"This is unfortunate," admitted party president Rebecca Blaikie.
Additionally, several final video presentations the seven candidates showcased Friday appeared unpolished, running overtime — not up to standard for a political organization ready to form government.
If there were any convention surprises, it was Cullen’s relatively strong showing given that the MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley was barely taken seriously when the race began.
And many observers had expected Parkdale-High Park MP Peggy Nash, former party president, to make it onto the final ballot. Nash was eliminated after the second ballot.
In the interests of party unity, candidates sidelined by ballot results — with the exception of pharmacist Martin Singh — didn’t try to influence supporters by endorsing a competitor.
» Barbara Yaffe is a national affairs columnist for the Vancouver Sun.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 27, 2012