OTTAWA—Tom Mulcair and Andrea Horwath will share a stage next week at the provincial party’s spring gala in Toronto.
Publicly, it will be smiles and camaraderie. Privately, some members of the federal leader’s Ontario caucus and his inner circle are looking at the Horwath campaign with anxiety.
While Mulcair has praised Horwath’s “positive, optimistic” vision, there are concerns here about the messaging in the provincial campaign, the decision to force a vote at this time and the landscape the federal party might be traversing in the politically-key southern Ontario ridings in next year’s federal vote.
There are those who believe Horwath brought down the Liberals a year too late and is now not pushing back strongly enough against a budget that is a political document that cannot be delivered. Others wonder why the campaign lacks any big, fresh ideas.
They are painfully aware Horwath’s recent appearance in Ottawa was poorly attended compared to the same events by her provincial rivals, and aware that some labour organizations refused to buy a table for her appearance.
One senior federal New Democrat said simply they are “watching . . . and learning.’’
Specifically, federal New Democrats are watching an attempt by the party to tack toward the middle where the votes lie, while fighting off backbiting from within for allegedly giving up on progressive voters and the causes they hold dear.
Mulcair is expected to steer the party in the same direction next year.
He will go to the polls with the NDP’s best chance for power in its history, campaigning with a mix of “small ball” policies, packaged around expected bold policies on the environment and sustainable development. Federal NDP strategists dismiss the tag of “small ball.” They call issues such as bank fees, gas prices and fees for paper bills “consumer issues” and they believe they engage voters who don’t think of politics in old right-left terms.
They dismiss a critical letter to Horwath from self-described NDP stalwarts — a manifesto that reads like it was written at an Annex dinner party that went one bottle of red over the line — as an attempt to drag the party back to what one called the “Audrey McLaughlin” days, a reference to a campaign two decades ago when the party remained ideologically pure and lost official party status.
This is a rebellion against success, they argue.
But it has put a bit of a jolt through a federal GTA caucus that will face a fierce challenge from Liberals next year.
It is a battle the federal party has had to fight time and again.
This type of backlash, social conscience versus pursuit of power, dogged Jack Layton early in his leadership but is something the federal party believes it has shed. Mulcair conceded during the leadership race of 2012 there were still pockets within the party which felt an electoral victory would be a sellout.
That sense ran so deeply in the NDP firmament it had to pass a resolution at its 2006 convention, allowing the party to “consciously and publicly” seek to form a government and build a platform focused on programs for a first-term government.
In 2015, the federal party will put some big ideas in the window, but will have to be careful not to overpromise.
A much bigger challenge will be for Mulcair and his team to shed some of its baggage and preconceived notions that the NDP cannot be a friend to the middle class and small business and will not tax voters into submission.
Indeed, Mulcair has pledged that he will not touch personal income taxes if elected.
He will roll back Stephen Harper’s move to push Old Age Security eligibility from age 65 to 67, he will hold firm to a commitment to abolish the Senate and will re-engage with the provinces by pledging twice-yearly first ministers meetings.
He will further refine a polluter-pay policy on sustainable development which may not be as bold as the NDP old guard might like, but will be billed as a common sense approach to the environment and climate change.
Mulcair will not have to choose between an NDP-friendly budget or a trip to the polls. The federal party will have its own issues and its own messaging in Ontario next year.
But it must grow in Ontario and it doesn’t want to have to try to do so on a battleground littered with politically dead and wounded provincial cousins who could not prevent an exodus to the Liberals in order to stop a right-wing leader.