Away with Alexa?

Would an exciting leader please come forward?


Rating: NNNNN


the morning after voting day,many NDPers were happy with their 13 seats. As their leader monotoned Monday night, “We’re very pleased to be back with official party status.” In that just-less-than-disastrous result lies the danger. The expectations of the party have sunk dramatically since those long-ago days when the party under Ed Broadbent verged on official opposition. Now, mere survival is enough. Having eked out that modest goal, will the party go back to sleep for another four years and fail to deal with its profound problems?

Calls to Ottawa Tuesday morning elicit some thoughtful musings from those who worked on the central campaign. “I would hope the party would ask some hard questions about whether there’s something wrong with our message,” says a senior member of the campaign. “We always say, “Oh, it was the campaign, or the message didn’t get out, or the logo was bad.’ We never face up to the fact that the public did hear the message and didn’t like it. And that’s the one that hurts.”

Of course, much blame is being thrown in the general direction of Alexa McDonough, of whom many say that to know her is to dislike her. Though McDonough vowed to those close to her to stay in the job for 10 years, and her term is only half over, no one wants to go into the next election with her at the helm.

For all her down-home, apple-pie, stoic sweetness, she’s a stubborn woman who holds a grudge. Many recall that she constantly squabbled with her Nova Scotia caucus when she was leader down there, and that the provincial party only became official opposition after she was gone. Interestingly, she declined to be interviewed by NOW before the election, though her staff encouraged her. It seems she didn’t like two critical earlier pieces about her. Too thin-skinned for a national leader?

Her personal shortcomings will continue to hamper her ability to lead an effective caucus. She and Svend Robinson, the ideological hardliner many would prefer as leader, hate each other. And her lack of personal presence limits her ability to sew together MPs divided by radical and centrist views of what it is to be a social democrat, and by the rural and urban split between the ridings they represent.

“She doesn’t have a lot of friends in caucus and she has a lot fewer now because there are three fewer from Atlantic Canada,” says one NDPer close to the Ottawa scene.

But there is no obvious successor and no appetite for a quick leadership race. And Harry Hynd of District 6 of the United Steelworkers, traditionally as sympathetic to the NDP as the CAW is critical of it, says dumping the leader would do no good anyway.

Hynd says the explanation for the NDP’s poor performance is a lot more complicated than the person at the top. It has more to do with the loss of an egalitarian outlook among Canadians, which makes them less receptive to the NDP’s message. “We’d all like to be a little more exciting, but Alexa did the best she could. And I don’t think destroying people is in the best interests of the party.”

Amidst the disappointment in Ontario ­– Hynd worked on Mel Watkins’ campaign in the Beach and expected him to do better ­– there is one good omen. Joe Comartin is the first NDP MP to be elected from Ontario since 1988. As the central campaign team watched the TV results Monday night, they debated who, if they could only have one of them, it would be better to have ­– Comartin or Michael Valpy.

Valpy, said one camp, because the party needs a rep from the media capital of the country. Comartin, said others, because as director of the Canadian Auto Workers legal affairs department, he will be a conduit between the party and troublemaker Buzz Hargrove. Perhaps the new MP will be able to keep the CAW leader cooled out and not always spouting off to the National Post about starting a new party. (For his part, Hargrove tells NOW that Comartin is his own man, not a rep for the CAW leadership, adding that the party should cancel the February federal council meeting and begin discussions immediately about the NDP’s crisis.)

But the failure of the Valpy campaign must be a lesson for the NDP, says Bob Gallagher, a veteran activist in the gay community who is also executive assistant to councillor Olivia Chow and was a senior member of the Valpy campaign. “We don’t need to rebuild only in the sense of getting the riding associations in better shape. We need to connect with those parts of progressive thought that are all alive and well out there. One of the things I liked about Michael Valpy was the way he broke across different parts of the left.”

Mel Watkins concurs with the need to get the broader left onboard, and figures the party has to reconsider the transformation that occurred in the 50s when the CCF became the NDP, altering not only its name but its nature. “The CCF was more movement-based and the NDP was much more clearly just a political party. We have to revisit that decision. The times have changed.” glennw@nowtoronto.com

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