It would be wrong to lay all the blame for the NDP?s dismal showing in last week?s election on Howard Hampton?s doorstep, but that?s a good place to start.
Unfortunately, NDPers are loath to lay into their leaders, especially one like Hampton, who for a decade has done a job that few wanted, with a stoic strength that earned him much admiration.
Hampton doesn't have to face a leadership review until the party's convention in 2009. But he's expected to give some indication of his intentions before them, maybe even at the party's provincial council next month. Regardless, the party is already scratching its head over who might take over so it's useful to itemize the NDP leader's weaknesses in order to rule in and out some of the many names put forward as possible replacements.
First off, Hampton is from northern Ontario, a different world from the south. Maybe that's why he's never clicked with Toronto NDPers, who often feel he doesn't relate to them as well as he does to, say, laid-off sawmill workers in Kenora.
Certainly Hampton's call for a delay in closing coal-fired energy plants in Thunder Bay and Atikokan to save northern jobs stuck in the craw of lots of smog-choked southerners.
But the NDP picked up the Thunder Bay seat, so that ploy worked - one of the few in this campaign that did. Now it's time for a leader from a big city. Too bad for Charlie Angus, the left-wing Catholic musician and popular MP for Timmins-James Bay and a name making the rounds as future leader. Maybe next time.
But geography isn't the only factor keeping Hampton at a distance from downtowners. He's always been a little suspicious of us, as if we were all in league with the likes of Judy Rebick and her band of hard leftists, who do not have the pulse of the province the way he thinks he does.
As a former colleague confides, "Howard has a narrow comfort zone." Rather than depart from the tried and true to capture the public imagination, Hampton could only rely on his worthy fight for a $10 minimum wage to fuel interest in an otherwise flat campaign directed by his close friend Rob Milling, architect of two previous disastrous showings. "There was nothing shiny and new," laments a party insider.
That makes it a bad idea to look to the caucus old-timers whose names are being bandied about - in particular, east-end Toronto MPP Michael Prue and the maverick from Welland, Peter Kormos.
What the party needs is someone with the image and appeal to enlarge the NDP tent, which rules out two other names making the rounds. One is Peggy Nash, the current federal member for Parkdale-High Park, who will face off in her next federal election outing against Grit star and would-be leader Gerard Kennedy. It's a match that few expect her to win, and that being the case, she'll be available soon.
So is Sid Ryan, the CUPE Ontario leader beaten yet again in Oshawa in last week's election. There are many NDPers who dread the thought of the high-maintenance Ryan in charge of the provincial party, which makes him an extreme long shot.
But Ryan's and Nash's union links (she used to be a right-hand woman to CAW president Buzz Hargrove) should rule them out from the get-go. Choosing a leader whose CV is so labour-heavy would only confirm the perception that the NDP is nothing but a nostalgic outfit pining for a past when everyone had a unionized job and a pension.
That's less and less the case in the private sector; the rate of unionization is edging inexorably downward.
The NDP's exclusive focus on "working families" has already marginalized it among those whose self-image doesn't match that old-school vocabulary, whether they're younger voters, singles or owners of small businesses.
The latter group, in particular,could be a valuable constituency for the NDP. How about some advocacy on behalf of those long-suffering franchisers trapped in unequal relationships with their brand boss? The way to reach the rest of us may be to crank up the volume on consumer advocacy.
But the NDP is better at blame than at change, a failing perfectly illustrated by Hampton on election night, when, after coming up with only 10 seats, he said he'd have done nothing differently and that his plan would be "steady as she goes." The problem, he explained, was the media and John Tory's religious schools debacle, which sucked up all the air time.
The person whose name comes up more than any other as future leader knows that her party has to change. But Cheri DiNovo, MPP for Parkdale High Park, says the top job is not open - the party has a leader she supports, and she has other things to think about, among them private member's bills and a book on theology she wants to write.
"To me, the issue for the party is not who is the leader," says the 60s renegade who's now a United Church preacher - a latter-day Tommy Douglas, some call her. Rather, she says, the party should be figuring out how to appeal to those who are disillusioned with all the established parties, her own included. In particular, the party should be opening a dialogue with those who voted Green.
"A lot of strategic conversations have to take place," she says.
Knowing there's a problem is the first qualification for this job. That, at least, makes her eligible to apply.