They are the combination of images that most likely will propel feisty Thomas Mulcair to the leadership position of Canada's federal NDP party.
The Top Two Duke it out:
Topp burst out of the starting gate in the race to succeed Jack Layton soon after Layton's tragic death, rolling up endorsements from senior party leaders and a smattering of others, and starting a cross-country tour to introduce himself to the many Dippers who had never seen him in action.
Now Mulcair has tossed his hat into the ring. These two are the only serious contenders for the leadership of the NDP.
The Need for A Story:
For either men to win, they will need to sell their 'Story' to the tens of thousands of Dippers spread in pockets across the width and depth of Canada. That Story is the single most essential part of the ammunition of each leader:
Key to Nenshi's win was [Stephen] Carter's "new theory of electioneering," in which he promoted three dimensions of brand politics: personality, ideas and story. "If you can build that brand, people will follow that brand. They're not interested in right or left (on the political spectrum)," says Carter.
So far, Mulcair has the far better Story to tell.
While Topp's Story is vague, it seems to revolve around this: I have been involved in politics for a long time, the Unions like me, I knew and worked with Jack, most of the older leaders in the party support me, and I live to the west of Quebec (I am the non-Quebecker in this race).
The 3 Building Blocks in the Mulcair Story:
The Mulcair Story so far is, in my view, remarkably effective.
It will resonate with Dippers throughout Canada, and also – importantly – with other voters who are intrigued by the success of Layton's Orange Crush victories and who will weigh up the next NDP leader in deciding whether to support the NDP in the 2015 election.
The Mulcair Story has 3 easily understood, easily explainable, and powerful elements, and can be summed up by these four words: Underdog, Shoulder to Shoulder, and Winnability.
These are the 3 themes of the Mulcair Story that he and his supporters have already introduced into the political dialogue of the NDP leadership race, and into the wider dialogue of who progressive voters should support to defeat Stephen Harper.
The Underdog Story:
As the Globe & Mail records, Mulcair has expressly cast himself as the Underdog fighting the Party Establishment in this campaign, who are not being fair to Layton's breakthrough in Quebec:
Thomas Mulcair has launched an underdog bid to transform the New Democratic Party into a broader movement with fewer ties to unions and its traditional elites.
In an earlier report, the Globe & Mail put it this way:
The NDP deputy leader is planning to launch his campaign with a bang on Thursday, casting himself as somewhat of an outsider who is ready to go against the wishes of the party’s establishment to bring New Democrats to power in 2015...
“It was quite clear from the early days that a lot of the party brass were going to rally behind a candidate that they wanted to put in place, but the whole purpose of a leadership race is to put everything on the table and say what your vision is, how you think the party can grow, and where,” he said in an interview on Wednesday evening.
Mulcair has widened the attack from an attack on Topp himself, to a charge that the party establishment brass are ganging up on him and on Quebec. He is using the framing of fairness in his fight with the party brass:
To catch up to Mr. Topp, who has support outside Quebec and in the party’s base, Mr. Mulcair must sell a massive number of new memberships. On Thursday, he blasted the party organization, saying it is not processing new memberships fast enough to enable people signed up late in the campaign to vote. Quebec is home to 59 of the party’s 102 seats, but it accounts for only about 3 per cent of the membership, which is minuscule in a one-member, one-vote leadership selection process.“The party has an obligation to fix the situation,” he said.
That fairness framing will resonate with Quebec members of the party, and also with members in other provinces: fairness is one of the touchstones of NDP values. Every act of resistance or of delay by the party brass to assist in rapid and massive membership enrolment in Quebec will allow the Mulcair group to cry foul again and again.
This framing of fairness to the province where Jack Layton recently broke the grip of the Bloc is a good one for Mulcair, as it puts him on the side of the angels, and by implication, puts Topp on the negative side of the frame. To avoid this, Topp will have to side with Mulcair and push for faster and easier membership enrolment in Quebec, which of course would boost Mulcair's chances. If Topp does not do this, he runs the risk of being seen as anti-Quebec and depreciating Layton's historic breakthrough there. On this score, Topp is damned if he does and damned if he does not.
Everybody loves an underdog, and Dippers have this in their DNA.
The Shoulder to Shoulder Story:
Jack Layton died soon after he had led the NDP to a historic high in seats in Parliament, and broken the grip of the separatist Bloc in Quebec.
There are echoes of Martin Luther King's premature death in this timing.
On April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination the next day, King spoke of the civil rights struggle, and of the fact that he might not be there to witness the victory:
But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The imagery of a leader being cut down just before his struggles have led to victory is a powerful one, resonant with courage, despair and hope.
Mulcair's supporters are tapping into something similar:
“Jack brought us here,” added another campaign co-chair, New Brunswick NDP leader Dominic Cardy. “Tom will take us the rest of the way.”
And Mulcair himself touched on a similar theme, when, after mentioning that he and Layton had worked shoulder to shoulder in Quebec to build the party there and pave the way for its May 2 victory, he went on to say:
"Jack may not be here to see that day," the Montreal MP said from a podium, surrounded by fellow parliamentarians. "But thanks to him, that day will come... I'm not trying to replace Jack Layton. I want to succeed him by building on what he's already brought."
This last framing of the Shoulder to Shoulder Story is, in The Cat's view, remarkably astute. It tells a story of a party that is moving, not mired in the past; of a party that has recently won substantial victories under its late leader, but still has to complete the journey. This framing casts the Mulcair forces as dynamic, moving forward towards the destination that Layton set for the party: to be the next government of Canada.
That is a powerful element of the Mulcair Story.
The Winnability Story:
Consider these statements:
“This leadership race is about picking the person who is best placed to beat Stephen Harper in the next election,” Mulcair said...
Later, Mulcair’s supporters fanned out among the media to pump up their candidate’s chances.
“We know Tom can win elections,” Nystrom said. “We don’t know that about Brian Topp.”
The Winnability building block has two elements, one personal and one electoral.
On the personal side, the theme is that as between the two contenders, Mulcair has the Winnability Gene (as his track record and his work with Layton in Quebec demonstrates). Topp, by contrast, has never run for elected office and so has backroom dealing victories to his credit, but none in the public space.
As for the electoral element, Mulcair is running on being the right person to prepare the NDP for the future, while Topp is wedded to the past. Mulcair's message is that for the Jack Layton revolution of NDP fortunes to be carried forward, the NDP needs to widen its appeal to more voters and so position itself to beat Harper's Tories in 2015:
“When you talk about growing the party, we have to grow beyond just union membership and expand out to Canadians who we’ve never spoken to before,” Mr. Harris said.
Topp, by looking backwards, would mire the NDP in its past positions as a union-controlled protest movement, rather than a potential progressive government in waiting:
The attempt to marginalize the NDP brass and union leaders could cost him the support of long-time party members, most of whom are outside of Quebec, where he is best known. But Mr. Mulcair's supporters feel that it is a necessary evolution for the Official Opposition, which will need to win another 50 seats to reach its goal of a majority government in the next election.
The MP for Outremont said the party must expand beyond its “traditional base” if it wants to replace the Conservatives, saying New Democrats must have the courage to “do things differently.”
He added the NDP especially needs to attract new support west of Quebec, where it has lots of roots “but not many trees.”
The Winnability theme of the Mulcair Story has two prongs: a proven track record in politics and in getting NDP MPs elected, and courage to face up to Stephen Harper.
Mr. Nystrom, who spent 32 years in Ottawa, said that being leader of the official opposition “is not an entry-level position.”
Even Mulcair's reputation (now being assidously spread by the media) for outspokeness has been turned to his advantage by his supporters:
Mr. Mulcair’s former colleagues in Quebec City remember a politician who took no prisoners.
“He is very charming, but if you get in the way of his principles, he can be a deadly killer,” said Liberal MNA Pierre Paradis.
And contrasted to what is needed to best Harper:
He said Mulcair’s reputation as abrasive and short-tempered is in fact an asset. “When you take on Mr. Harper in the house, if you’re a pussycat you’re going to get run over,” Marston said. “Tom’s not a pussycat.”
The unspoken implication, of course, is that Topp is a pussycat more at home prowling in backrooms than in fighting mano a mano in the public space.
There is no doubt that Mulcair's well documented courage in fighting for causes he thinks need to be supported, even if he has to go as far as terminating a senior role in a cabinet to make his point, will buttress this part of the Mulcair Story.
Both the personal and electoral element of the Winnability building block in the Mulcair Story should weigh heavily with younger Dippers, who are less enthused by the unions and the role they played in the past in establishing the party, and more geared to thinking of winning enough power to implement progressive policies. In this assessment, Mulcair is betting that he has the majority of NDP votes and the bulk of younger Dippers.
To sum up the Winnability message of Mulcair: If you want to move forward, vote Mulcair; if you want to stay where the party now is, vote Topp.
Every future poll of Dipper members that confirms that Mulcair is perceived as the one to move the party forward to power will strongly reinforce the Winnability Story, and further depress the attractiveness of Topp. Expect a flood of such polls in the next few months!