PHOTOS: Thomas Mulcair in Edmonton … shortly before the disappointing federal election on Oct. 19, 2015. Below: Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff, former NDP MP and leadership candidate Peggy Nash, and influential Alberta union leader Doug O’Halloran.

This probably isn’t a very nice way to put it, but the question everyone in Edmonton was asking themselves yesterday about Thomas Mulcair was, “How low can he go?”

There are tantalizing hints, but no way to know for sure how the embattled federal New Democratic Party Leader will do when the 1,800 or so delegates to the party’s national convention vote tomorrow on whether or not he must undergo a leadership review.

There’s a cruel and mysterious political calculus to such votes: Above a certain imprecise threshold they’re a powerful endorsement. Below it, a leader is a goner. In between, the leader may have to slay a political dragon or two to keep the job, but it’s possible.

Adding to the confusion, it’s a moving target … varying from party to party, and from time to time and place to place. Between 2006 and 2011, the late Jack Layton got endorsements of 92, 89 and 98 per cent at federal NDP conventions.

But a respectable sounding 77 per cent was too low to guarantee the survival of two Alberta Tory premiers – Alison Redford and Ed Stelmach – the last time their party’s members took a close look at their respective performances. Another, Ralph Klein, departed almost immediately after getting the endorsement of only 55 per cent.

Back in January 1983, 66.9 per cent wasn’t enough to save former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark’s sorry prospects at the party bunfest in Winnipeg after he’d spent two disappointing years back in opposition. Mr. Clark called a leadership convention later the same year and lost to Brian Mulroney.

In 2013, after winning the leadership race that followed Mr. Layton’s death in August 2011, Mr. Mulcair got a 93-per-cent endorsement from his party. He won’t get anything like that this time. He’ll be very lucky, it’s said here, if he gets … 66.9 per cent, let alone 77.

Still, half a year of lowered expectations after being busted back to third party status in what was surely the most disappointing election result in the NDP’s history – even if it’s also one of the best in numbers of MPs alone – 77 per cent would be interpreted as a hearty endorsement for Mr. Mulcair, and even 66.9 might be acceptable.

Just to confuse matters, the question delegates will be voting on is whether to hold a formal leadership, so a strong “Yes” vote is a “No” vote for Mr. Mulcair.

The prevailing consensus on the convention floor in Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre yesterday? There wasn’t one. Ask anyone there what they thought would happen tomorrow, and predictions ranged from about 50 per cent for Mr. Mulcair to the mid-70s.

Mr. Mulcair seems to have set the bar for himself about 70 per cent – but here’s betting that, unlike Mr. Clark, he won’t throw in the towel if he tallies support a hair below that.

Indeed, that’s another question New Democrats were asking themselves yesterday: What happens if Mr. Mulcair’s support falls into that murky range, will he stay or go? And if he goes, who the heck will replace him?

“He’ll quit, there’s no doubt,” one well informed observer told me. “He’s too stubborn, there’s no way he’ll quit,” said another, presumably equally in touch with the pulse of the party.

We’ll see. One thing is certain – the party is divided on this question.

Former leadership candidate Peggy Nash railed at Mr. Mulcair’s campaign results in a Huffington Post contribution on Tuesday.

“Our national NDP campaign let us down in spectacular fashion,” she wrote. “That it was so tone deaf to the mood of the nation and ultimately so incompetent in its campaign offer to Canadians, was simply heartbreaking. At the historic moment when Canadians overwhelmingly wanted change, our national campaign appeared to want to match the tone and approach of the Conservatives.” That sums up the party Left’s basic position.

Hassan Yussuff, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, struck a similar note, telling the Globe and Mail in an interview the day before that Mr. Mulcair doesn’t deserve another term as leader and forecasting he’ll receive less than 60 per cent.

This sparked a blistering response Thursday from Doug O’Halloran, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 and one of the most influential union leaders in Alberta.

“I was shocked and disappointed by your comments in the Globe and Mail,” Mr. O’Halloran told Mr. Yussuff in the letter, which was circulating widely at the convention. “Eighty per cent of the CLC union affiliate presidents are backing Mr. Mulcair to remain as leader. Who are you to be critical of this endorsement in the public via the media? … You do realize that you’re saying the leaders of these unions don’t know what they’re talking about and you do? I find this totally unacceptable, irresponsible and frankly stupid.”

Mr. O’Halloran closed the missive by telling the CLC leader he was “effectively contributing to the destruction of the New Democratic Party and only the Liberals will gain from your ill-conceived negative comments.”

Meanwhile, cabinet and caucus members of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP Government are far from happy with Mr. Mulcair’s equivocal attitude about a pipeline to move Alberta petroleum resources to a salt-water port. They see success on this file as an existential issue for their government. Many of them were working the floor at convention pushing the need for a pipeline – and it’s hard to imagine that effort won’t translate into votes against Mr. Mulcair’s leadership.

Representatives of the party’s left wing – surprisingly strong in supposedly conservative Alberta – are furious at Mr. Mulcair’s adoption of the Tory position on deficits before the disastrous Oct. 19 federal election, which allowed the Liberals of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to outflank the party on the left just at the moment Canadian voters were moving that way.

With something like 500 signed-up delegates from Alberta, there probably couldn’t be a more difficult piece of terrain in Canada right now for Mr. Mulcair to face this test than Edmonton. Who knew, when the NDP chose by happenstance to hold its convention in Alberta, that a lot of members here would soon be in a mood to smash some crockery?

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  1. A revolution would be pointless, as Chris Hedges points out (The Death of the Liberal Class); perpetual revolt is necessary for real change. But let’s let some nice middle class kids paint the canvas of Mr. Mulcair’s dilemma (note to the clash – wearing a Che beret does not make you Che).

  2. This has a familiar ring. The leadership contest between Laxer and Lewis comes to mind. That takes us back four decades. As an Alberta New Democrat, I can tell you that is like four eternities. Mentioning Lewis in the same sentence as Mulcair is an affront to Mr. Lewis, but it depicts the period, not the persons.

    In Alberta, we have had plenty of time, and experience, to figure out who our friends are. Agrarian socialists from Saskatchewan were always allies. Big Labour was always an anathema. Our prairie friends are imperilled nowadays, and we already know how easily the fickle, treasonous voices of Labour (McGowan/Mulcair) can turn on us and our Premier

    Mulcair and his loyalists have given us nothing but scorched prairie and they threaten to erase all that Jack Layton and Grant Notley dedicated their lives to.

    Mulcair is not relevant here -he is only politely tolerated.

    I hope Premier Notley will honour her father and show Mr. Mulcair the door. Then, she can proceed to build a better Alberta without the old baggage.

    1. Really well put. I am with you on hoping that Notley will build a better Alberta.

      I have to admit though that I’m getting so tired of feeling like as a western NDP the party is run from Ontario and Quebec with little regard to the experiences and knowledge of people in the west. I keep hearing so many variations of “westerners don’t vote NDP so why do we bother with them?” which really feels like a slap in the face when I’ve spent my own time and money supporting the NDP in the west.

  3. What do these tears mean? Nothing. of course. The rich must continue their richness lubricated by the tears of their slaves. Hallelujah, amen.

  4. The pipeline issue is part of a larger narrative, one that pits moderate environmental progressives against hard-core radical “environazis” that want to completely abolish fossil fuel consumption, cold turkey. We need to wean our society off of hydrocarbon combustion as an energy source if we have any hope of slowing, halting and eventually reversing anthropogenic climate change, but “leaving it in the ground” would be irresponsible. Firstly, those that suffer long-term job losses won’t be the one-percenters at the top of energy corporation org charts; it’ll be the thousands, nay tens of thousands of ordinary energy industry workers, both employees and small contractors, as well as the tens of thousands more in the larger economy, who are collateral damage when energy-dependent economies tank and people stop spending because they’re broke or in minimum-wage precarious retail or service-sector jobs.

    Secondly, what practical alternatives are there to hydrocarbon combustion for energy? Conservation can only go so far without immense capital investment by individual homeowners. Yes, you can spend a few hundred or a few thousand dollars to beef up the insulation in your house, but it would take years to recoup that investment in lower energy costs. Hybrid or full-electric cars and a greater commitment to transit use might be practical in major metropolitan centres and more temperate climates, but what about rural and small-city residents and more northern climes? Electric vehicles, for example, suffer a severe reduction in range as temperatures drop below -10 C, and small cars are not all that practical in rural areas anyway where you deal with unpacked roads and deep hard-packed snow.

    Similarly, smaller cities often have very minimal transit services, geared mostly to serving lower-income residents that cannot afford a vehicle, rather then enticing everyday commuters to leave their cars (or pickups) at home. Witness, for example, the debate going on in Edmonton right now about transit strategy; imagine how tough this discussion is in the Fort McMurrays and
    Grande Prairies of the world.

    Not only that, in provinces without the enormous advantage of a well-established hydroelectric generation infrastructure, does switching from gasoline or diesel to electric power reduce GHGs, versus just shifting it from the end user to the power company?

    To have any credibility, the NDP needs to disavow the “leave it in the ground” radicals (let them join the Greens) and instead advocate for responsible, worker- and consumer-friendly energy development and yes, pipelines, with stringent environmental protection and health & safety oversight. Let them support alternative energy development through incentives that shift market forces towards low-carbon energy and give ordinary people a break; remove market-distorting tax treatment and regulatory regimes that give an unfair advantage to hydrocarbon energy and disadvantage low- or zero-emission energy use; work to wean Eastern Canada off of oil imported from unstable and repressive countries overseas in favour of Western Canadian oil and gas that employed Canadians; create the conditions for investment in value-added production right here in Canada instead of exporting jobs to US-based upgraders, refineries and petrochemical manufacturers; consider public participation in the energy market, whether through Crown corporations or public purchase of equity positions in key industry players, as a policy lever to gradually shift investment more towards renewables and low-emissions energy sources; put in place labour market policies that protect the little guy from the adverse consequences of disinvestment in hydrocarbon energy; create province-wide transit strategies, setting aside municipal government feuding and jurisdictional barriers, that put a minimum of 80% of the population, and ideally up to 95% of the population, within reach of reliable, practical and convenient public transit; and abrogate so-called free trade deals that limit governments’ ability to take effective action within their jurisdictions in the best interests of heir citizens (this is about the only thing from the Leap Manifesto I support).

    Instead of “free trade”, let us have an economy that is based on the principle that “if you want to sell to Canadians, you must employ Canadians and/or buy from Canadians”, in kind of an economy-wide Auto Pact.

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