Any organization faces questions in trying to make the best use of the resources available to it. And in most cases, a deliberative body should be able to consider who might contribute what to the organization's goals, and ensure that power and responsibility are allocated accordingly.
In principle, there's no reason why political parties should operate any differently. But in most cases, they do: while there are plenty of subsidiary party bodies which consult and/or exercise formal power over decision-making, the fact of the matter is that we tend to operate on the assumption that all power flows from the party's leader. (And in the case of Stephen Harper's Cons, those same types of bodies which might serve as counterweights have been wiped out for the purpose of enabling Harper to exercise total top-down control.)
To some extent, that's been exacerbated by the requirement that a party leader sign nomination papers - which has facilitated central control over anybody who wants to run under a party banner. But there's no reason why a leader's role shouldn't be subject to both some discussion during a leadership campaign as to how to manage the talents of all the candidates, and ongoing checks and balances to keep leaders in touch with party members.
Those observations bring us to the NDP’s leadership race – where there’s a stark gap between the choices the organization would likely make based on a measured attempt to make the best use of each candidate’s talents, and the actual options for leadership voters as defined by the candidates themselves.
As a matter of personal appeal, there’s relatively little disagreement that Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen have presented themselves as the most skilled media operators and best presumptive faces of the party.
But both have attached their personal appeal to platforms which may give many members reason for concern. Mulcair is seeking what amounts to a blank cheque to “modernize” the party in unspecified ways – creating both uncertainty as to what he’d ultimately do, and backlash among members who don’t see the party’s best electoral outcome ever as a reason to change course and imitate the third-place party. And Cullen has generally stated that he sees the leadership as a mandate to pursue a multi-party joint nomination proposal - which is as worrisome to a great number of NDP supporters as it is difficult to defend in practice.
In a model which involved substantial discussion as to the best path forward, we’d expect either or both to be willing to talk out any differences in search of territory that’s more palatable to NDP members - with the likely end result that one or the other might become leader only by putting some water into his own wine (as both are eager to ask of members). But instead, both perceive their success as being tied to a brand which must be preserved at all costs. And so neither has been willing to move off of his controversial stance in public.
If the leadership contenders won't start a dialogue themselves, though, I'll challenge members to recognize that we're doing more than approaching a vending machine with a loonie in hand and seven different predetermined varieties of chips from which to choose.
Instead, we have a real role to play - not just in voting for a single leadership candidate, but in considering what each of the leadership candidates can best contribute to the party and country we want to build. And we should work both on discussing the possibilities, and casting votes intended to get to the best possible end result - even if the result doesn't fit with the simple narrative of "seven choices, pick one".
That may mean a strategic effort to place a vote for Romeo Saganash first in front of any votes intended to be subject to a caveat - providing substantive support for the individual candidate in the basic roles of face of the NDP and chief strategist, while also sending a clear message that the intention isn't to turn over unchecked power. And hopefully, we'll also see some pointed discussion by the candidates as to how they'd plan to work with the NDP's existing party structure.
But in the end, it's NDP members who have the power to decide the outcome of the leadership vote. And we should tread carefully with anybody who wants to assume control of the party without being willing to discuss how best to manage it for the years to come - while recognizing that a willingness to look to the wider interests at stake is exactly what we should want in a leader.
[Edit: fixed wording.]