Needless to say, last night's election results represented something close to the NDP's worst-case scenario on a lot of fronts: both in terms of seat counts, and losing the seats held by some of the most impressive MPs and candidates in Canadian politics. And I'll comment in future posts on the areas where the NDP will want to take lessons away for future campaigns.
But there's still some opportunity to be found in the identity (or lack thereof) of the new majority government - and it's for the best that Tom Mulcair is planning to make the most of it.
When I wrote earlier about Mulcair's options following the election, the starting point was that we'd likely be in a minority Parliament. But while there's no longer a need to bargain for votes in the House of Commons, there's ample room now to define the issues which will be dealt with - particularly given the Libs' lack of direction and the Cons' impending leadership race.
Remember that the last time the Liberals swept to power, the NDP lost official party status while Reform became the most prominent national opposition voice. And it could hardly be a surprise that a governing party with no defining values of its own pushed austerian policies - and indeed took on the mindset for itself - when the most obvious imminent threat came from the right.
In contrast, the Cons will now have to go through a leadership contest to figure out what precisely they stand for without Stephen Harper dictating their every word - meaning that they'll be in little position to drive a particular policy agenda.
As a result, even from third place in the party standings the NDP should be able to challenge the Libs to follow through on their "progressive" messaging - both through Parliament, and by engaging with the citizens and groups who voted for change. And there's some significant upside in either foreseeable result of a concerted push to set the agenda: the NDP will be able to claim significant policy victories which will keep voters focused on what's possible as a country, and/or it will move toward the next election having eliminated any doubts as to which party actually stands for a compassionate Canada at a point when the details of progressive visions are likely to matter most.
Meanwhile, there's also still room for the public's positive impressions of Mulcair to play a substantial role in the next election campaign. And that goes doubly if Trudeau proves to be less effective in government than as a campaign showpiece while a new Con leader fails to gain traction.
In contrast, any immediate move to change leaders would expose the NDP to the same glaring problems facing the Cons: the lack of a coherent current message, and the risk associated with starting from scratch under an undefined leader.
Given those options, the best plan for now is for Mulcair to lead the way in defining the direction of the next Parliament, and to make sure that the theme of stopping Harper doesn't merely lead to inertia for both the NDP and Canada as a whole.
[Edit: fixed wording.]