In the short-term, and in the annals of NDP history, it will mean a lot. The NDP membership, though it did it with low turnout (which, by the way, I have to continue to say I TOLD YOU SO! to everyone), chose a capable leader that seems committed to taking the party one step farther than Jack Layton did - from protest movement to professional political party. That right there is the shift needed that I think even Jack may have had a hard time doing.
Because let's face it, the NDP for all its crowing about its successes in last year's election and its commitment to "moral politics," a codeword for being stubbornly ideological (both in the good and bad sense), it's yet to become a true political party capable of forming a government. It's a party, but it's not professional. It has a wide gap between its enthusiasm and its organizational capabilities. It was a Mulcair supporter who said it best - even Jack didn't expect what happaned in May 2nd, he thought it'd take another election at least. This is because the NDP machine in its traditional sphere - on the community level - is strong, yet it cannot compare to the strength of the national machines of either Conservatives, or the Liberals. That is still true today as it was twenty years ago as well.
The NDP for its entire existence has been a party of protest. That is a simple fact. The Conservatives and Liberals are parties of government. Even the Bloc had more professionalism. This is why on May 2nd, the NDP roared in Quebec but fell flat everywhere else. Quebec is pretty much the "protest province."
But now the NDP have put their hands in Tom Mulcair. Why they did, I'm not entirely sure. And I don't buy that it was necessarily because of Mulcair's ideas - the bulk of the NDP remains traditional. In my own opinion, Mulcair won because he out-politicianed the non-politicians that were running.
I mean, honestly, could you have seen Topp, Cullen, Nash, or Dewar running the country or any serious political party? Compare any of that lot and what they were saying to successful social democratic parties - UK Labour under Tony Blair, for instance. Whatever you thought of Blair's policies, the man was a consummate professional that gave Labour three back-to-back victories, and Gordon Brown could've easily won the 2010 election if not for his own personal failings (and the economic crisis). New Labour epitomized the concept of turning a protest party into something that could win consistently and on its own merits, rather than just on the preceeding government party falling into crisis. Which the Labour before the mid-1990's exactly was - winning power solely on the basis of the Tories getting into messes. Even Ed Milliband, who is a failure of a leader, has a professional party of government to rely on.
Nick Clegg, a professional leader (sort of) without a professional party, fell flat on his face in 2010 despite polling wildly higher than in decades, and now look at him.
So you see why Mulcair's win is important. The NDP may not have chosen to fall in love with his ideas, but he's there and he will modernize the party. I'm not saying he's Tony Blair (unless that scares people, then he is), but he will set the party on the right course. The NDP now has a professional leader, it's time to make itself into a professional party.
And frankly, that may require shifting to the center. I never understand why the NDP are afraid of becoming "the new Liberals." Why would you not want to be us? Our party has shifted from left to right since its founding, and we represented - and in some ways still do - the governing philosophy of any long-lasting Canadian government, including Stephen Harper's. The key is appealing to the independents of our country, who right now sit in Harperland. Why? Because he's not as scary as you all like to make him out to be. He is professional, and that's what Canadians usually end up wanting. They don't like upstarts and amateurs.
If the NDP want to form government, they need to conform to what Canadians want, not wait for the electorate to move to them. The latter isn't sustainable. The former is key to long-term viability as a government party. Thomas Mulcair does that, and maybe, just maybe, it signifies that the NDP are here to stay as a new force to contend with.
And as a Liberal, that scares the crap out of me. (that's good, fyi)