Murray Dobbin’s opinion piece in The Tyee, “If Mulcair Survives Next Week’s Review, the NDP Is Doomed”
unfortunately plays right into the mainstream media’s tendency to assume that the leader of a political party is the only person who really counts.
While it is true that the Canadian law setting out the rules for political parties enshrines the notion of the party as a hierarchy driven by a leader with inordinate power to disregard policies adopted by the membership and block prospective candidates selected by the members of their respective electoral district associations (EDAs), we should probably remember that those rules were created by the two traditional parties, principally the Liberal Party of Canada which put forward the Canada Elec5tions Act of 1984 but also the
Progressive-Conservative Party as it existed at the time. The smaller parties, such as the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Green Party of Canada (GPC), were at least theoretically more grassroots-driven, but in practice assumed that had to change if they were to attain any degree of electoral success.
I should explain for the sake of any non-Canadians (or uninvolved Canadians, for that matter) that Canadian voters do not register with a party affiliation and, by and large, would never dream of joining a political party. In a country of some 34 million citizens, a party is doing really well if it can recruit more than a few thousand members although becoming a member usually requires no more than the payment of $5.00 — a barrier kept deliberately low in the hope of making the party look as if it has a large base of support. Even at that, the usual requirement for those hoping to run for the party is to recruit as many new members as possible to support their candidacy, preferably members who will turn up to vote accordingly at the EDA’s meeting. In other words, becoming the EDA’s choice often involves packing the
meeting…but even then one’s candidacy isn’t assured.
The next step is vetting by “party HQ” — meaning the inner circle of party officials and staffers — which these days includes not only the full CV and prurient gossip but also everything one might have posted on social media since the Internet was invented. There might be some unpleasant surprises later (like the security footage of a Conservative candidate peeing into a coffee cup while working in a home) but the insiders try to catch any transgressions before they damaged the party’s credibility.
The final hurdle for a potential candidate: obtaining the required signature of the leader, who legally has the power to refuse with or without cause. And “cause” can be broadly defined to include an insistence on the policies adopted by the party membership rather than the leader’s personal preference or the campaign managers’ opinion that principles interfere with the chances of victory.
In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to have been a member of the NDP for a year around 1980 and a member of the GPC for around three in the early 2000s; I have also made brief forays into provincial and municipal parties. In all cases, it was with the hope of a) learning more about how these things worked than could be learned as an outsider, and b) on the off-chance that one of them would actually stick to the principles its membership held. Suffice it to say, at my age I’m no longer inclined to play Diogenes in the Canadian political landscape.
… Which brings us back to the current state of the NDP. Dobbin writes:
“The chances that the party can find its way out of this crisis are slim. Getting rid of Mulcair is just one step. The party would still have to find a new leader who embodies the social democratic values of the founders of the CCF/NDP. That will be hard, because the process requires a politically engaged membership who actually own their own party.”
>From what I can see, the issue is not that NDP members are disengaged from politics — most who bother to join a party are seeking direct engagement with the political process — but with the politically expedient model of top-down control.
Not having any personal skin in the game, I can opine that Thomas Mulcair has been one of the most effective opposition leaders Canada ever had, which helped the NDP enormously in the House after Jack Layton’s death. On the other hand, it should have been clear from the beginning that he was not a fan of “politics done differently” or dedicated to the principles of grassroots social democracy.
The @NDP_HQ group campaigned for what they thought was electability –a major shift rightwards towards insistence on a balanced budget above all else– instead of representing a broad Canadian consensus in favour of social justice and human rights at home and abroad, or educating the Canadian mainstream on the wisdom of investing in infrastructure and institutions while the cost of loans is so low.
Somebody once defined leadership as determining which way people were going and pushing to the head of the line. The Liberal Party, so much more experienced at reading the political tea leaves, positioned itself accordingly — and won.
These choices are not made by party leaders in isolation. The leaders, however, are in practice more answerable to their party’s insiders than to the membership. Members — or, rather, those whose votes are counted at a party convention– can opt to review or oust a leader. The downside of the top-down leadership model is the tendency to assume replacing a leader who lost an election is all that is needed The reality is that, just as responsibility for the choice of leader and election platform lies mainly with the party’s insiders, the responsibility for changing that model lies with the membership as a whole.
“In fact decades of observing the NDP from the outside has convinced me that loyalty is far and away the most important principle in the party’s culture. […] Loyalty is an important principle in any party. And if the NDP had a leader who knew when to get off the stage, it need not be a problem for the party.”
It seems to me that the loyalty should be to the party’s principles, not to the leader or party brand and if the membership made that clear, it would not matter so much who sat in the leader’s chair. In practice, of course, that’s not how it works now.
Over a decade ago, the GPC made a similar choice, opting for a rightward swing and electoral Realpolitik, hoping to win seats in the House by behaving like the mainstream parties. It did not work. It did drive the “fundi” [principles-oriented] Greens out of the party, at least for that leader’s tenure. The NDP has likewise alienated successive waves of Canadians hoping for real change in our political culture.
It is highly ironic that such changes — concern for sustainability in the face of climate change, fair dealing with First Nations and Inuit peoples, government transparency, commitment to human rights at home and abroad, etc. — are now at the forefront of discourse in the House thanks to a Liberal Party more known for its corporate cronies and cynical backroom international trade deals than for “sunny ways.”
It remains to be seen whether those campaign promises will prevail over the LPC’s insider establishment. (Maintaining the sale of weaponized LAVs to Saudi Arabia is not a good sign.) But I suspect that, given its third-party status, the NDP could do worse than hang onto “Angry Beard” Mulcair for now … as long as they can make it clear to him and party HQ that political opportunism is *not* an acceptable substitute for principled positions on matters that affect everyone and the planet.
P.S. On the matter of party leaders, shortly the NDP will be debating (probably hotly) whether to launch its leadership review; given the number of disgruntled “Dippers” there is some question whether Tom Mulcair can stay in the job with the required 50%+1 or would need the support of a full 70% at the convention.
P.s.S. It may be of interest that the Conservative Party’s leadership race is a year off but, well before the official declarations of candidacy, one contender is already fundraising outside her home province. And, unlike the NDP, the Conservatives allow their leadership candidates to spend up to *five million dollars* on their campaigns. I think that suggests something about future earnings prospects, don’t you?
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