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Door Closing Fast on NDP Member Sign-ups

Quick deadline good or bad for the party? That's a hot debate among New Dems.

By Andrew MacLeod 12 Jan 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here here.

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More time, please: NDP candidate for leader John Horgan

The British Columbia New Democratic Party will stop accepting new members who can vote in the leadership campaign next week, just as the race begins to get serious.

While some people inside and outside the party say the NDP is missing an opportunity to renew itself and build its membership, others say it's the most committed members who have stuck with the party that should choose the next leader.

"It does become contentious," said Harry Bains, the MLA for Surrey-Newton, who likes the deadline where it is. Given the two schools of thought on the deadline, it has been a topic of debate within the party, he said. "That's healthy in my view."

In December the party's provincial council set the leadership vote for April 17. According to the NDP's constitution, a person has to be a member for 90 days if they're going to be allowed to vote. That means anyone who wants a say will have to join the party by Jan. 17.

"That is a challenge for me," said Juan de Fuca MLA John Horgan, who announced Jan. 10 he is entering the leadership race. "I think given more time I could bring more people to the party."

Former cabinet minister Harry Lali, who joined the race last week, called the quick deadline "a little unfair."

"I'd love it if it was longer," said leadership candidate Dana Larsen, a pro-marijuana advocate who describes himself as an outsider in the race. "It would be better for the party as well."

The B.C. Liberal Party, by the way, will accept new members up until Feb. 4, three weeks before their Feb. 26 vote.

Thinking turkeys

In calling the quick deadline unfair, NDP leadership candidate and Fraser-Nicola MLA Harry Lali said, "It could have gone another month."

By setting the convention in May instead of April the provincial council could have allowed another month to sign up members, he said. "Overall it would have been better for the party."

The sign-up period included the Christmas and New Years holidays, he noted. "People were thinking turkey instead of members."

On the positive side, the party put out a call to people who had allowed their memberships to lapse. "I think there are a lot of disaffected New Democrats who dropped out," he said. "I think a lot of people are renewing on their own."

Lali also acknowledged there's a need to avoid some of the manipulations the party has seen in past leadership conventions. In 2000 there were a large number of $1 memberships sold, he said, and there was a story of some 57 members being registered in one household in Burnaby.

Memberships are normally $10, but there's a sliding scale for students, people who are unemployed or otherwise have a hard time affording the cost.

Often those mass sign-ups target ethnic communities, including the South Asian community, Lali said. "I just don't want the community I belong to abused or manipulated in any way." If there are signs of similar strangeness this time around he'll call for an audit, he said.

Horgan said a longer sign up period would probably help both his campaign and the party. "It would be useful for the renewal process as well."

He said he asked if it could be changed, but was told it would need to be put to a party convention and there wasn't interest in doing that, he said. For anyone who hears about his campaign and wants to join to support him, he said, "They've got six days to sign up."

Memberships equal money

Larsen said he would support a longer sign-up period and a shorter campaign. "I think if I had longer time to sign up people, that would be a benefit to me," he said. "It would allow us to bring in new members to the party."

His campaign, which got an endorsement from comedian Tommy Chong who encouraged people to join the NDP, has a stack of around 1,000 membership forms to submit, he said. Others may have submitted their forms directly, he added. "We're working it very hard," he said. "I've got an army of volunteers out there signing up new members."

And at $10 a membership, every thousand members the candidates bring in generates $10,000 for the party, he noted, money that's much needed.

While everyone works within the rules, it's tougher for him as the only candidate so far who isn't already an MLA. "It's an advantage for people who have an established presence in the party," he said.

MLA Bains, who said he is leaning towards supporting Vancouver-Kingsway MLA Adrian Dix, said the short membership drive period was necessary to get a new leader in place as early as possible in case the new Liberal leader calls a snap election.

"You've got to look at the bigger picture here," he said. "We've got to be in a position to have our leader ready."

Dix has not yet announced that he will join the race.

Everyone has had four or five weeks since James stepped down to sign up members, said Bains. "The rules are the same for everyone," he said. "Many people are signing a lot of members."

It's fair to allow people who have been members of the party to pick the new leader, rather than turn it over to a bunch of people who will join for the vote than disappear, he said. "They stuck with the party day in, day out," he said.

Stacking worries

Former NDP MLA David Schreck said that he doubts the deadline will make a difference to the race. The serious candidates have been signing up new members since Carole James stepped down on Dec. 6 and possibly even before, he added.

And as he put it, "One person's renewal is another person's stacking."

"I really think it's a missed opportunity to get new life into the party," said Organizing for Change co-ordinator Lisa Matthaus (see sidebar).

The NDP should take another look at their deadline, she said, but acknowledged, "The parties get to decide how they want to see their memberships form."

Asked about concerns about instant members, she said that once someone joins a party it is possible to try to convince them to stay. "At least you have a shot at them."

British Columbians are becoming increasingly cynical about politicians and politics, said Will Horter, the chair of Conservation Voters of British Columbia. To address that cynicism, parties need to open their tents and encourage new ideas, he said.

The quick membership deadline in the NDP is bad for democracy and will hurt the party as time goes on, he said. "I think it's going to be disastrous for the health of the party long term."  [Tyee]

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