The controversy over memberships in the British Columbia NDP is just the latest skirmish in a struggle that goes back decades, says Harold Steves, a former MLA and an honorary lifetime member of the party.
The party says it is working to protect the integrity of its membership list ahead of the leadership vote, but others like Steves see it as an attempt to head off a debate that many members, both new and old, want to have.
“I think [what’s happening] is an attempt to take back our party from the group that’s been running it for the last few decades,” said Steves, an MLA in Dave Barrett’s government in the 1970s who at 85 years old is finishing a final term on Richmond city council.
“There are a lot of people out there who used to belong to the party or support the party,” he said. “All my friends who quit the NDP have signed back up again. I helped encourage some of them to do so... I probably helped sign up a thousand ex-members myself.”
Steves is supporting the campaign of Anjali Appadurai, a climate activist and 2021 federal NDP candidate who is running for the provincial party’s leadership on a “vision to enact balanced policy rooted in grassroots democratic dialogue, in order to boldly address the intersecting crises affecting all of us, while leaving no one behind.”
“She’s sort of like a breath of fresh air,” Steves said. “Everything that we believed in and the vision we had, she espouses it. It’s amazing someone has come along and is prepared to go and stand up and be counted and bring us back to the vision we once had.”
Appadurai is critical of various government policies and her campaign is seen as a challenge to the NDP establishment and a barrier to David Eby, who has overwhelming support among the party’s MLAs, being acclaimed as leader.
Eby, whose roots are in legal advocacy on behalf of homeless and underhoused residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, has been the province’s attorney general since 2017. He’s credited with cleaning up the mess at ICBC and since the 2020 election has been responsible for housing.
Representing Vancouver-Point Grey, many see him as more progressive than current Premier John Horgan, though he’s signalled that there would be no major changes under his leadership. So far he’s released a housing platform that advocates applauded as bold and has said he intends to announce his climate platform soon.
While Eby remains the likely favourite in the race, there are questions about whether his campaign was as successful as Appadurai’s at signing up new members.
Her success in that phase of the campaign, some of which was driven by the environmental group Dogwood encouraging its members to join the NDP, has brought scrutiny from both the party and Elections BC.
Dogwood’s campaigns manager Alexandra Woodsworth said the group’s work was similar to what unions, churches or other groups have done in the past. It’s an entirely normal part of the political process that happens in all parties at all levels, she said.
For the last two years it has been clear that grassroots members of the NDP were unsuccessfully trying to get issues like climate action, LNG, fracking and Indigenous rights onto the party’s agenda, Woodsworth said, noting they are issues Dogwood is interested in as well.
“Now we have a candidate carrying these issues into the race and we have a party looking like it does not want to talk about these things,” she said.
‘Members are the heart and soul’
On Friday the NDP’s provincial director Heather Stoutenburg suggested that a significant portion of the BC Green Party’s membership was attempting a “hostile takeover” of the NDP.
“Members are the heart and soul of a political party,” she said in an emailed statement. “It is in the interests of all political parties, and the stable functioning of our multi-party electoral democracy, that no party’s internal democracy is undermined through co-ordinated, bad-faith campaigns.”
It’s also important that each party’s elected leader “has the genuine support of their ongoing membership,” Stoutenburg said, meaning “the people who participate day in and day out in building the party and pursuing its shared mission.”
The NDP had asked the Greens to participate in a process to check whether individuals were members of both parties, which the Greens refused to do citing privacy concerns. Stoutenburg said that the NDP would continue working on the integrity of its membership list with or without the help of the Greens.
People had to be members of the NDP by Sept. 4 in order to vote in the leadership election.
While it’s unclear exactly how many have signed up to support Appadurai or how many new members have joined the NDP, the party reportedly had around 11,000 members when Horgan announced he was retiring. The Greens have around 3,700 members, which observers have pointed out is far too few to mount a successful takeover of the NDP.
In an emailed statement Appadurai said that the allegations her team is hearing about party officials aggressively vetting her supporters are troubling.
“If they are true, our campaign would view this as a measure taken to diminish the tremendous recruitment efforts of our campaign,” she said. “If these allegations are proven true, we will request a list of every member that the party disqualifies.”
Appadurai said she expects the party will make sure everything about the leadership race and the membership drive is above board. “In fact, we're delighted, as that's the approach our campaign has taken at every step,” she said. “But the idea that new members would be aggressively questioned, subject to some sort of loyalty test, or otherwise treated in a hostile fashion is disturbing, if true.”
The party has neglected its grassroots for a decade, she said, even though New Democrats know that democracy works best when as many people as possible are involved.
“Our campaign took this principle seriously by launching a grassroots effort to grow our base,” Appadurai said. “All new members should be welcomed to the party with open arms. We have always been a party that puts people first and it should not come as a surprise that our vision and our values are drawing in thousands of new members.”
The party and the movement grow by attracting new members, including ones who come from other parties, she said, adding that should be celebrated, not treated with suspicion.
Campaign teams had until Oct. 4 to challenge any memberships they believed were suspect and thought the party should investigate. There were around 1,000 such challenges, all of which would have come from the Eby campaign.
‘At least there’ll be a discussion or debate’
It is up to the NDP’s chief electoral officer Elizabeth Cull to adjudicate those challenges and according to the party’s constitution those decisions are final.
Appadurai, whose application came in later than Eby’s, has not yet been approved as a candidate and therefore didn’t have the opportunity to see the membership list yet and missed the deadline for challenges. The party’s provincial council is expected to make the decision on her candidacy, based on a recommendation from Cull, at a meeting scheduled for Oct. 19.
While there are no doubt some new NDP members who do have extensive recent involvement in the Green Party, there are clearly others who are longtime supporters who are returning to the party.
“The evolution of the NDP has been a bit disappointing to me,” said Marty Hykin, an 81 year old who was a member for some 40 years starting in the 1970s.
The NDP government has a lot of good policies that deserve support, he said, but ultimately he cancelled his membership due to the decisions to keep building the Site C dam, call the snap election in 2020 during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and break the agreement that allowed the NDP and Greens to govern together.
Then he saw the encouragement from Dogwood to participate in the leadership vote and knew it was what he wanted to do. “I thought that’s terrific. Essentially an amplified vote because of the smaller number of people.”
He cancelled his membership in the Green Party and rejoined the NDP, who as it turned out still had him counted as a member. Since rejoining the NDP he is yet to be contacted by anyone wanting to verify his membership, he said.
Declining to say who he intends to vote for, at this point he wants to hear more from both candidates about their priorities. “At least there’ll be a discussion or debate within the party of priorities,” he said. “If nothing else it would be the one opportunity I’ve had in this present regime to hear people express what they plan, hope for, would do.”
There are other longtime NDP members who want to see a robust debate and a fair election.
Tom Perry, an NDP MLA and cabinet minister in the 1990s, said the party wanted to encourage people to join. He thinks the leadership contest should proceed and that it should feature numerous debates hosted by neutral and thoughtful people.
Joan Sawicki, who was Speaker in the legislature in the NDP government in the early 1990s and later the environment minister, said that races in every party are about signing up members and it is also normal for parties to want to make sure members are legitimate.
But as a longtime environmentalist who for many years chaired the party’s environment committee, Sawicki was unhappy to see comments in media reports suggesting those concerns were foreign to the party she’s been part of for 40 years.
“I was furious,” said Sawicki, adding she has never been a Green Party supporter. “I really resent it being asserted that just because I agree with some of the concerns Anjali is talking about I’m somehow a plant for the Green Party.”
With concerns about biodiversity, climate change and extreme weather, the environment needs to be at the forefront in decision-making, she said. “We’re in big trouble,” she said. “I think most people recognize we’re in it. This is not something that’s decades ahead of us. We’re in it.”
It will take courage, but the party needs to have a debate about how to redirect the economy so that it’s more ecologically sustainable, she said. “I hope we don’t shy away from the debate because society needs us to have it.”
The party has always had to work hard to bring together its various segments and it should make no apologies for being willing to have vigorous debates, she said.
Also, she said, the party has rules and processes for accepting both leadership candidates and members that need to be followed. “I have great faith in Elizabeth Cull and I really do expect her to apply the rules and procedures fairly across the board.”
Sawicki added that her desire to have the race and the debate play out does not necessarily translate to support for Appadurai. “Just because I may agree with her focus on climate change... does not mean, when I weigh all the factors, as I believe any thoughtful party member has the responsibility to do, I would end up voting for her.” Party officials need to work to make sure the process is fair, she said, but it should be up to the members to decide who will become leader and the province's next premier.
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