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NDP, Stop Your Destructive Bickering

Having voted down a 2011 leadership race, the party needs to unite behind Carole James.

By David Schreck 22 Nov 2010 |

David Schreck is a political analyst and former NDP MLA who publishes the website Strategic Thoughts, where a version of this first appeared.

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James: Show of support this weekend.

"All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again." In some children's books, that nursery rhyme is portrayed with Humpty Dumpty as a big egg that falls off the wall, but historically Humpty was probably a cannon. Some members of the NDP caucus appear to be going after each other with cannons lately. On the Global noon news on Nov. 20, Keith Baldrey reported that he walked into a dispute between two NDP MLAs that appeared to be bordering on a physical fight. 

Carole James must be pleased that she got an 84 per cent vote in defeating the motion calling for a 2011 leadership race. Now comes the hard part, how to put Humpty together again. After the vote, James declared infighting over, saying that she expected every member of caucus to hear the message sent by the vote and get on with the work they have to do. Unfortunately, some may view that work as preparing for the party's 2011 convention, when the delegates cast votes in a mandatory leadership review. Delegates to that convention will consist of all members of provincial council, four or five hundred others chosen mainly based on the size of the membership in each constituency, as well as certain designated positions, like constituency presidents and honorary life-members.

There is no reason to think that James would have received any less of a vote of support from that larger body if a convention had been held rather than a council meeting. Of course, a lot can change over the next year.

The 'unlucky' eleven

Within hours of the Nov. 20 vote, Vaughn Palmer posted an article to his blog that should be required reading for all members of the NDP caucus, particularly those he describes as the unlucky thirteen, the thirteen MLAs who allowed themselves to be clearly identified as not supporting James. Palmer listed all thirteen and grouped them into categories of: 1) those who've opposed James or fought with her in the past, 2) those who've broken with her recently over the ouster of MLA Bob Simpson, and 3) those who were either mavericks by temperament or representatives of riding associations that had broken with James.

Later on Saturday, Palmer updated his article: "MLA Robin Austin asked to be removed from the list. He'd held off saying anything until after the council had voted because his riding executive was calling for a leadership vote. But he supports James. Also, Guy Gentner gave James a big hug and declared himself a supporter after the vote was over. So that would drop the count to 11."

My interpretation of this is that 15 per cent of the reluctant MLAs have moved to support James within hours of her speech. Hopefully the remaining 11 will soon follow.

Simpson's option

If Bob Simpson were to issue an unqualified public apology to James for undermining her leadership, he would be accepted back in caucus. That would put an end to the reason some NDP MLAs use for saying "no comment" when asked if they support James. By Palmer's categorization it would only reduce the unlucky eleven to a half dozen. That probably doesn't matter since it is unlikely that Simpson will swallow his pride and defer to James's leadership.

When the NDP goes into the next election, all candidates need to say that they support their leader. That can't be a deathbed conversion for the unlucky eleven. Palmer reported that "at least two party insiders predicted that several of the MLAs will break away and form a new party, probably with the outcast Bob Simpson." If that is true, the party switchers would find themselves especially unlucky. B.C.'s electoral history indicates that the likelihood of electoral success for third parties is between slim and none.

If the unlucky eleven want to be re-elected, they need to be part of the NDP; however, a strange thing overtakes the minds of MLAs. Many MLAs delude themselves in thinking that they won because of their unique personal charms and intellect, rather than recognizing that their victory was because they got the nomination for the right party in the right constituency at the right time.

If the unlucky eleven are rational, and failing that if they respect the democratic vote of a majority of their colleagues, they will get to work and say that they support James. That conversion can be facilitated if James reaches out and speaks privately with each of the eleven.

Who's to blame for 2009 loss?

Putting Humpty together again is not just a matter of patching things up with the unlucky eleven. There are also party members who are unhappy. Bill Tieleman is a prominent New Democrat who regularly communicates with thousands through appearances on CKNW and with his blog and columns, some of which appear in The Tyee.

Tieleman wrote on his blog: "The questioning of James's leadership is based on her failure to win two consecutive elections, her falling personal approval rating in polls and the secret payment of a full-time salary to NDP President Moe Sihota." I beg to differ. Her first "loss" was celebrated almost as much as the 1991 Harcourt victory; she increased the party caucus from two to 33.

I share concerns about the 2009 loss, but I don't put that solely at James's feet; the party brass let her down. Since then the NDP has a new provincial secretary, a new president and fundamental changes to its constitution calling for a leadership review. Since then, according to Angus-Reid, the NDP leads the BC Liberals in the opinion polls by almost two to one. Unfortunately, her critics appear unable to read polls, a calendar or the constitution. 

As for a salary for the president, the salaries for all provincial office staff are secret, as they are for all political parties. In the case of Sihota, the table officers made a wise decision that it was better to spend money on having Moe work full time than to spend money on an additional far less qualified senior staffer.

The proper stance towards business

Tieleman went on to write: "James has also been criticized here and elsewhere for focusing on obtaining support from B.C.'s business community while failing to build the party's falling membership and finances or articulate a progressive alternative to the BC Liberals."

I recall a time when I had lunch with a civil servant, and then minister Grace McCarthy called him on the carpet within minutes of him returning to his office to ask what he was doing seeing me. B.C. politics need to change; we are all in the same lifeboat. Just because James talks to the business community doesn't mean that she would break union contracts or weaken the labour code. We need to get away from the idea of guilt by association. The B.C. business community deserves to be "at the table" just as much as the organizations and people that the Campbell government has shunned for ten years.

We need to work together to create the wealth that is necessary to pay for social programs. Some leaders of B.C. business associations have demonstrated that they will support Liberal deficits and criticize NDP deficits; they will go further and support virtually anything the anti-NDP forces do even though they may gag on it. James recognizes they don't speak for all their members and an NDP government must work with all elements of B.C. society, even if their leaders may be hypocrites. She should be congratulated for that.

The NDP's finances and membership are a problem just as they are for the BC Liberals. With a BC Liberal leadership vote set for Feb. 26, we'll see financial disclosure statements filed with Elections BC by early June, which will show just how hard done by the Liberals are. The fighting within the NDP can't possibly help with membership recruitment and fundraising drives. Those who want to push back need to open their cheque books or go online and make a donation.

Too much at stake

I can't remember a time in my 40 years of activism in the NDP when the party had such an enormous opportunity and pushed it away with such incredible internal bickering. The people who support the NDP and expect it to champion their issues deserve better. Private health care, overcrowded classrooms, homelessness, poverty, abused children, environmental degradation and economic chaos are a few of the issues that could be addressed by a stable NDP government.

Campbell was described by Bennett as foul-mouthed and abusive. We don't need another alpha male; it's time for a change!  [Tyee]

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