Over the years, the New Democratic Party of British Columbia has not been very good at reinventing itself and there’s no reason to think it will start now that Adrian Dix has announced his resignation.
But it should.
Mr. Dix (who would like to be seen as the nice guy who got beat by someone who played dirty, when really he was defeated by a politician who did a better job of winning the trust of voters) plans to stick around in caucus to help the new leader. With his predecessor, Carole James, also still there, that means whoever comes next will have some powerful forces at play, probably on the executive council, protecting the status quo.
What the party really needs to do is break from that past if it wants to convince voters in the next election that it’s not just the same old party behind a different cut-out figure.
Premier Christy Clark and the Liberals showed how that can be done. She had been deputy premier to Gordon Campbell and her name had been linked to the BC Rail scandal. But because she came back in from the private sector and pointedly distanced herself from the Campbell cadre, she overcame those liabilities and was able to make the Liberals seem completely remade, even if they weren’t.
The NDP doesn’t appear to realize it yet, but it desperately needs to find a leader who, like Ms. Clark, has some distance from the old gang, and a personality so dynamic that it overshadows the party’s past. Without that, the party will not have anything substantially new to offer voters.
The NDP has not been good at finding leaders like that. Dave Barrett was one. So was Glen Clark. They were powerful individuals whom, for a time at least, voters embraced and who forcefully took the party in the direction they chose. With them, you had the sense they were leading and the party was following, not the other way around, as it seemed with both Mr. Dix and Ms. James.
Among the names that have surfaced as possible replacements for Mr. Dix, there are a few who could offer that.
Nathan Cullen is one. He’s engaging, sharp, honest and passionate about British Columbia. In the federal NDP leadership race, he emerged as arguably the party’s brightest young star. Many felt then that he would have been a much better choice than Thomas Mulcair.
He would be a formidable opponent for Ms. Clark.
Unfortunately for the NDP, he’s signalled that he’s “cool to the idea” of running for the leadership. That’s understandable. The popular MP from Skeena-Bulkley Valley has a great future federally and could yet emerge as a national leader. Why would he give that up to become opposition leader in B.C.?
There’s one reason he might. He knows that as premier of B.C., he could do a lot more for the province he loves than he ever could in Ottawa.
But as long as he’s uncertain about just how much support he has within the provincial party, he’s unlikely to go for it.
Other possible “outside” contenders who could shake things up include Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan and MPs Peter Julian and Fin Donnelly. MP Jinny Sims is also being touted as a candidate, but her past role as head of the BC Teachers’ Federation would leave her vulnerable in a general election. Nothing would say “same old NDP” quite like having a former firebrand from a union as leader.
And other than Mr. Cullen, none of them has so far demonstrated the kind of charisma that will be needed to beat Ms. Clark. Maybe a leadership race could bring that out in them, as it did for Mr. Cullen when he challenged for the federal leadership.
But on the short list, he’s the only one who clearly has the right stuff right now.
The question is, does the NDP really want a game changer? Or do they want to stick with a familiar insider? If it’s the latter, they will choose another Mr. Dix, or Ms. James. And we all know how that ended.