One of the events during this weekend’s British Columbia NDP convention is billed as the party to end all parties, but insiders and observers say this event should really be about resuscitating a party that has endured a series of hard blows.
Some closest to the party say the NDP needs to regain its political voice, and the finger pointing is over now that Leader Adrian Dix is leaving, but those with a more jaundiced eye say the party needs an overhaul if its ever to be elected again.
Former NDP leadership candidate John Horgan, who recently dropped his name from the running for party leader, says he’s coming to Vancouver with enough change in his pockets to buy coffee for grassroots New Democrats who want to dissect last May’s election loss and propose new directions.
Dix’s New Democrats started the spring campaign with a 20-point lead in the polls over Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals, instead the party lost a fourth straight provincial election.
A recent party-sanctioned report concluded a series of missteps contributed to the defeat, while making 47 recommendations that should be implemented before the 2017 election.
B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair says the convention offers the NDP a venue to begin hashing out serious issues that involve finding ways to ensure the party reasserts itself as the political voice of working people. A voice that supports resource development but builds bridges with British Columbians who place environmental concerns near the top of their priority list.
Sinclair says he expects to hear much talk about the election failure, but it’s the future and considering new ways of growing labour and environmental roots he’s most interested in debating.
Fraser Valley University political scientist Hamish Telford said the NDP convention is the perfect opportunity for the party to engage in the deep and difficult existential debate that struggling political organizations must put themselves through to move forward.
Much like the remaking the federal Conservatives underwent after Brian Mulroney’s leadership in the 1980s, and the rebuilding of the current federal Liberals under Justin Trudeau, B.C.’s New Democrats must ask tough questions about their future and the quality of the message they are selling to voters, he said.
But, so far, Telford said he sees more denial than realism from B.C.’s NDP.
“There are varying levels of denial in the NDP,” said Telford.
He said there are those who will say the election defeat was the result of poor campaign choices, which only requires a leadership change. Others may go farther and suggest the NDP has a major issue to confront when it comes to supporting economic development in the resource sector while maintaining the party’s credentials as green friendly.
“I haven’t heard many people inside the NDP going even deeper and asking the fundamental question, and that is what is the future for a labour-oriented, social democratic party in Canada, and B.C. specifically,” Telford said. “Has the NDP, perhaps, run its course?”
“Do we want to perpetually be on the Opposition benches or do we want to remake this party in another direction for the 21st Century,” he said. “I don’t see any people inside the NDP at that stage yet.”
Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who is scoring political points with his pointed questioning of Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the ongoing Senate scandal, is one of the B.C. convention’s guest speakers.
At a Surrey, B.C., NDP campaign event last spring, Mulcair told a packed room of supporters the federal party was watching and learning from Dix’s campaign — taking notes for the 2015 federal election. Dix stuck with a positive campaign message throughout the spring race, while Mulcair is getting noticed for his hard-ball, take-no-prisoners interrogation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the on-going Senate scandal.
Canada’s former United Nations ambassador and Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis is also a guest speaker at the convention.
Sinclair said the convention should allow the NDP to reconnect with its foundation as the social conscience of British Columbians, but New Democrats must embrace new ideas that build ties between working people and those concerned about a sustainable environment.
“We have to realize our values are why we’re here today and those values are important,” he said. “Respect for working people, respect for the services people need for public health care, they’re the glue that makes this party work. Does that mean we should never have a new idea? My answer is, ‘No.“’
But while Sinclair said he’s open to new ideas and directions for the NDP, he’s not about to give up the party brand and start from scratch.
He said B.C. elections always come down to a vote spread of a few per cent, and it’s up to the NDP to find a way to bring in those elusive voters while carrying the party’s base support of 30 per cent or more.
“You have to excite your base and get people inspired and excite British Columbians at the same time,” Sinclair said. “That’s what we didn’t do in this election.”
Telford said sticking to the battle over popular vote percentages could result in the NDP relegating itself to almost permanent Opposition status.
The New Democrats have lost 19 of the last 22 B.C. elections.
“The NDP can console itself for its brand getting them 30 per cent of the vote. That’s pretty rock solid,” Telford said. “But if they want to form a government they need to get over 40 per cent. Do they want to rebrand themselves to become a party of 45 per cent or 50 per cent of the population and thereby form the government sometime?”
Horgan said it’s too early to start playing a numbers game with the next election four years away, but now is the time for embracing new ideas and directions while rebuilding the core strength of the NDP.
“It’s time for us to look inward,” he said. We have to remind ourselves about why we exist and the importance of carrying on the good fight for the people of B.C.,“ he said.
Horgan said recent political issues involving allegations of Liberal government interference in the workings of the Agricultural Land Commission and an independent report outlining money-wasting in the Ministry of Children and Family Development when it comes to aboriginal children are events of deep concern to NDP supporters.
“I joined the NDP from a working-class family because of the way we represented working-class issues,” he said. “We need to get back to that or at least remind ourselves that that’s a fundamental responsibility of our political party and to be relevant to the people we profess to represent.”