B.C. New Democratic Party Leader Carole James is walking away from a bitterly divided party, saying she leaves her critics – whom she described as self-serving bullies – with no excuses for further discord.
But the next leader of the NDP will inherit a party and a caucus that has been mired in an internecine battle for months, with too many angry words and threats exchanged to easily reunite.
Ms. James's decision to step down after seven years as leader of the opposition comes after efforts to reconcile 13 members of her caucus failed on the weekend. With Ms. James's loyalists gathered at the BC Federation of Labour headquarters, and the dissidents – making up 40 per cent of her caucus – camped out at a Steelworkers' Union office, labour leaders Jim Sinclair and Steve Hunt spent the weekend seeking to broker a settlement that would allow the caucus to meet.
By early Monday morning, Ms. James concluded the party would be torn apart if she stayed on.
"The NDP cannot present itself as an alternative to government right now with this infighting," she told reporters on Monday. "I know there will be individuals who will see this as a win for the bullies, [but] the alternative of having 13 people walk away, and our party spending time and energy trying to rebuild those ridings … isn't an alternative either."
It means both of British Columbia's main political parties will be going through leadership renewal at the same time. The strife within the New Democrats' ranks has been an unexpected boon for the governing B.C. Liberals, themselves weighed down in the polls by the unpopular harmonized sales tax and slogging through a leadership race to replace Premier Gordon Campbell.
Ms. James said she will step down once an interim leader is chosen, likely in January, and a date will be set for a leadership convention at that time.
Meeting with reporters in her legislature office, Ms. James said she is not responsible for the discontent. She said her critics have put "self-interest ahead of the common good" and maintained she made every effort to address their issues.
The 13 have not united behind an alternative leader or platform. The one constant is that they believe Ms. James has failed to exploit the B.C. Liberals' misfortunes, and that the New Democrats would once again be shut out of government if she led them into the next election.
The caucus revolt came to a head just over two weeks ago, when three MLAs met with Ms. James in Vancouver and presented her with an ultimatum: She was handed a letter, signed by the 13 MLAs, stating they had lost confidence in her. She was given 24 hours to commit to a leadership convention.
Ms. James rejected their demands, and vowed to fight back. She went into a meeting of the party's governing body, the provincial council, and won a vote with 84-per-cent support.
Instead of shutting down the dispute, however, that meeting brought it into the public eye, with the so-called Baker's Dozen publicly identified for the first time.
Then Jenny Kwan, a four-term NDP MLA, publicly blasted Ms. James last week, saying Ms. James cannot capture the support of British Columbians. The 13 made a pact that Ms. James could not punish Ms. Kwan alone, a position they would not abandon throughout the weekend's negotiations.
Ms. Kwan did not return phone calls but issued a bland statement on Monday, thanking Ms. James for her service without any direct reference to her role in the leader's departure.
She acknowledged Ms. James's "dedication and service to British Columbians over the last seven years" and promised to work toward party renewal. "I am committed to seeing the New Democrats unite to defeat the B.C. Liberals in the next provincial election."
Premier Gordon Campbell, in an interview Monday after Ms. James's announcement, paid tribute to his NDP rival.
"What's important today is to say thanks to Carole James for the work she has done for everybody. I think everyone that runs in public office hopes to make a positive contribution," he said. Asked about his personal impressions of Ms. James, he observed "She was always personable."
Bob Simpson, who was expelled from the NDP caucus two months ago for his criticism of Ms. James's leadership, said the next leader of the NDP has a difficult task.
"They inherit a party in shambles, a caucus that I do not see ever coming back together again and being functional," he said. He added that he has no intention of seeking the leadership. "British Columbians rightly should be asking if there is an alternative to party-based politics."
Maurine Karagianis, the only MLA with Ms. James during her announcement, was near tears when she spoke to reporters, but she said the caucus must take up Ms. James's challenge and unite now. "I have confidence we as a group will bear that weight and take it on and show ourselves to be more mature than we have shown so far," she said.
Mr. Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour, said he did not support Ms. Kwan's attacks and never believed the rift was irreparable. "I believe Carole would have made a great premier," he said. However, he said the caucus can now heal, because it must. "If we don't have a strong NDP and a strong caucus, we're going to end up with the Liberals again."
With a report from Ian Bailey