With the resignation of Premier Gordon Campbell as leader of the BC Liberals, Carole James’ leadership of the BC NDP has once again been plunged into crisis. One by one, constituency executives are passing resolutions calling for a leadership convention. With the ranks of the party feeling the brunt of the capitalist crisis, there is simply no appetite for Carole James’ hopeless drift to the right. She failed in her bid to break the party’s link with the labour movement. She lost two elections against the most unpopular premier in the history of the province. And now, with the party facing a financial crisis, a declining membership, and a divided caucus, it seems that the only person left who believes Carole should stay on as leader is the leader herself!
Carole James’ NDP—the Non Democratic Party
“There are always going to be people who are complainers,” remarked James, when asked (again) by the media about her leadership. Carole has continually dismissed concerns over her leadership as fringe elements in the party. In doing so, she writes off very legitimate concerns over the direction of the party by large numbers of rank and file members. This statement in itself exposes the thought process of the leader; rather than engage in a discussion, she ignores and ridicules her own members. But the simple fact that must be faced is that five constituencies are now openly calling for Carole’s job. These constituencies actually represent a good cross-section of the party, reflecting different regions of the province, some with NDP MLAs and some without. There are, of course, many others who would like to see Carole James go, but will not say so in public for fear of hurting the party.
Carole James has not faced a review of her leadership since she was first elected in 2003. This same convention changed the leadership selection process to accommodate a one-member-one-vote style system. Conveniently, the mandatory leadership review process was also taken out of the constitution at this time. It wasn’t until serious questions about Carole’s leadership started to emerge that this became an issue. At the 2009 convention, many constituencies sent resolutions demanding that the leadership review be restored immediately. Unfortunately, these resolutions were all prioritized so low that they would never be debated by the convention. This is the most common way for the party’s leadership to kill a resolution that they don’t like: they simply don’t allow it to be debated. Instead, a constitutional amendment was put forward (with the full support of Carole James) reinstating the leadership review process beginning at the 2011 convention, thus buying the leader two more years without scrutiny.
Many party activists complained about the platform put forward in the last election. Policies passed by convention were simply ignored in favour of what the party leadership considered politically expedient policies. Most notably, the Sustainable BC plan unanimously adopted by convention, which amounted to a complete restructuring of the economic system in BC in favour of social justice and environmental sustainability, was completely ignored.
Last month’s expulsion of MLA Bob Simpson from the NDP caucus re-ignited calls for new leadership. Simpson published some very mild criticism of Carole James online and she responded by kicking him out of caucus. Several prominent members of the party called the move an overreaction, while caucus members themselves were upset about Carole taking unilateral action, without discussing it in caucus.
The undemocratic way in which Carole James and her supporters at the top of the party have operated has contributed to a steady decline of the party itself. The BC NDP is divided, in debt, and in trouble. Declining membership, declining finances, and a declining activist base are the results of an autocratic leadership without any answers to the real problems facing the people of British Columbia.
The politics of the possible
The middle-of-the-road fallacy is among the principal causes of the last two electoral defeats. The argument goes, you must moderate your demands in order to win over middle of the road voters; by uniting “the left” with “the centre” you can win a majority against “the right.” In reality, we see this approach resulting in lower voter turn-out and alienation of the party’s base. Why? Because class interests are the real motivators in politics. The poor and working class of British Columbia are hurting. They want real solutions to real problems in their everyday lives. If such solutions are not offered by anyone, why would they bother voting? In the last provincial election, the majority of the province could not be bothered to walk to their local polling station and fill out a ballot.
All of Carole’s “pragmatic” ideas about working with business and labour are quite the farce. They do not reflect a rational view of the world and its many divisions. What they call pragmatic is actually a fairy tale—the idea that workers and bosses can coexist in perfect harmony, and the growing economy will make every day better than the last until we all live happily ever after. And these people have the audacity to call socialists utopians!
They set up their own box of what is possible and what is not. Free university tuition? It’s not possible. An end to unemployment? It’s not possible. Reduce the cost of living? That sounds great, but it just isn’t possible. Ending poverty and homelessness? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, if only it were possible. On and on it goes. And then, as the economy turns sour and the world is plunged into an economic crisis, the entire narrative of what is possible changes. The conversation shifts. Keeping the benefits workers have had for decades? It’s not possible.
Keeping schools open? It’s not possible. Ensuring that workers who have already earned their pensions actually get to keep them? I’m sorry, but it just isn’t possible. The politics of “the possible” in a recession will not be much different from the politics of the BC Liberals! And this is the crux of it. Unless you are willing to fight against the interests of the big corporations, you will not improve the lives of anyone. Even if Carole James was electable, very few would be happy with the results of such a government.
In reality, the problems facing the people of BC have concrete solutions. It is not a question of what is possible, but a question of what our priorities are. Would we rather give logging companies the right to harvest and export raw logs (and jobs), or should we prioritize the people who work in the mills and their right to a job? Should we prioritize mining companies’ right to extract and export wealth from our soil, or should we insist that this wealth stay in the province? Should we allow the free market and its boom-bust cycle to continue to rule our province, or should we let the people actually plan our economy? These questions are not about what is possible; they are about priorities. Do we prioritize the interests of the big corporations or the interests of the overwhelming majority?
An activist-based party
There was a time when nearly every household in the province could expect a knock on the door from an NDP member during an election campaign. The people who were identified as NDP supporters would have another knock on the door before the polls closed to make sure they got out to vote. Those who had mobility issues or even those who simply didn’t want to walk were offered a ride to and from the polling station. Every NDP vote was dragged out by the collective effort of thousands of activists.
The NDP’s strongpoint has always been its membership. It is the old cliché of a BC election—the right wing has the money and the NDP has the people. The NDP’s electoral success has always depended on thousands of activists across the province knocking on doors, organizing their neighbourhoods, and getting the vote out on election-day. But under the leadership of Carole James, the party has departed from this tradition.
In the previous election, the NDP actually tried to fight the electoral battle with money. Their focus was not on mobilizing rank and file activists, but advertising. Of course, the BC Liberals out-spent them handily. Not only were they unsuccessful in the spending war, but they were also unsuccessful on the ground.
All of the rank-and-file volunteers have disappeared. The last election had the lowest voter turnout in the province’s history, with only 48% casting a ballot. Behind closed doors, the party’s strategists were bewildered by the lack of participation from rank and file members. The explanation is simple. NDP members were not given anything to motivate them to fight for an NDP government. There was no forward-looking platform and no consultation in the development of that platform. The only time the party contacts rank and file members these days is when they ask for money.
The NDP needs a leadership campaign, not only because it needs a new leader. The entire process of a leadership race will breathe new life into the party. New ideas and policies will be discussed and debated. Carole James herself has recognized that any new leadership will come from those opposed to her overtures to the business community. Vaughn Palmer, noted political commentator for the Vancouver Sun, also said that the only alternative to James is from the left of the party. The party bureaucracy is going to do everything in its power to put a lid on this pressure from below, but they cannot contain it forever.
As workers are being forced to bare the brunt of a global capitalist crisis, socialist ideas will find an echo amongst broad layers of the membership. The NDP is the only party in British Columbia that is capable of harnessing the growing frustration amongst the working class. If this party were to challenge the capitalist system head-on and fight for the interests of the oppressed layers of society, it would suddenly discover tremendous reserves of support. The 52% of the province that didn’t vote in the last election would be given a reason to go to the polls. The New Democratic Party of British Columbia, united with a socialist program, standing at the forefront of a mass movement, would become an unstoppable force that could transform society. This is what we must fight for.