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What the Anjali insurgency tells us about today’s NDP

Today’s New Democrat leadership demonstrates little comprehension or interest in combining movement and party energies

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

BC NDP leadership candidate Anjali Appadurai speaks during a news conference in downtown Vancouver, October 19, 2022. Photo from www.anjaliforbc.ca.

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
–George Santayana

On October 19, the BC New Democratic Party exercised the “nuclear” option of disqualifying long-time climate justice advocate Anjali Appadurai from contesting the party’s leadership.

Where does that leave the left in Canada’s only province with an NDP government?

With the backing of environmental groups, notably Dogwood BC and 350.org, Appadurai’s campaign signed up thousands of new party members within less than a month—before the September 4 deadline for eligibility to vote in the leadership contest to replace outgoing Premier John Horgan.

The party declines to release the total. BC NDP Provincial Director Heather Stoutenburg emailed that, “as we continue to review membership applications to date, we are unable to say definitively at this time the number of members who have joined the party.” But estimates suggest there were enough to enable political newcomer Appadurai—an NDP candidate in the 2021 federal election—to actually defeat the ‘establishment’ candidate, cabinet minister David Eby.

Dogwood helped kickstart the campaign, encouraging its thousands of members to sign up. But the campaign soon acquired its own momentum. Activists felt they were surfing a wave of unleashed frustration and hope from former New Democrats, social movement participants, and others, inspired by Appadurai. The overworked phrase “transformative leader” applies in her case, an exceptionally articulate and passionate justice campaigner of South Asian descent.

But her disqualification meant the second consecutive leadership change with no internal election. Party membership had dwindled from a reputed one-time high of 40,000 to just 11,000, before the short-lived leadership contest.

Eby himself had a well-deserved (but arguably now diminished) reputation for competence and integrity. As a lawyer, he had fought for the downtrodden and civil liberties. He became a key player in the Horgan government that introduced important reforms, from affordable daycare to anti-SLAPP legislation. But it also consistently privileged extractivist development—continued old growth logging, subsidies to fossil fuels, and support for an LNG pipeline through Indigenous lands, even if it meant militarized RCMP raids—over the environmental agenda dear to many in the NDP base. He promised “no radical change,” by contrast with Appadurai’s campaign for just that, on crises ranging from health care and housing to climate disruption.

From the start of Appadurai’s pop-up candidacy in August, party insiders questioned its legitimacy. They labelled it a “hostile takeover” by “fraudulent members” who were hiding their true Green Party colours under temporary orange NDP shirts—even though the sign-up surge vastly exceeded the Greens’ total membership of 3,700, of whom only 90 joined the NDP, according to party leader Sonia Furstenau.

The campaign’s astonishing success, and the prospect of, at last, genuine and challenging debate on the government’s energy, environment, health and housing policies, are what likely prompted the party to take the calculated risk of alienating its veteran and new members, and to sacrifice its prospects for absorbing the Green Party’s political base. In response to complaints, presumably from the Eby campaign, the party’s chief electoral officer, former cabinet minister Elizabeth Cull, conducted an enquiry that concluded the insurgency had illegitimately colluded with Dogwood and tainted the membership rolls. Critics contested her evidence and her hostile interpretation of Dogwood’s brilliantly strategic intervention. Cull nevertheless recommended Appadurai’s disqualification. The executive council agreed, and deep-sixed her campaign.

Eby could have taken the high road, by asking the party to let her run and let the members decide. He didn’t. Subsequent messages from the party office ignored the slap in the face to its thousands of new members, and expressed barely word of thanks to Appadurai.

Instead, the party’s apparatchiks are changing the channel, calling for unity to counter opposition leader Kevin Falcon (Falcon may connote an admired predatory bird, but his right wing is overdeveloped. He was a minister in the previous BC Liberal government). Falcon endorsed substantial cuts to health care funding, and would likely pre-empt effective climate action, unleash austerity and pursue full-bore extractivism, should he become premier.

Dismayed Appadurai supporters emailed their anguish, but vowed to fight on within the NDP. One described the episode as “a minor setback.” By contrast, political historian Ben Isitt (speaking at a Simon Fraser University conference on democratic socialism and civilizational crisis) labelled it “the biggest internal crisis” the BC NDP has ever faced.

Clearly it is no mere bump in the road, but a monumental setback for those who wanted a democratic leadership choice and, at last, a debate on fundamental issues like climate action and Indigenous rights. But neither is it necessarily a crisis for the party-as-electoral-machine, if it can divert its voters’ attention to its preferred agenda of social programs and the threat of a Falcon government.

But for those struggling to rekindle whatever remains of the NDP’s radical soul, it is a moment of revelation, and a reminder. Because something like this has happened before.

The Waffle redux?

In 1969, a group known as the Waffle emerged at the federal NDP convention. Its manifesto “For an independent socialist Canada” called for the party to become the parliamentary wing of a radical movement. In the federal and Ontario wings of the NDP, several years of turmoil ensued. Waffle leader James Laxer finished second to party grandee David Lewis at the 1971 federal leadership contest. Ultimately, at a dramatic provincial council meeting in June 1972, under the leadership of David Lewis’s son Stephen, the Ontario party expelled its Waffle faction.

Denouncing the Waffle as an unacceptable and unconstitutional “party within a party,” Lewis thundered that “I too wish to fight for a free Canada but without the Waffle forever an encumbrance around my neck!” Waffle activists limped into the electoral wilderness disappeared as a recognizable force. Some joined the Trotskyist microleft, several ran (very unsuccessfully) in the 1974 federal election, and some eventually returned to the NDP.

Re-reading my 1980 analysis of the Waffle (some chapters are on Canadian Dimension’s website) is déjà vu all over again.

The Waffle’s ability to evoke the radical aspects of the NDP’s ideals and concerns about Canadian independence appealed to New Democrats frustrated with years of electoral stagnation. Its leadership was articulate and politically talented, with an enviable media presence. Its activists were highly motivated and energetic. With its own newsletter, supporter list and organized events, the Waffle was able to prepare policy, elect delegates to NDP conventions, and more. And the Waffle’s message of economic independence from the American empire struck chords in Canada, during the time of racial conflict and the Vietnam war.

So why did the Waffle fail in transforming the party, or even surviving as a grouping within it? The party’s internal structure and dynamics were powerful obstacles. The party elites’ personal ties, political debts and shared outlooks made it easy for them to close ranks to defeat the Waffle. The leadership had been able typically to dominate conventions, or drop unwelcome policy resolutions to the bottom of packed agendas. When conventions do pass them, the legislative caucus could ignore them, or re-interpret them, as did Stephen Lewis after the Ontario NDP convention called for nationalization of resource industries. “What the party has done is taken a very strong option for independence,” he said, “Now we will have to see how that applies in Ontario.”

The party’s leadership is even stronger when the party is in office (I won’t say “in power,” because capital is in power, unless challenged by strong popular movements). In Canada, the government leader has even more control over the caucus than in other parliamentary democracies—although the labour tradition of internal debate and external solidarity still plays a role in the NDP. Watch British MPs calling out their own leader in public, then try to find any recent parallels this side of the pond. The late and legendary BC broadcaster Rafe Mair considered Canada’s Parliament a “Prime Ministerial dictatorship.” The promise of future jobs or candidacies is a potent carrot to keep ambitious members in line. Dissident activists seeking nominations have reportedly faced informal obstacles, like delays in the required paperwork. Troublesome policy resolutions from the grassroots can be procedurally sidelined or ignored even if they are passed.

So grassroots NDPers’ proximity to governmental authority may be an illusion. The firewall between party and government appears to be a one-way street, however. Party insiders claim that the premier’s office intervenes in selecting a slate for the provincial executive, nominally the party’s governing body.

Sixty years ago, in a moment of candour, centre-right British social democrat Richard Crossman described the structured impotence of the left in his Labour Party. The party needed “politically conscious socialists to do the work of organizing the constituencies. But since these militants tended to be ‘extremists,’ a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power.”

Does that sound familiar?

A century ago, German-Italian sociologist Robert Michels proposed an “iron law of oligarchy.” As socialist parties institutionalize, he argued, they develop leadership and a professionalized bureaucracy at odds with their original democratic and egalitarian ideals.

That process is not necessarily so “iron.” Not all left-wing parties are as buttoned-down as today’s BC NDP. I personally recall the days when the party had a newspaper, The Democrat, open to a range of opinions. My first provincial convention, at Kamloops in 1974, was a free-wheeling affair. Former MP Svend Robinson remembers that he, as a whipper snapper in the Young New Democrats, called from the convention floor for a cabinet minister’s resignation. There were substantive policy-oriented breakout sessions; at one I attended, minister-of-nearly-everything Bob Williams actually answered members’ critical questions about the NDP government’s forestry policies. In those days, grassroots debate was considered integral to party membership.

By contrast, former NDP MLA Hari Lali describes today’s conventions as “boring filler speeches, workshops and individual MLA glorification,” where “party ‘policy’ is pre-determined by the Leader’s Office and a select few establishment figures behind closed doors and presented at convention as a fait accompli under carefully orchestrated ‘rules’ that prevent amendments from the floor or honest debate.”

Policy discussion does occur in local ridings and specialized policy committees, but these tend to be filtered out of senior-level gatherings, which focus instead on electoral training and fund-raising. No wonder one provincial council delegate complained that the party treats its members like “walking ATMs.”

Finding a productive synergy between social movements and the electorally-oriented party, incisively described by former MP and anti-poverty activist Libby Davies, was always a fraught but necessary process. The Appadurai insurgency demonstrates “the thundering power of social movement organizing,” in the words of Avi Lewis (Stephen’s son, but now on the opposite side of a party purge!). Ultimately, the Waffle disappeared because it did not develop a mass base. David Lewis told me that the Waffle would have been far more interesting had it built the movement it kept talking about. But today’s leadership demonstrates little comprehension or interest in combining movement and party energies.

After the leadership debacle, some party activists vowed to carry on and “hold the leadership’s feet to the fire.” How to do that is far from clear, especially for environmental and climate action that necessarily challenges the interests of fossil capital. Apart from its centralized control, the broader context is forbidding.

Elsewhere, I’ve outlined why the BC NDP government has not been “greener.” BC may be following Alberta’s path towards petro-state status. Kevin Taft’s analysis of Albertan politics is disconcertingly relevant, where institutions from the civil service and courts to media and universities have fallen under the sway of fossil fuel capital. Multinational corporate capital can threaten social democratic governments with a capital strike.

By contrast with BC’s first NDP government (1972-75) under Dave Barrett, the Horgan government appeared to lack the political imagination to bypass a risk-averse civil service marinated in sixteen years of the BC Liberal government’s neoliberalism; or to maximize its space for maneuver within the constraints of global capitalism, for example through Crown corporations and adequate royalties (“rent”) on our shared resources. The first-past-the-post electoral system under-represents the Green Party vote (15 percent in 2020, but just two of 87 seats). The colonialist judicial system routinely protects extractivist projects from settler and Indigenous land defenders.

Corporations’ lobbying of civil servants and elected politicians impacts governments routinely, and overwhelms under-resourced public interest advocacy. That’s especially true of fossil fuel companies, whose assets lie in the ground, so they have a particular incentive to influence local governments. And from their viewpoint, social democratic governments require particular efforts to keep on a leash.

NDP insiders aren’t simply the recipients of corporate capital’s advocacy. Some of them help shape it. Donald Gutstein reveals that a pantheon of former senior NDP insiders, including cabinet ministers and past presidents like Moe Sihota, join corporate lobbying firms, or act as independent consultants. Even Elizabeth Cull did a stint at public relations giant Hill+Knowlton. Amongst clients of ex-NDP insiders are major environmentally problematic corporations, such as Western Forest Products, Tourmaline Oil Corp., BC Salmon Farmers Association, Woodfibre LNG, and the pro-Site C dam Allied Hydro Council of BC.

As a potentially counter-balancing force to corporate capital, the working class has been weakened by industrial decline, job precarity, hostile neoliberal governments, and fractures between public and private sector employees, and between well-paid union workers and low-wage (often racialized) workers. Unions are no longer the phalanx that steamrolled the Waffle in 1972, and in 2017 the newly-minted Horgan government appropriately limited the extent to which unions and corporations could subsidize political parties. But some construction and resource sector unions, looking nostalgically to the relatively high wages of the good old days of dam-building and clear cutting, remain a force within the BC NDP against strong climate policy. At least one Steelworkers local, labelling Appadurai a “climate extremist,” urged its members to sign up and vote for Eby.

Still, the decline of unions and the rise of “new” social movements, like environmentalism, have arguably shifted the function of social democratic parties. In the 1970s, critical political economists portrayed social democratic parties as mediators between capital and workers, siphoning discontent into reformist channels. Political theorist Nicos Poulantzas saw them as a “pertinent effect” of an organized working class, not fully representing its interests but still impacting the political system. The decline of a strong union movement means that social democratic parties struggle to find a new role.

In BC, historian Isitt suggests that leadership episode reflects an ideological shift from a social democratic to a liberal party (although “progressive extractivism” might be a more appropriate label). That ideological shift, arguably, parallels the NDP’s shifting electoral basis to urban professionals, public sector workers, and ‘new’ social movements, and perhaps an opportunistic move to claim the political centre, should the BC Liberals rename and rebrand themselves further to the right.

Cautious social democratic reformism is fragile. It’s the far-right that’s now stoking and harvesting anger at the bitter fruits of neoliberalism. In my coastal home town, some former NDPers disconcertingly support the “freedom” convoy. Paradoxically though, the right’s upsurge, as well as the explosive appeal of Appadurai’s campaign, challenges the assumption that the electorate recoils from bolder action in a time of emergency.

Where to next?

In adopting the “nuclear” option of disqualifying Appadurai, the party establishment must have calculated that not only did she have enough supporters to potentially win, but that the party grassroots, after some manageable grumbling, ultimately would accept her political assassination and move on.

Is that the case? What are activists within and outside the party now to do? Perhaps the disqualification has a silver lining. Without a seat in the legislature, Anjali would have had extreme difficulty managing the legislative caucus—where most MLAs had already declared for Eby—let alone the province. The corporate sector and its political and media water-bearers would have become apoplectic. She might well have faced a fate similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s, lifted to the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party by grassroots activists in the constituencies, but cold-shouldered by many of his own MPs, excoriated by the press, and eventually dumped by his own party. Without a direct mandate from the BC electorate, Appadurai’s challenges would have been even greater.

Many of the thousands of new members may fade away, to the Greens, non-electoral politics, or out of political activity altogether—not a good result for progressive, democratic social change. But if they can pull together, they could exert pivotal influence in BC politics, given the diminishing time frame for effective climate action. In the age of social media and pent-up climate frustration, the Appadurai insurgency has far more active support than the Waffle ever did.

At the SFU conference, Isitt suggested an interesting strategy. “Would ten Greens in the house shock the NDP in a way more than an internal fight at a convention?” he asked. “That’s what language politicians understand, the threat of electoral defeat…That’s an option that leftists have to have on the table even if the words democratic socialism aren’t in the Green Party constitution. The fact is, they’re an oppositional force…Should Anjali’s supporters go en masse into the Greens, take as many NDP seats as possible, and just have a short term strategy over the next two to four years of…[making] the biggest possible bang for climate justice and social justice possible?”

Others counter that the Green Party is too remote from office, too flakey or ideologically diverse, or too lacking in a working-class orientation, to make it a worthwhile vehicle for left organizing. And nobody on the left wants to inadvertently facilitate a Falcon government. A tactical “GreenDP” electoral alliance, however, might be a different matter.

Churchill once commented acerbically on an opponent: “Occasionally he stumbled across the truth but picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.” That well describes the party’s official messaging.

But at a time of ecological and political crises, the left can afford neither such denialism, nor the energy absorbed by playing rigged intra-party games. Once the emotional shock has worn off, it’s a time for cool and clear analysis of the obstacles, and the opportunities, for broader action combining electoral and extra-parliamentary avenues.

Robert Hackett is a retired professor of communication at Simon Fraser University and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis.

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