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Cartoon by Ingrid Rice

Cartoon by Ingrid Rice

Carole James is no autocrat — and her party, for better or worse, lacks discipline.

Much note has been taken in the press of the conflicting speeches of Jim Sinclair and Carole James at the recent NDP conference, with Sinclair representing the BC Federation of Labour and James speaking for herself and those who support her. I was surprised that columnists don’t understand that this sort of thing is endemic to this party.

First, one should know about the NDP’s “mother,” the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation). The Canadian Encyclopedia says this: “the CCF was founded in 1932 in Calgary as a political coalition of progressive, socialist and labour forces anxious to establish a political vehicle capable of bringing about economic reforms to improve the circumstances of those suffering the effects of the Great Depression. The main impetus for the formation of the new party came from farmers’ organizations (including the United Farmers of Alberta, which governed that province), and a handful of academics… allied with both farmer and trade-union organizations.”

The Columbia Encyclopedia version of the founding convention of the NDP puts it like this: “The New Democratic Party (NDP), a Canadian political party, was founded in 1961 when the CCF reorganized itself and entered into close ties with Canadian labor unions, especially the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC). The CCF, formed in 1932, began as a largely Western Canadian federation of farm, labor and socialist groups with a democratic socialist program of increased welfare measures, moderate nationalization, and government economic planning.”

Clearly, then, the distinction between “labour forces” and “trade unions” is key to understanding the foundation of the New Democratic Party.

Coalitions, and covering up

In days of yore when I sat in the legislature, I was always amused by NDP members calling us Socreds “a coalition” — as if they weren’t a better example of that than we were!

I think the distinction between the NDP and the Social Credit Party, aka the Liberal party of B.C., is that the former wants to gain power without ironclad party discipline, while the latter wants to keep it and knows that ironclad discipline is critical to that goal. The NDP coalition in power usually displays the traits of a shaky partnership — one of differing influences and issues trying to find a method of governance that keeps everyone in that coalition relatively at peace with the government. The Socreds/Liberals, on the other hand, display the discipline of people who put “staying in government” ahead of any wishes of partners in their coalition — or of those they represent.

In saying this, I’m not supporting or condemning either party — instead I’m demonstrating the different considerations each party’s leaders have.

Look at it this way. The very last keynote speaker the Liberals want is a union-bashing capitalist opposed to minimum wage, in favour of “right-to-work” legislation while insisting on cutting corporate taxes. Yet the very opposite of that was the person selected by the NDP for its keynote speech. It has no choice but to give its “left” the big speech, whereas the Liberals hide their “right” in the nearest closet.

That the Socred/Liberal approach is more successful, as is revealed by a quick look at election results in B.C. since the advent of W.A.C. Bennett. The NDP record is worse than that — only once, in 1996, have they won an election in a head-to-head combat with a strong opponent. In 1972, Dave Barrett simply filled a vacuum created by the collapse of an old, tired government. In 1991, after five years of Vander Zalm and his unfortunate successor, a fencepost with hair could have won for the NDP — in fact, they did it with a fencepost without hair.

Transparency versus autocracy

When Jim Sinclair spoke last week, he did so as a politician with his own constituency. He must speak for them because that’s his duty, and it’s the way he gets re-elected. He was there to make sure that the interests of the labour movement were shared with the convention in no uncertain terms. Moreover, it’s the labour movement that has lost its special voting bloc arrangement in the party, thanks to Carole James.

This is an awkward political situation. But is it to be condemned because it pays more than lip service to democracy and washes most of its laundry openly?

Put another way, is government by autocracy better because it is unyielding and pays no attention to those who disagree with it? Is government by autocracy better than a government that might, from time to time, dither because it is trying to deal with different issues within the party? I don’t know that answer. I just say that this is the way it is.

There is no doubt that the pundits are right in saying that James has a tough row to hoe. The NDP constantly creates circles that are impossible to square, and the leader must somehow deal with that. It’s not that Jim Sinclair doesn’t want the NDP to win. He just wants different things pledged towards that victory. He’s scarcely the only cross James must bear.

Left, more left, and further left

This isn’t a new or unique problem for the “left.” The British Labour Party has dealt with it, starting with the first time they were in power under Ramsay Macdonald. Interestingly, the Labour Party was founded as a working alliance between the trade unions and socialist societies such as the International Labour Party and the Fabian Society, a sort of parlour gathering of intellectuals like the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw.

Macdonald was a minority government prime minister in 1931 when the depression came, and he entered into a national coalition with the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin. On the urgings of King George V, he then called (and won) an election as the leader of a “national government,” which split the Labour party, killed the Liberals and left Macdonald as prime minister. The breakdown in MPs was 554 seats — comprising 470 Conservatives, 13 National Labour, 68 Liberals (Liberal National and Liberal) and various others. In the meantime, a Labour party led by Arthur Henderson won only 52 seats while the Lloyd George Liberals won four. Macdonald governed for four years with only 13 seats!

That split in the Labour party is still there — although the “right wing” of the party has dominated the “left” since the end of World War II.

The proportional representation piece

Can the NDP survive and prosper under Carole James, or under anyone else for that matter?

It will be tough, but there is a solution which is now probably out of reach. That would be some sort of proportional representation that takes power away from the “party” and gives it to MLAs.

NDP Leader Carole James knows this and supports it, while powerful members of the party like David Schreck and Bill Tieleman oppose it.

And that’s the NDP’s abiding problem in a nutshell.

5 Responses to “NDP Doesn’t Hide Its Divisions”

  1. Darlene says:

    Does any one have any comments about, Alec G. Tsakumis, web site?

  2. Rick says:

    “It will be tough, but there is a solution which is now probably out of reach. That would be some sort of proportional representation that takes power away from the “party” and gives it to MLAs.”

    Actually, Carole James opposed proportional representation (the STV) when it had a sure chance of happening the first time around (just below the 60 percent threshold), as did her colleague heading the Greens at the time, Adrienne Carr. After last year’s failure, any form of proportional representation is effectively dead and James and Carr both have themselves to blame.

  3. admin says:

    Actually, Rick, although Adriane Carr initially opposed STV, she changed her mind a week or so later when it turned out that just about all Green candidates in the 2005 election (myself included) were for it.

    I agree with you that the NDP has no credibility on electoral reform. I was appalled when I went to an all-candidates’ meeting in 2009, and heard former NDP MLA Anita Hagen tell a bunch of outright lies about STV. Not only that, many of the arguments she used were equally applicable to conventional forms of proportional representation. The lesson from this is that a lot of NDP insiders don’t want PR, period.

  4. Rick says:

    Yes, but I don’t believe she ever had her heart in it, and she didn’t for it. I ran into her at a Greendrinks quite a while after the first STV failure and she said she did not support the STV because it didn’t do enough for women. Can’t quite fathom how the current system does any better…

  5. Rick says:

    Oops, sorry. Left out a the word “vote”, as in Carr didn’t vote for it.

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