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Rob Shaw: Friction with Greens masks severity of BC NDP's internal problems

BC New Democrats scrambling to contain an imploding leadership race are lashing out at the BC Greens, accusing the party of participating in a “hostile takeover” to take control of the NDP and the premier’s office. It’s an interesting strategy.
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BC New Democrats scrambling to contain an imploding leadership race are lashing out at the BC Greens, accusing the party of participating in a “hostile takeover” to take control of the NDP and the premier’s office.

It’s an interesting strategy. But it masks the real issue: The BC NDP’s problems are internal, and the mess is entirely of its own making.

The NDP kickstarted the race to replace John Horgan on July 16 with only around 11,000 members. That’s a shockingly low number for a governing party – consider the BC Liberals had 30,000 members at the beginning of their leadership race in 2018, and now sit at around 45,000 in opposition.

The NDP’s decline has apparently been masked by the fact its members are all major monthly donors, which has kept the party ahead of its opponents in fundraising.

But leadership races are all about signing up reams of new members. Outsider candidate Anjali Appadurai has apparently done just that, with the help of environmental groups like the Dogwood Initiative. Her campaign has refused to provide an exact total, but some New Democrats believe it’s two times the sign-ups of her rival David Eby, and could reach as high as 10,000 new members.

This dynamic – an atrophied New Democratic Party out-organized by the environmental movement – is the core of the issue.

The BC Greens only have around 3,700 members. The Green party is in no position to organize a “hostile takeover” of the NDP, even if it wanted to. And if it did suddenly develop the capacity and cunning to try, why wouldn’t it go with Sonia Furstenau, Adam Olsen or a Green party loyalist as its takeover candidate? Why choose a maverick former federal NDP candidate like Appadurai who has no ties or allegiance to the Green party whatsoever?

But those pesky facts did not stop the NDP from executing what was a political smokeshow on Friday.

The party sent a letter to the Greens asking to compare membership lists through a neutral third party to determine if any active BC Greens had joined the BC NDP to support Appadurai (both parties only allow people to hold one party membership at a time).

The Greens, I gather, briefly considered just sending back a copy of the Confidence and Supply Agreement the two sides signed after the 2017 election, which Horgan ripped up and reneged on with his snap election call in 2020.

It was also a particularly galling request from the NDP when you consider these lines: “Members are the heart and soul of a political party. It is in the interests of all political parties, and the stable functioning of our multi-party electoral democracy, that no party’s internal democracy is undermined through coordinated, bad-faith campaigns.”

You have to admire the NDP’s concern for the preservation of BC’s “multi-party electoral democracy” – especially after it deployed heavyweights Carole James, Adrian Dix and Jagmeet Singh to campaign against the Greens in the two ridings they held in 2020 in an attempt to wipe one of those pesky “multi-party” entities (one it had just spent three years co-governing with) off the electoral map. The NDP is in no position to lecture anyone else about bad-faith campaigning.

The Greens were not interested in spending party resources and time helping the NDP get out of its mess. Instead, they crafted a short response to the NDP letter that said, essentially: Pound sand.

The BC NDP then fired off its own over-the-top, and ominously threatening, response.

“If a significant portion of the BC Green membership is attempting a hostile takeover of the BC NDP, this does not reflect well on the BC Green Party and we would wonder whether it puts its status as a registered political party in jeopardy,” wrote NDP executive director Heather Stoutenberg.

In some ways, the NDP were always counting on the Greens to say no.

It now puts the party in the position of being able to disqualify hundreds, if not thousands, of Appadurai’s members due to unproven suspicions, and then pin it all on the lack of cooperation from the BC Greens.

The NDP has already moved to do just that, accusing unspecified Green staff of encouraging members to put their membership on a “temporary pause” in order to join the NDP, vote for Appadurai in the leadership race, and then return to the Greens if she doesn’t win.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with people quitting one party to join another. It happens all the time, as folks switch allegiances, follow new leaders or get excited about new party promises. They don’t have to state their intentions, or spell out how long they plan to stay. Usually parties welcome this.

There’s an alternate universe out there somewhere where a robust 40,000-member BC NDP laughed at a few thousand BC Greens signing up to support Appadurai, took their wasted membership fees ($10 a pop), aggressively tried to convince many of those members to stay, and then used the cash to screw over the weakened Greens in the next election campaign.

But in this universe, the NDP is so weak it can’t even do that.

Horgan, former party president Craig Keating, and former executive director Raj Sihota have much to answer for over how the NDP won the 2017 and 2020 election campaigns without growing the actual base.

The answer may also have something to do with unintended consequences of the NDP government’s 2018 ban on corporate and union donations (a good law, by the way), which has caused parties to focus more on extracting maximum donations out of existing donors than organizing membership drives.

It also may have something to do with some environmentally-conscious New Democrats choosing to cancel their party memberships over the government’s decision to proceed with the Site C dam, support natural gas fracking, continue logging old growth forests and develop an LNG industry.

The NDP’s current leadership race problem is further exacerbated by the poor performance of the Eby campaign.

He was endorsed by almost every single member of the BC NDP caucus, and yet somehow, this entire group collectively only managed to sign-up a paltry number of members for him in their communities?

The entire governing caucus and cabinet was out-worked by groups like Dogwood and the Climate Emergency Unit?

That should worry New Democrats.

Instead of looking for scapegoats amongst its political rivals, the NDP should search inward to figure out how it allowed this mess to develop in the first place. Better yet, how they are going to prevent it from happening again under the next premier – whomever that may be.

This column was updated to remove a reference to Stand.Earth, which says it is not organizing for the Appadurai campaign.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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