It didn’t have to be this way. David Eby, B.C. minister of justice and MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, was the obvious choice to succeed John Horgan as the leader of the BC NDP and premier of the province. He’s talented, accomplished and has full support of his caucus and cabinet colleagues. And now, thanks to the unexpected entry of an upstart challenger and the inability of the putative front-runner to generate any actual excitement of his own, the BC NDP is staring at an existential crisis of its own making.
Anjali Appadurai, a climate activist and former federal NDP candidate, began her campaign to contest Eby’s coronation just over two months ago. Since then, she managed to sign up as many as 14,000 new members to the party, the vast majority of whom likely share her hawkishness on everything from pipelines to LNG. She had the backing of Avi Lewis, David Suzuki and other B.C. climate movement heavyweights. There’s just one problem: according to a report from Elizabeth Cull, a former NDP MLA and the party’s chief electoral officer, many of those new members were signed up under fraudulent circumstances.
The NDP’s rules are clear: people cannot be members of a different political party and vote in the NDP leadership race, and a candidate’s campaign can’t sign up new members using the resources of a third party. As Cull details in her report on the Appadurai campaign, both rules were broken repeatedly. She concluded that both Dogwood B.C. and 350.org were in cahoots with Appadurai’s campaign, despite their denials and deflections to the contrary.
Alexandra Woodsworth, the campaigns manager with Dogwood B.C. and a volunteer with the Appadurai campaign, inadvertently said the quiet part out loud here. “For those who support political parties other than the B.C. NDP but still want to have a say in this race,” she told potential recruits, “you could choose to pause your membership and return after you cast your vote.”
As Cull concluded, “it is clear that Dogwood solicited fraudulent memberships.”
But these sorts of procedural concerns wouldn’t be an issue if Eby and the party establishment hadn’t left themselves so vulnerable to a hostile takeover. They let the party’s membership ranks dwindle to just over 11,000 people, then failed to sign up enough new members of their own when it was clear a challenger had emerged. That it ever got this far is a stunning indictment of their own competence — and a reminder of the risks associated with the one-member, one-vote style of leadership selection that has become the norm these days.
It used to be that party membership was a longer-term commitment, something expressed and exercised over the course of years of meetings, events and other internal functions. Leadership races were the culmination of that process, and the members who worked the hardest and stayed the most engaged tended to get rewarded with the right to cast a ballot at conventions on behalf of other people. Delegated conventions were exciting and often dramatic affairs, and they tended to accurately reflect the will of the party and its best interests.
Modern leadership races, on the other hand, are a free-for-all — often quite literally. Candidates are driven by the need to sign up as many people as possible, regardless of their commitment to the party or its longer-term interests, and this churn-and-burn style of party building seems to invite bad behaviour. “Indeed, something of this sort — illegal fundraising, faked memberships, or bulk purchases of memberships on others’ behalf (sometimes with illegally raised funds!) — happens in virtually every Canadian party leadership race,” the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne wrote. “And it will go on happening, so long as the parties persist in using leadership elections as membership drives.”
Geoff Norquay, a longtime Tory strategist who helped Canada’s federal Conservatives adopt a one-member, one-vote system for choosing its leaders, shared Coyne’s concerns in a recent piece for Policy Magazine. “Open recruitment of new members and direct election has also displaced the most engaged local party activists and stalwarts who showed up through thick and thin, recruiting and coaching the next candidate, fundraising, running the campaign office and knocking on doors at election time. Today, who knows if the thousands of new members recruited to support a specific leadership candidate will stick around to contribute locally for the long haul?”
He suggested his party might want to consider the British approach to electing leaders, which involves the caucus narrowing the field of choice before putting it to the members. Then again, after Liz Truss’ legendarily bad stint as Conservative leader and prime minister, it’s hard to see anyone wanting to embrace the process that helped put her in charge. But the Eby-Appadurai fiasco is just the latest leadership campaign that will leave the party running it weaker than when it began, and it should move parties across the spectrum to ask if there’s a better way to do this.
Opinion: Time will tell whether Anjali Appadurai’s martyrdom ends up costing the BC NDP the next election, columnist @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver. #BCpoli
Time will tell whether Appadurai’s martyrdom ends up costing the BC NDP the next election, or if the blowback is limited to the organizations that helped engineer her attempted takeover of their party. But one thing is already clear: for Canada’s political parties, a leadership race can be a very dangerous thing.