This weekend I attended the New Democratic Party’s Policy Convention in Montréal. It’s the first convention of any party that I have attended. I went because the convention was nearby, it was for the party I identify with, and I wanted to understand what a political convention was like from the inside.
The convention felt, simultaneously, democratic and controlled. Long lists of hundreds of policy resolutions had been sent in from riding associations across the country. Panels on the first morning gave time to change the order in which resolutions would be considered (originally set by the party’s Resolution Committee), and to amend them. Each panel was dealing with thirty to a hundred resolutions; the panels I attended didn’t get through more than about seven at most, which meant most weren’t considered. The ones that were considered – the ones that made it to the front of the line – were almost uniformly non-contentious ones. With one exception they were largely re-statements or refinements of existing party policy and positions, and were passed with near-unanimity when the entire convention voted on them.
Meanwhile, anything that might have been contentious – my interests were a resolution condemning the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and calling for sanctions on Israel, and one to change the party policy on marijuana from decriminalization to legalization – was kept at the very back of the agenda. Other resolutions on those topics – one stating a general position supporting a two-state solution, the other re-confirming the policy on marijuana decriminalization – were much closer to the front, although we still didn’t get to them. It felt deliberate, like the party was trying to avoid that could be perceived as excessively radical, or that could be divisive.
The most vigorous debate was on the new preamble to the party constitution, which relegated references to social democracy and democratic socialism to the party’s past and described it as simply “a progressive democratic party”, with a lot of vague statements (workers are good, the environment is good, feminism and minority rights are good, government has a role in the economy) that could have as easily been present in a statement of the Liberal Party, or the Democratic Party for that matter. The issue was known to be contentious; there was a long line of speakers at both the “pro” and “con” microphones; but the vote was called after only four people spoke, and the chair ruled that the new preamble had been passed with a 2/3 majority just by looking at the show of hands, without counting it. The party’s left wing insisted on a count of votes for both whether people were ready to vote without further debate, and then whether the preamble had actually passed. It did pass, with a majority considerably larger than 2/3 (900+ for, 100+ against, as I remember), so the result was democratic…but the lack of debate didn’t sit well with me. Nor did the party’s attempts to shut down the more leftist members, like making them put away a “Stop Obama’s Drone Wars” banner they were holding outside the convention hall, on the technicality that it didn’t have equal-size bilingual text. Or saying the left’s magazines were offensive because they used First Nations imagery on their magazines when the First Nations chiefs attending the meeting didn’t agree with their message – as long as they had any First Nations members who did agree with their message, I didn’t see that the chiefs’ view should be paramount.
Here’s the thing: in the 1990s, Canada had a party called the Reform Party – far-right, but with a strong belief in popular democracy. In the 2000s its later iteration, the Canadian Alliance, even advocated a bill saying that any popularly-proposed legislation that got more than a certain number of signatures would be considered in the House of Commons. (This idea fell to ridicule when Rick Mercer – Americans can think of him as ‘Canada’s Jon Stewart’ – started up a petition to make the party’s leader Stockwell Day change his name to Doris. The petition garnered more than enough signatures.) That party became the present Conservative Party, where backbenchers are silenced, even cabinet ministers extremely tightly controlled by the Prime Minister, impartial government officials attacked and denounced if their findings don’t agree with the Prime Minister, and scientists on government-funded projects silenced in case their research results don’t agree with what the Prime Minister wants said.
Power corrupts. It corrupts very easily, and if there’s one thing the trajectory of the Reform Party tells us, it’s that when a party decides power is the most important thing on its agenda, that party can lose its principles incredibly quickly. The objective of getting into office in order to be able to do the right thing turns into staying in office for its own sake, and the “right thing” changes to exclude any action that might endanger your hold on power. I try to maintain a healthy scepticism about political leaders, and political parties; I believe in principles. I like and respect the NDP because it has shared my principles. Now, it is true that those principles can’t accomplish much in opposition, especially when there’s a minority government – but it is equally true that if we lose our principles in the process of becoming the government, there’s no point in winning elections in the first place. And our principles are not just what we decide our policies are, but how we decide on our policies, and how we treat those who dissent from them.
I don’t want to make this out to be worse than it is. People who most of the party seem to consider the ‘fringe’ still have the ability to speak out at convention. On fairly numerous occasions they got up in panels, and in the convention hall, to speak in favour of socialism, nationalization of natural resources, and nationalization of the banks. They got up to advocate that Jeremy Bird’s speech be cancelled and replaced with additional time to discuss resolutions, on the basis that the Obama Administration was capitalist, imperialism, and guilty of imprisoning disproportionate numbers of minorities, and could not be considered an ally in any form of the NDP. They were not broadly agreed with, but they were not entirely silenced.
Our next convention, though, will be in 2015; if it’s at the same time as this one, it will come shortly before the election. What will the party do then? If it decides the Conservatives and Liberals could make effective political attacks out of convention-floor advocacy of socialism and nationalization and denunciations of imperialism, of anti-war banners and resolutions of support for Palestine, what will it choose? On the one hand, a small group of radicals who much of the party finds annoying; on the other, a shot at the Prime Minister’s chair. How much will democracy and open debate continue to mean?
Perhaps the central symbolic moment of the convention was a speech by Bill Shorten, a government minister in the Australian Labor Party and guest speaker at the convention. He quoted a former Labor Prime Minister of Australia: “Only the impotent are pure.” Power entails compromise. Perhaps. But is a policy convention the place for openly advocating a party sell out for a shot at victory? How far can you compromise before power, not principled actions, becomes the main goal?