BC NDP Convention Minus 2 Days: Improving Internal Party Democracy

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Internal party democracy matters. Despite the fact that it exists in the constitution, it is not functioning well. And if democracy isn’t working, it doesn’t really matter that there are democratic structures in the party.

A core idea in the Think Forward BC NDP dialogue over the last few months has been about enhancing democracy in the party:

2. We must enhance democracy inside the party:

– Progressive politics is about accountability and transparency throughout the party to build trust and commitment between members and the elements of the party: constituencies (executives, MLAs, candidates, members, non-members), the provincial party (convention, party policies defined by convention, provincial council, the provincial executive, the table officers, staff), and caucus (leader, MLAs, staff).

– The Goal: more regular communication as well as formal and informal relationships need to take place from caucus and the executive to provincial councils, constituencies and members to increase transparency and accountability. There must be a clear process laid out and followed for decision-making which takes into account, but does not get hamstrung by communications management.

Democracy means inclusion. And it means pro-active inclusion. The thousands of party members need to be assertively included, not passively included.

What does that mean, though? Let’s look at a representation example. There are 5 levels of activity in the party from the member to the table officers.

All party members belong to riding associations. Those associations have a delegate to provincial council that meets quarterly and is in charge of the party between conventions. The provincial executive also meets quarterly; their meeting minutes go to the provincial council. The table officers meet monthly; their minutes go to the full provincial executive.

There are constitutional structures and relationships in place to ensure members know what is going on. The problem is that these relationships don’t work.

Meeting minutes do not flow smoothly from the table officers to each level down to members. Communication systems in ridings vary in effectiveness across the 85 ridings. There are many reasons for this, but in the end, if the systems in place for communicating party activities do not work, it is incumbent on the party to fix that.

Who is the party that is responsible for fixing that? Everyone. Ridings can’t just ask the provincial office for more resources and the provincial executive can’t just say that ridings have to get their act together. We can solve this kind of problem by getting people from all the levels of the party together, figuring out what communication needs to take place, what is in place now to accomplish that, what is broken, what needs to be fixed and what other solutions are possible. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

Currently, in a sad irony, there are not many ways of facilitating this kind of discussion.

There are other examples of breakdowns in internal party democracy, but many of them can be addressed by creating some structures for dialogue about improving democracy.

Another category of democracy weaknesses in the party is in the relationship between caucus and the party. There is precious little in the party’s constitution that expresses a relationship between these two bodies. In reality, caucus can operate in significant isolation from the party, from members and from convention-sanctioned policies.

Many members I have spoken with before and after the election, as well as many non-member supporters, are under the mistaken impression that there are firm accountability relationships between MLAs and the party structures. Thus, people are seriously confused when caucus acts against party policy or what members believe the NDP does or should stand for.

The choice to oppose the carbon tax and support the Port Mann Bridge rebuild and the Gateway Project reflect such breakdowns. Section 15.03 of the party constitution contains this:

It shall be the responsibility of MLAs, when they consider there are problems in the clarity, applicability or feasibility of existing Party policy, to bring these problems to the attention of the appropriate policy committees or to the chairperson of the Policy Review Committee.

Where policy revisions are considered appropriate and urgent or where the problems are unable to be resolved in discussion with the policy committees, the matter shall be directed to the Provincial Council for decision in accordance with this section.

It sounds like this creates a system whereby caucus can dialogue with the party about policy changes. How extensive is this happening? Did it happen with the carbon tax, Port Mann Bridge and Gateway Project? If so, then provincial council should be required to sign off on significant policy amendments or reversals. And if they do, then as the governing body of the party between conventions, they are responsible for the effect of those policy changes.

Those 3 policy reversals alienated droves of members and contributed to us losing the election in May.

Democracy matters. Structures need to be in place to ensure democracy takes place. If the structures are missing or ineffective based on how the party is operating, there is a breakdown in democracy.

This cannot continue. Losing this election is a signal to the party that its internal democracy is quite maimed.

And now it is the job of everyone in the party to pull together to figure out what kind of democracy we want, what it looks like and how we ensure we get there.

So in running for a Vice-President position on the provincial executive, one of my goals is to make sure the party’s democracy improves every month from now to the next election and beyond.

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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist. at Politics, Re-Spun
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, professor, speaker, consultant, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website, dgiVista.org.

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5 thoughts on “BC NDP Convention Minus 2 Days: Improving Internal Party Democracy”

  1. Stop your rhetoric about the Carbon Tax policy, it was a vote winner. Exits polls show that was one of the main reasons for such a historically high vote percentage, second best ever.

    Also your system of referring everything back to council for approval would render the party unable to respond to issues in a expedited manner that is usually necessary. This will lead to the perception that we can’t get our act together and erode our support.

    Your ideas have some merit, in utopia. But some realism is needed along with some pragmatism, otherwise we will be also rans forever

  2. Exit polls do not account for prime NDP supporters who do not show up to vote because the Axe the Tax campaign alienated them.

    Also, this is not “my” system for referral to council. I was quoting the constitution and commenting on even that doesn’t happen.

  3. If one policy plank in an entire electoral platform was enough to alienate someone, then they are single issue wonks. However, the Axe the Tax also managed to keep many Liberal voters at home, also.

    Much of your plan is based on the assumption that non-voters will vote NDP, but the facts do not back up your assumption. In fact those that didn’t vote always breakdown similar to those that did vote. This means that for every 1 NDP vote that stayed home, 1 Liberal and 1 green stayed home. Statistical analysis will always bear out this truth.

    The best strategy is too keep track of everyone that does vote, as part of our GOTV on e-day. Then targeting serial voters and those most likely to vote. It takes less time and resources then trying to overcome voter apathy. It takes a very special politician to make that plan successful, and to my knowledge has never happened in Canada. As far as my memory serves me only twice as that happened, and in USA, with FDR and Obama. In Obama’s case turn out was only up slightly.

  4. We had the most preparation ever for on-the-ground organizing, E-day, etc, but our popular vote barely budged. And our volunteer base shrank (anecdotal). Voter identification and motivation can not be the only solution, big Q.

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