The NDP Threw a Con­ven­tion. And the Floor Stayed Clean.

Policy - - In This Issue - Robin V. Sears

The party con­ven­tion is one of the few po­lit­i­cal rit­u­als that hasn’t mi­grated to the in­ter­net. As vet­eran strate­gist Robin Sears writes, “They are where the party’s ac­tivist core meet, mate, fight, and get hun­gover to­gether. They are bond­ing oc­ca­sions es­sen­tial to a party’s con­tin­u­ing health and mo­men­tum more valu­able than any other.” How did the 2018 NDP pol­icy con­ven­tion in Ot­tawa rate? Read on.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties are in­cred­i­bly frag­ile in­sti­tu­tions, given what es­sen­tial pil­lars they are to gen­uine democ­racy. The New Demo­cratic Party and the old Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party in the 1990s, and the Lib­eral Party a decade ago, each went into what might have be­come ter­mi­nal de­cline, if cir­cum­stances had con­tin­ued to con­spire against them. The NDP had the smarts to elect a trans­for­ma­tional leader in Jack Lay­ton. Cana­dian con­ser­va­tives

were saved by a small group of party elders bro­ker­ing a peace agree­ment among the frac­tious splin­ters into which their tribe had split—but only af­ter 15 years of name-call­ing.

For a party in cri­sis, the choice of an ef­fec­tive leader is an es­sen­tial first step. Some­times it re­quires a jack­booted strong­man to en­force dis­ci­pline. More of­ten, a pa­tient con­cil­ia­tor with in­spir­ing charisma is the key. The Lib­er­als were lucky that Justin Trudeau pre­vailed in their last con­test af­ter two dis­as­trous pre­de­ces­sors. The NDP were blessed in find­ing and el­e­vat­ing Lay­ton, let down by his suc­ces­sor Tom Mul­cair, and now pos­si­bly about to re-as­cend to Lay­ton’s heights un­der Jag­meet Singh.

This was the year that the ag­ing baby boomers of the Broad­bent era were firmly shuf­fled off­stage. Re­placed by now-grey­ing Lay­ton gen­er­a­tion lead­ers and, even more dra­mat­i­cally, by very young and more eth­ni­cally di­verse del­e­gates than the party has ever be­fore seen.

Singh’s per­for­mance in re­cent months has been far from world­beat­ing, to put it kindly, but that is the fate of new and untested op­po­si­tion lead­ers. The Con­ser­va­tives may yet wish they had made a dif­fer­ent choice given how un­der­whelm­ing An­drew Scheer has been in his first months. As some Tory wags in the of­ten-cruel po­lit­i­cal vil­lage of Ot­tawa whis­per, “There is a rea­son folks end up in the Speaker’s Chair. It’s be­cause they may make good ref­er­ees, but never stars….”

Singh par­tially re­deemed him­self with his in­ter­nal crit­ics with a very im­pres­sive first con­ven­tion speech in Ot­tawa that com­bined hu­mour, self-dep­re­ca­tion, pas­sion and com­pas­sion. Win­ning the sup­port of nine out of 10 del­e­gates to the party’s largest non-lead­er­ship con­ven­tion ever was a sur­prise to many, and has him emerg­ing from his first real test with shin­ing colours.

Those who aren’t po­lit­i­cal junkies tend to re­gard party po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions as be­ing slightly be­low se­niors’ curl­ing tour­na­ments or cham­pi­onship dog groom­ing shows as scin­til­lat­ing tele­vi­sion. They tend to fea­ture an end­less cho­rus line of un­rec­og­niz­able mil­i­tants at mi­cro­phones, shout­ing in­co­her­ently about sub­jects no one has never given any thought to, with ter­ri­ble sound and worst video the norm, only oc­ca­sion­ally lifted by an in­spir­ing speaker, usu­ally non-Cana­dian.

NDP con­ven­tions are ex­am­plars of the form, with the pol­icy de­bates be­ing typ­i­cally repet­i­tive and full of in­sider short­hand and acronyms that or­di­nary Cana­di­ans might not be able to trans­late as part of ei­ther of­fi­cial lan­guage. This year’s con­ven­tion in­cluded ag­ing lefty boomers de­mand­ing that the “party es­tab­lish­ment” stop wast­ing valu­able con­ven­tion time with point­less out­siders, and en­sure that at a min­i­mum of 70 per cent of ses­sion time be de­voted to se­ri­ous pol­icy de­bate. There is a cer­tain Ground­hog Day qual­ity to such events for vet­er­ans, as one blinks a few times at the sight of the older and more frag­ile del­e­gate giv­ing the same speech, on the same res­o­lu­tion, in the same hall that one first heard him of­fer when younger, bearded and louder 40 years ear­lier.

But you would be wrong to dis­miss the con­ven­tion’s cen­tral­ity to the health of any po­lit­i­cal tribe. They are, af­ter the se­lec­tion of an ef­fec­tive leader, the most im­por­tant event in any po­lit­i­cal party’s con­trol—elec­tions them­selves be­ing nec­es­sar­ily out of any­one’s con­trol, in pol­i­tics or not. They are where the party’s ac­tivist core meet, mate, fight, and get hun­gover to­gether. They are bond­ing oc­ca­sions es­sen­tial to a party’s con­tin­u­ing health and mo­men­tum more valu­able than any other.

What looks like a suc­cess­ful con­ven­tion to the me­dia and ca­sual ob­servers is of­ten very dif­fer­ent that what ac­tivists scor­ing would con­clude. Yes, size and pro­fes­sional pre­sen­ta­tion al­ways mat­ter. But those are tabled stakes to­day. A good leader’s video, a strong ca­pa­ble con­ven­tion staff, sound and lights that ap­pear high-tech are must haves. But the deeper and more last­ing proof of a suc­cess­ful con­ven­tion is heard only by eaves­drop­ping in cor­ri­dors, in the wash­room, in the del­e­gates’ whis­pered mut­ters to each other in line-ups at the mikes.

They fo­cus on words like re­spect, dig­nity, au­then­tic­ity, ef­fec­tive­ness re­fer­ring to party elders, cau­cus mem­bers, the leader and his staff. They might be sore at hav­ing lost a res­o­lu­tion fight or a place on a party ex­ec­u­tive but they will go home boil­ing if those de­feats were seen to be un­fair, “fixed,” or the prod­uct of an au­to­cratic party es­tab­lish­ment.

Se­cond only to the leader in rel­e­vance to a con­ven­tion’s suc­cess— and it’s a close se­cond—is its chair or chairs. All party con­ven­tions, even the highly or­ches­trated Amer­i­can ones, are po­ten­tially volatile beasts. If the room is too hot or too cold, too dark or too crowded, the or­ga­niz­ers are lay­ing a very poor foun­da­tion for any po­lit­i­cal suc­cess. If there is not enough time to eat or to gos­sip in the hall, del­e­gates’ nerves will fray by day two or three. But it is the adroit­ness of the per­son with the gavel that is the real key to con­ven­tion tri­umph.

The rules are the rules—ex­cept when they aren’t—in the hands of a great con­ven­tion chair. He or she must have great feel for a room, its shift­ing moods, its trou­ble­mak­ers and its opin­ion in­flu­encers. The chair needs to know when to push, when to back off,

when to al­low a lit­tle loose­ness in tim­ing or procedure, and when to smack the gavel down with a sharp crack.

The NDP in con­ven­tion this year was blessed to have a sea­soned vet­eran in the chair in the per­son of Barb By­ers, a labour union ex­ec­u­tive, party ac­tivist and Order of Canada mem­ber from Saskatchewan.

What a per­for­mance. With a range of styles and tricks, she nudged a room of nearly 1800 men and women into com­pli­ance with hu­mour and con­fi­dence. Adopt­ing the style of a tough old aunt, whom few in the fam­ily would dare cross, she was a mas­ter in the role. As one friv­o­lous point of order af­ter another was piled up from sev­eral mikes—an old con­ven­tion vet­eran’s trick for sneak­ing a fi­nal at­tack line into the de­bate pre­tend­ing that it has some­thing to do with procedure— she stared down at the lat­est mis­cre­ant and said, “That, as you well know, is not a point of order…will the del­e­gate please take his seat.” He duly shuf­fled off, head down, to the be­muse­ment of many around him.

She was deal­ing with a very dif­fer­ent con­ven­tion than any be­fore in the NDP. This was the year that the ag­ing baby boomers of the Broad­bent era were firmly shuf­fled off­stage. Re­placed by now-grey­ing Lay­ton gen­er­a­tion lead­ers and, even more dra­mat­i­cally, by very young and more eth­ni­cally di­verse del­e­gates than the party has ever be­fore seen. Not only were the mul­ti­coloured-tur­ban Sikh con­tin­gent out in greater num­bers than ever be­fore, but young brown, black and indige­nous Cana­di­ans were out, loud and proud. The NDP be­gan this process un­der Lay­ton, saw it stall since his death, and this year ex­plode into a party del­e­gate body that looked more like ur­ban Canada than ever be­fore.

The 2018 con­ven­tion will be re­mem­bered as a suc­cess, but the harder task for New Democrats be­gins on their ar­rival back home—steal­ing back from the orig­i­nal thieves the la­bel of the rel­e­vant pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal party to a ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans.

The boomers may no longer sit on stage or be prom­i­nent in the line­ups at the mikes, but many qui­etly played their tra­di­tional roles off­stage and qui­etly on the floor. They would nudge con­cil­ia­tory lan­guage into res­o­lu­tions at pro­vin­cial cau­cus gath­er­ings, en­sure that elders’ votes were counted at cru­cial mo­ments on the floor, and at­tempt to demon­strate by ex­am­ple that pas­sion must be blended with em­pa­thy and com­pro­mise as a path to po­lit­i­cal vic­tory. The plan­ning for the con­ven­tion had caused con­sid­er­able nail­bit­ing among the old hands in the weeks lead­ing to the open­ing gavel. There seemed to be lit­tle ev­i­dence of the be­hind-the- cur­tain work of con­ven­tion po­lit­i­cal man­age­ment es­sen­tial to a blood-free con­ven­tion floor. In the end, this new gen­er­a­tion, many in their early 20s drawn by their not-yet-40-year old leader, in har­ness with just enough of the ag­ing vet­er­ans, pulled it off. The clos­est to a se­ri­ous em­bar­rass­ment was on an old NDP ch­est­nut—a just peace in the Mid­dle East—but by eleven votes the party com­pro­mise held. Tom Mul­cair had ruled on the Pales­tinian is­sue with an iron fist, tol­er­ated but re­sented by many even cen­trist New Democrats. This year, the lid could have blown off badly, with the pas­sage of very in­cen­di­ary anti-Is­raeli texts. It nar­rowly did not. So, af­ter a long dif­fi­cult pe­riod for New Democrats fol­low­ing the death of the sainted Jack Lay­ton, one heard many of the older del­e­gates mut­ter­ing to each other that “This feels like a re­turn to the best of the good old days, no?!” And among the younger del­e­gates you heard the kind of buzz that comes af­ter a tri­umphant hockey game by a favourite team, or the chuck­les in the el­e­va­tor at the end of a great rock con­cert. The 2018 con­ven­tion will be re­mem­bered as a suc­cess, but the harder task for New Democrats be­gins on their ar­rival back home—steal­ing back from the orig­i­nal thieves the la­bel of the rel­e­vant pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal party to a ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans.

Jenna Marie Wakani photo

NDP Leader Jag­meet Singh de­liv­ers his key­note at the party’s pol­icy con­ven­tion in Ot­tawa. His ar­rival sig­nals gen­er­a­tional change for the NDP and a re­claim­ing of its lead­er­ship on the pro­gres­sive left.

Jenna Marie Wakani photo

Barb By­ers, con­ven­tion chair for the NDP, was very much in charge and ev­ery­one in the hall knew it.

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