A history of dissent against James

"This is the first shot. This is the opening of the door. And no one should be fooled by that. It's encouraging the party and membership to start talking about a leadership contest. And that's fine. But this is the beginning of the questioning in the New Democratic Party." That's the opinion of Doug McArthur, who served as the deputy minister to two New Democrat premiers and has done some of that questioning in the past. But he didn't make those comments last week, as caucus infighting broke out and into the headlines over Carole James's decision to expel Cariboo North legislator Bob Simpson from the opposition benches.

He made them last year, in response to pundit and former provincial legislator David Schreck's proposal to establish rules for a leadership race under the party's new one-member, one-vote system "because many members and supporters of the BC NDP would like to see" such a contention.

At the time, Mr. Schreck dismissed suggestions he had fired the first shot in a war to topple James, telling Public Eye, "If I wanted to call for a leadership race I would make an explicit resolution doing that. I think that issue needs to be dealt with two years from now."

Now, both he and Mr. McArthur are backing Mr. Simpson's expulsion - with Schreck recently penning an op-ed headlined "James takes NDP to record heights."

But the incident is indicative of the longstanding unrest surrounding James, which dates back to 2003 when she was one of seven candidates in the race to succeed Joy MacPhail.

Back then, the knock against her wasn't so much that she was perceived to be in the political middle - although that was a concern for some New Democrats - but rather the mushiness of her middle.

"If she doesn't start toughening up her policy positions and breaking new ground instead of following others, her support will drain away," commented one party opinion-maker seven years ago, who spoke to Public Eye on the condition of anonymity.

Those concerns were somewhat allayed when the New Democrats increased their seat count in the 2005 election from three to 33 - although how much that had to do with Ms. James's leadership as opposed to the governing Liberals unpopularity remains debatable.

But her subsequent handling of proposed pay-and-pension increases for legislators and the temporary suspension of Michael Sather from caucus came under friendly fire. And the unrest surrounding Ms. James seems to have become more pointed and public since her announcement she would lead the party into the 2013 election despite failing to form government in 2009.

For example, the New Democrat constituency association in Powell River-Sunshine Coast actually submitted a resolution to the party's most recent biennial convention calling for a leadership race in 2011.

That resolution never came up for debate because it was given a low-priority by the New Democrats' resolutions committee. But delegates did pass a resolution to have a regular leadership review at future conventions - a move supported by Ms. James and explained away as an "administrative" measure.

What couldn't be explained away was frustration that environmental issues weren't part of the New Democrat election campaign's central message. This, despite the fact party members had approved a comprehensive environmental action at an earlier convention. Two sitting MLAs, Claire Trevena and Lana Popham, even went so far as to speak out in favour of a resolution highlighting that discrepancy.

Rumours and reports of leadership unrest continued in the months following the 2009 convention.

In an email circulated to New Democrats in January, former Nelson-Creston constituency association president Laurie Page announced she had "written to Carole, myself, asking her to resign," adding many of her friends have "discontinued their memberships and their donations because they are uninspired by our leader."

The extent of that dissatisfaction is unclear. What is clear is that, according to notes taken during two of the party's provincial executive council meetings, the party's membership as of July was 13,360. That means New Democrats' numbers haven't grown beyond the "well over 13,000" reported at their 2003 leadership convention.

Those same notes include concerns about fundraising. Although they also report, by September, the party had "done fairly well on the revenue side."

It's against this backdrop that Ms. James expelled Mr. Simpson for penning an op-ed criticizing her recent speech to the Union of British Columbia Municipalities annual general meeting.

That she did so without consulting caucus broadened the controversy surrounding that decision to include her leadership.

Caucus chair Norm Macdonald has stepped down over Ms. James's lack of consultation and leadership questions were raised during a volatile three-day caucus retreat. At least three New Democrats constituency associations have now passed resolutions or executive motions calling for a leadership race.

But the momentum against Ms. James came to a halt on Monday when the Basi-Virk trial abruptly ended - temporarily shifting attention away from the New Democrats' infighting. Whether the dissidents can recapture that momentum is now an open question.

1 Comment

I have seen this movie before, more than once actually. It repeats from time to time on the NDP's never-ending Channel 13.

The trick is to understand that there is no rational calculation or payoff matrix, despite what may be claimed. It's really just habit.

From what's been related to me it's going to work like one of those time release capsules with successive personalities coming out, one after another. Spontaneously, of course. What seems to have been overlooked by "hardball" political consultants writing the script is that this is a game many can play.

Also, there's a very strong desire to appease ENGOs and a couple of municipal farm teams by reversing James position on the PMH1 project and going back the Chudnovsky position of all-out opposition, since that's consistent with the view of Corrigan's Burnaby and Robertson's Vision.

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