ST. JOHN’S, NFLD.—May 17, 2014. Here’s a partial list of the things New Democrats like: pensions, solidarity, health care, unions, shouting “shame!”, photocopied pamphlets, and hugging.
Here’s what New Democrats don’t like: Stephen Harper and giving short speeches.
On the Victoria Day long weekend in St. John’s, New Democrats were in fine form, giving long speeches and hollering “shame!” with wild abandon.
It wasn’t all fun and hugging, though; they were hunkered down in a windowless ballroom at the Holiday Inn to take care of a bit of old business.
For anybody paying close attention to the New Democrats, the May convention was stark evidence that the 2011 “Orange Wave” had crested, and the water levels were returning to their previous normal.
After their best-ever results in the 2011 provincial election, there were little glimmers of hope in 2012 and 2013 when it looked like the NDP in Newfoundland and Labrador might be on track to get its hands on some real power. Even if they were still the third party in the House of Assembly, in a couple of polls they held the lead over both the Liberals and the Tories. At the very least, becoming the Official Opposition looked very do-able; heck, holding the balance of power within a minority parliament was a realistic possibility. People even idly talked about the NDP forming government, although that was always seen as a long shot.
Then the caucus revolt happened in October of 2013, and it all went to hell.
With her back against the wall, fighting for her political life, Leader Lorraine Michael promised a province-wide convention and a leadership review. Seven months later, on the May long weekend, the party delivered on that promise.
It was too late.
In the intervening seven months, the party’s poll numbers dropped off a cliff. MHAs Dale Kirby and Christopher Mitchelmore left the NDP caucus and joined up with the Liberals. The New Democrats fought their way through two byelections and came up embarrassingly short in both of them. In the House of Assembly, the rump caucus kept banging away at the same old issues, but they sounded tinny and out of touch with reality.
By the time May rolled around and the New Democrats converged on St. John’s for their convention, the party had contracted to a diehard core. The diehards insisted that things weren’t really so awful. And on paper, anyway, the numbers didn’t look too bad.
During the halcyon days of 2012 with the wind at their backs, the New Democrats were able to pull 165 people to their convention. During the dark days of 2014, they still had 125 people in the room. And it was 125 people who showed up on a long weekend—the first sunny, warm, beautiful weekend of the year after a long, punishing winter. Really, the New Democrats said, the convention was proof that the party had all the same energy, the same excitement, the same prospects for growth that it did before.
You really had to be there, sitting in the room and listening to the speeches, to understand just how far from reality they all were.
“If governments are taking away our rights, then it will be at their peril,” Federation of Labour president Mary Shortall thundered from the podium Friday evening, as the convention got underway. “Governments can legislate away our rights, but they can never legislate away our anger, our determination and our solidarity.”
Later on, leftie stalwart Bill Hynd got a warm reaction during a debate over free trade, when he declared, “CETA and evil have both got four letters, and to me they’re both the same.”
Judging by the cheers, it didn’t occur to anybody else in the room that many voters are deeply ambivalent to unions, and the combative us-against-them rhetoric of labour leaders can be a major turn-off to moderate voters. And never mind that a poll showing the CETA free trade deal between Canada and Europe had 81 per cent public support.
Again and again, over the course of the weekend, it was abundantly clear that the NDP wasn’t trying to appeal to the masses. The 2014 gathering was a chance for the small knot of hardcore social justice campaigners to get together and let their freak flag fly. The old warhorses and blind partisans were the only ones let in the party.
There’s an old joke that I first heard a Tory tell me: “Tories go to conventions to get drunk, Liberals go to their convention to get laid, and New Democrats go to their conventions for the pamphlets.”
The NDP lived up to the stereotype. At the New Democrat gathering on Friday night, they spent what felt like about 10 minutes outlining the anti-discrimination and harassment policy before they moved on to a report from the election planning committee, where an earnest-sounding lady described the committee’s progress, and the work of the ten different election planning subcommittees.
You have to see it up close to appreciate just how different the culture of the NDP is from the other two parties. The Liberals and the Tories show up and go through the motions of conventioneering, but the New Democrats embrace it with gusto. They debate every motion, and they’re sticklers for Robert’s Rules of Order every step of the way.
The Liberals and the Tories are like the high school football team—people join for the parties and because it’s cool. The NDP is more like the math club—the only reason you end up there is if you’re really into math. It’s not that New Democrats don’t know how to have fun; it’s just that fun for them is diligently and sincerely working to bring about social equality for disadvantaged members of the community.
For a lot of these people, listening to Mary Shortall bellow about collective bargaining amounts to a rockin’ Friday night.
James McLeod is the political reporter for The Telegram. He moved to the East Coast from Toronto in 2008 while pursuing a degree in journalism from Ryerson University and began covering national and local politics full-time in 2011. A past winner of the Atlantic Journalism Awards’ Jim MacNeill New Journalist Award, Mr. McLeod is a regular voice on CBC Radio. He lives in St. John’s.
The Hill Times