Saturday, June 06, 2009

On potential energy

After months of a campaign involving serious discussions of policy and principle among four well-qualified candidates, the leadership race took a turn for the surreal at the end.

While Ryan Meili's campaign spent the voting interval on the second ballot marshalling every available troop to try to call potential voters to narrow a gap which proved too large to overcome, Dwain Lingenfelter's supporters started setting up their victory rally in the main hall. But within seconds of the Lingenfelter crowd to the right of the stage starting a "Link" chant in support of their candidate, a throng of Meili supporters (including plenty of new arrivals from the Higgins and Pedersen camps) soon assembled to the left with a "Meili" counter chant - which in turn gave way to an "NDP" chant bringing both sides together. One or more of those three messages echoed through the room until the results were announced...along with a tongue-in-cheek "Wallace" chant to beckon for the auditor responsible to announce the final numbers.

The contrast in the types of messages which managed to emerge from the crowds may ultimately serve as a perfect metaphor for the final result of the leadership race. The Saskatchewan NDP isn't lacking for members who are not only willing to show their enthusiasm, but eager to join forces toward the right end. But the NDP needs to figure out a common refrain that will actually unite its members - and any effort which fails to take into account all sides of the party figures to face vociferous opposition from within.

So what positives can we take from the convention so far? The good news today isn't limited to Lingenfelter and his supporters - though they're surely breathing a sigh of relief. Even for those who have been skeptical about Dwain Lingenfelter's run for the leadership, today's result should do about as much as can be done to confirm the fact that Lingenfelter can't afford to ignore the left side of the NDP.

Remember that it was just last year that the NDP faced a real fear that Lingenfelter's ascent to the leadership was a foregone coronation and that nobody would even bother seriously challenging him. From that starting point, many members would likely have been thrilled with the prospect that Lingenfelter would instead win a close second-ballot victory against a well-organized opponent. And if the actual result is still somewhat of a disappointment when something even better seemed well within reach, that's a positive sign as to how far the progressive faction within the NDP has come - as well as a hint that Lingenfelter would be well-advised to recognize and tap into the energy of his leadership opponents.

But then, the importance of working together and leaving nothing to chance should be no less clear to supporters of Meili, Pedersen and Higgins. After all, as strong as their show of common purpose was by the time of the second ballot, Lingenfelter would have swept to a first-ballot victory if any one of the three has been just slightly less successful in winning votes. And there's surely some theoretical possibility that it was within the grasp of the candidates to come up with the extra votes which would have been needed to push Meili ahead.

That goes doubly in the wake of what has to be seen as a disappointing level of voter turnout. Just yesterday, Murray Mandryk was commenting on the need to take into account the possibility that "while a spectacularly high number of eligible New Democrats will vote, it might not be unreasonable to suggest a five- to eight-per-cent 'no-show' rate." Instead, over 3,600 eligible members failed to vote at all, making for a no-show rate of over 27% - meaning that there were plenty of votes theoretically left unharvested which might have changed the results in any number of ways.

In the wake of a close vote which could so easily have gone differently, Lingenfelter now faces a double challenge. The first step is to make sure that everybody who attended the convention and showed their eagerness to be involved is inspired to keep doing the same - making sure to build a party that keeps convention attendees proudly chanting "NDP" rather than breaking down into internal factions. But the more important work is ultimately to start building a similar degree of enthusiasm among disaffected potential and current NDP members.

It remains to be seen how much Lingenfelter can accomplish on that front - and his continued focus on "winning" over questions of what the party actually hopes to accomplish in power signals that he has work to do in shaping his own message to the tasks. But it's Lingenfelter's success or failure in those areas that ultimately figure to define his leadership and determine the NDP's fate in 2011 - and there's every reason for him to want to start immediately in harnessing some of the obvious potential for renewal.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

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