Wednesday, March 07, 2012

On best-case scenarios

Any organization faces questions in trying to make the best use of the resources available to it. And in most cases, a deliberative body should be able to consider who might contribute what to the organization's goals, and ensure that power and responsibility are allocated accordingly.

In principle, there's no reason why political parties should operate any differently. But in most cases, they do: while there are plenty of subsidiary party bodies which consult and/or exercise formal power over decision-making, the fact of the matter is that we tend to operate on the assumption that all power flows from the party's leader. (And in the case of Stephen Harper's Cons, those same types of bodies which might serve as counterweights have been wiped out for the purpose of enabling Harper to exercise total top-down control.)

To some extent, that's been exacerbated by the requirement that a party leader sign nomination papers - which has facilitated central control over anybody who wants to run under a party banner. But there's no reason why a leader's role shouldn't be subject to both some discussion during a leadership campaign as to how to manage the talents of all the candidates, and ongoing checks and balances to keep leaders in touch with party members.

Those observations bring us to the NDP’s leadership race – where there’s a stark gap between the choices the organization would likely make based on a measured attempt to make the best use of each candidate’s talents, and the actual options for leadership voters as defined by the candidates themselves.

As a matter of personal appeal, there’s relatively little disagreement that Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen have presented themselves as the most skilled media operators and best presumptive faces of the party.

But both have attached their personal appeal to platforms which may give many members reason for concern. Mulcair is seeking what amounts to a blank cheque to “modernize” the party in unspecified ways – creating both uncertainty as to what he’d ultimately do, and backlash among members who don’t see the party’s best electoral outcome ever as a reason to change course and imitate the third-place party. And Cullen has generally stated that he sees the leadership as a mandate to pursue a multi-party joint nomination proposal - which is as worrisome to a great number of NDP supporters as it is difficult to defend in practice.

In a model which involved substantial discussion as to the best path forward, we’d expect either or both to be willing to talk out any differences in search of territory that’s more palatable to NDP members - with the likely end result that one or the other might become leader only by putting some water into his own wine (as both are eager to ask of members). But instead, both perceive their success as being tied to a brand which must be preserved at all costs. And so neither has been willing to move off of his controversial stance in public.

If the leadership contenders won't start a dialogue themselves, though, I'll challenge members to recognize that we're doing more than approaching a vending machine with a loonie in hand and seven different predetermined varieties of chips from which to choose.

Instead, we have a real role to play - not just in voting for a single leadership candidate, but in considering what each of the leadership candidates can best contribute to the party and country we want to build. And we should work both on discussing the possibilities, and casting votes intended to get to the best possible end result - even if the result doesn't fit with the simple narrative of "seven choices, pick one".

That may mean a strategic effort to place a vote for Romeo Saganash first in front of any votes intended to be subject to a caveat - providing substantive support for the individual candidate in the basic roles of face of the NDP and chief strategist, while also sending a clear message that the intention isn't to turn over unchecked power. And hopefully, we'll also see some pointed discussion by the candidates as to how they'd plan to work with the NDP's existing party structure.

But in the end, it's NDP members who have the power to decide the outcome of the leadership vote. And we should tread carefully with anybody who wants to assume control of the party without being willing to discuss how best to manage it for the years to come - while recognizing that a willingness to look to the wider interests at stake is exactly what we should want in a leader.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

7 comments:

  1. Dan Tan10:58 AM

    It is fair to say:
    Mulcair is seeking what amounts to a blank cheque to “modernize” the party in unspecified ways – creating both uncertainty as to what he’d ultimately do...
    Cullen has generally stated that he sees the leadership as a mandate to pursue a multi-party joint nomination proposal...

    But it is totally unfair to conclude:
    both perceive their success as being tied to a brand which must be preserved at all costs. And so neither has been willing to move off of his controversial stance in public...

    When it comes to Cullen, just yesterday you were the one who noticed the rhetorical "softening" in his position. I've been commenting for weeks that this has always been the case.

    When it comes to Mulcair, since we have no idea what his stance is on "modernizing"...how can you even accuse him of being "unwilling to move off his controversial stance"?

    Before you reach any conclusion, you should contact their campaigns with your concerns.
    Keep your readers updated on any response...& especially non-response.
    In that scenario, we can truly reach a conclusion.

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  2. Anonymous2:34 PM

    Romeo Saganash has just endorsed Mulcair for leader. I suppose his name will still remain on the ballot though.

    You've brought up this "vote symbolically to extract concessions" strategy before. And I disagreed with its effectiveness before.

    Something new that just crossed my mind is...What you're suggesting is totally impractical. It only works in a delegate style election where the leadership candidate CARRIES his voters with him. That allows for bargaining on policy...and opens the door the type of compromise you're seeking.

    During an NDP election, the leadership candidates have zero control over their voters. That alone cuts off a direct line of communication between leaders...since someone like Ashton can't entice Cullen/Mulcair with her supporters. If that wasn't enough, the disperate & anonymous votes ensure Mulcair/Cullen have no way of interpreting the "signals" you intend to send them about policy.

    In your previous post, you instructed folks to use Brian Topp as vessel for this sort of protest vote. Of course, I argued, that might just give him an outright victory. So I'm glad you re-directed readers to use Romeo as this vessel. While I still believe it's a fruitless strategy, it will cause less harm in the end.

    But I still hope you'd reconsider using the actual election to make such a point. We should either solicit a response from a candidate directly...or actually consider endorsing a different REALISTIC leader who is more receptive to these concerns.

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  3. Dan Tan2:36 PM

    <span>Romeo Saganash has just endorsed Mulcair for leader. I suppose his name will still remain on the ballot though.  
     
    You've brought up this "vote symbolically to extract concessions" strategy before. And I disagreed with its effectiveness before.  
     
    Something new that just crossed my mind is...What you're suggesting is totally impractical. It only works in a delegate style election where the leadership candidate CARRIES his voters with him. That allows for bargaining on policy...and opens the door the type of compromise you're seeking.  
     
    During an NDP election, the leadership candidates have zero control over their voters. That alone cuts off a direct line of communication between leaders...since someone like Ashton can't entice Cullen/Mulcair with her supporters. If that wasn't enough, the disperate & anonymous votes ensure Mulcair/Cullen have no way of interpreting the "signals" you intend to send them about policy.  
     
    In your previous post, you instructed folks to use Brian Topp as vessel for this sort of protest vote. Of course, I argued, that might just give him an outright victory. So I'm glad you re-directed readers to use Romeo as this vessel. While I still believe it's a fruitless strategy, it will cause less harm in the end.  
     
    But I still hope you'd reconsider using the actual election to make such a point. We should either solicit a response from a candidate directly...or actually consider endorsing a different REALISTIC leader who is more receptive to these concerns.</span>

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  4. jurist4:57 PM

    Agreed that there's limited means to discuss inter-candidate arrangements at the convention itself - and while I've pointed to Topp as the most likely to work something out with the limited number of voters who might be available to choose at the convention, he now seems to be saying he isn't pursuing that (at least with Nash). But if enough people set up a signal vote in advance, it should carry the intended message - even if it doesn't result in any formal negotiation between voter and candidate.

    That said, I agree that getting satisfactory answers from the candidates would be a far better outcome. (Again, that's part of the reason why I've reserved judgment and suggested that readers wait before voting.) But if we don't get them, then we need to start talking now about how to send a message beyond merely accepting the candidate brands as presented.

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  5. DougL - Guest from Cullen's riding7:03 PM

    I join the chorus that says, "get answers now."  This also models the transparent, respectful way that we'd like to see politics done.  So, to the question.

    Dear jurist, will you solicit a response from these two, maybe all seven candidates, about how they intend to work with existing party institutions in terms of charting the course forward?  As I've stated before, maybe we're just afraid of change as New Democrats.  Maybe at a deeper level, we're more concerned about the nature of the changes being sought, and how any changes will be carried out.  But somebody has to ask the question... and why not a respected progressive blogger.

    I'm glad to hear that Cullen is may be moving towards an interest about partisan collaboration rather than a position (and I still need to take time to listen to the radio clip.)  I suspect the fears about Mulcair's stated intention to make change have more to do with his past political ties than any explicit plan he has espoused.

    How power is shared and exercised in an institution has been a matter of interest as long as civilizations have been around.  And we certainly see enough examples of "the end justifies the means."  (Witness the robocall scandal.)   This is an important question.

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  6. jurist7:39 AM

    Since the request has been made, I'll indeed check in with the campaigns - and keep you posted on what I hear back.

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  7. Anonymous2:34 AM

    Of all the candidates, I think Brian Topp is the only one who has released a policy paper that actually mentions working with party members to help craft party policy. Policy Paper 7 I think it was.

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