Saturday, September 13, 2014

On redemocratization

Adrian Morrow reports on Andrea Horwath's speech to the Ontario NDP's provincial council. And there's certainly plenty of reason for relative optimism about a message which both reflects a clear argument for big-picture progressive thinking, and recognizes at least part of the importance of the NDP's base. That said, I'll note that there's still one area which leaves something to be desired in Horwath's message:
Party sources say the election campaign was too undemocratic, run by a handful of people close to Ms. Horwath who decreed there would be no big picture pledges. The campaign also focused too strongly on winning Southwest Ontario – a region hard-hit with the decline of the manufacturing sector – at the expense of Toronto and the GTA, the sources said. The populist approach, they contend, made it harder for some in the party to feel they were fighting for anything important and consequently led to a lack of motivation.

Ms. Horwath made a bid to correct both problems Saturday.

In a speech that bordered on liturgy, she rhymed off example after example of progressive values – from universal health care to fighting poverty to better pensions to public transit – that she would embrace over the next four years. And she tugged at NDP heartstrings, at one point referencing the party’s revered late federal leader, Jack Layton.

“Love is better than anger, as a good friend reminded us a few years ago. We are the party of hope. We are the party of optimism,” she said. “In a time when the very, very few continue to amass so much for themselves while everyone else is falling behind, we have never been more relevant.”
She also promised to make the party more internally democratic.

“Every single New Democrat should be able to see themselves in our campaigns,” Ms. Horwath said. “We must reach out as broadly as possible, both within our party and to our allies in our movement, when crafting both our commitments and our campaigns.”
So what's wrong with that past passage in particular?

It's surely a must for any leader to be willing to speak to the values favoured by party supporters, and to design policy consistent with those values. But Horwath still appears to be taking the position that the crucial actor is "we" in the sense of the party leader and her (or his) closest advisers - reflecting a commitment to an increased baseline for consultation, but not necessarily an interest in true democratic decision-making at the party level.

Put another way, while we should be able to expect at least future campaigns and policy proposals (and hopefully general decision-making) from the Ontario NDP to better reflect members' values with Horwath as leader, her intention is still to decide personally where that commitment begins and ends.

That view of the relationship between a commanding leader and a subservient party is of course entirely consistent with the practices of the NDP's competitors. But unlike the Libs (who will generally follow their leader anywhere for lack of any coherent value structure) and the PCs/Cons (who count deference to authority as a key component of their actual value structure), the NDP actually has something to lose in settling for a top-down model.

In effect, the concession that politics must be practiced along the lines preferred by the other parties only helps the Libs and Cons to argue that the NDP doesn't live up to its own values, and thus doesn't offer an improvement on what we're stuck with now. And to avoid validating that line of attack, we should expect the NDP at all levels to advocate for - and offer - decision-making mechanisms which allow for grassroots debates and decision-making, rather than treating party members as just one more focus group to be taken into account by a leader who exercises sole control.

In making that observation about the need for the NDP's leadership to value something more than their own power, however, I'll also note that far too many political activists have been willing to reinforce the same dichotomy from the opposite side.

I've yet to hear anybody offer a reasonable explanation as to how frustration with a single leader justifies abandoning exactly the party system which should provide an alternate and more democratic source of policy ideas and strategic direction. In fact, a trigger-happy view of one's own membership based on dissatisfaction with a leader both diminishes the stability of a party's general value system, and further entrenches the view that the leader is solely responsible for defining the party.

And that's especially counterproductive within a party whose extensive (and growing) progressive network still offers by far the strongest opportunity for activists to shape both electoral results and governing priorities.

In sum, while Horwath has taken some important steps in speaking to core New Democratic values, there's still plenty of work to be done in better putting them into effect. And we'll only see the best possible results at all levels if both the leaders who have centralized power and the critics who have responded by turning their back on party involvement are willing to work toward that end.

3 comments:

  1. Empty rhetoric from an elitist, centralist with no interest in democracy or "the people" she claims to represent. As long as people like Horwath continue to dominate the NDP it is a party without principle or a future.

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  2. No second chances Kirby, no opportunity for her to learn from her mistakes?

    Andrea Horwath alot of people by making budgets better, I've seen her before she was leader and I tell you she has a big heart, she just got shit unbalanced advise from people she trusted. She deserves another chance, not pretty vengence.

    Give her another chance and she'll show you want she's made of.

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  3. Sub-Boreal10:47 AM

    I really have to wonder about this deathbed repentance.

    As part of Horwath's claimed reassertion of the party's core values, she hires as chief of staff someone who happily served the former NDP premier who's now Harper's chief tarsands salesman in Washington.

    When seen in context with an unbroken string of uninspiring faux centrist campaigns since 2011, I have to wonder if a big part of the NDP's problem is that its professional cadres just aren't very good. As the volunteer base increasingly sits on its hands (e.g. my BC provincial constituency mustered 300 E-day workers in 2013 vs. 800-900 in the 1990s campaigns), the party becomes more and more another case study of what happens when the "beige dictatorship" [ http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/02/political-failure-modes-and-th.html ] takes over.

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