Martyn Brown: Should GreeNDP formally unite?

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      It’s official. Alberta’s Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties have voted to merge into the United Conservative Party.

      Some 95 percent of the voting Wildrose and Progressive Conservative members ratified the proposal.

      NDP premier Rachel Notley’s worst nightmare has come true.

      It raises the question: should British Columbia’s Greens and New Democrats also formally unite, perhaps as the Green Democratic Party (GDP)?

      I think so, much as I doubt that a majority of either of those parties’ members would now agree.

      If the GreeNDP alliance can work together in a minority government, are the differences between those two allies really so significant that they could never contemplate coming together, under a new political banner?

      The answer to that question will probably depend on the outcome of the promised November 2018 referendum on proportional representation.

      If it passes, and voters opt to adopt P.R., the Greens, at least, will have even less interest in contemplating a merger with the NDP than they do today.

      Assuming they can maintain and perhaps grow their current constituent base, they will see their numbers rise in the legislature, to better align with their electoral support. With that, their ability to effect desired change, by holding the balance of power, would be more promising than it is under our current electoral system.

      The B.C. Liberals could come roaring back if they replace Christy Clark with a leader who can win more votes in Metro Vancouver.

      Greens and New Democrats can't be complacent

      By the same token, under P.R., disaffected B.C. Liberals will also likely have new cause to support other minor right-wing or breakaway parties, lured by the promise of proportional representation.

      Under that electoral model, which typically results in minority governments, the party or parties that hold the balance of power can extract all sorts of commitments from the minority governing party. As we see today, even one vote could determine who forms the government.

      It is a prescription for greater power-sharing that is inherently coercive, more cooperative, and more concessionary than the status quo. The minority governments that we would routinely get under P.R. will either hinge on formal coalitions, or on some type of explicit or tacit agreement, such as the confidence and supply agreement that underpins B.C.’s current GreeNDP alliance.

      All in all, there is much to recommend that prospective change, if one believes that its attendant log-rolling, bartering, and system of governance born of elected power-brokers is better than the alternative, with all of its strengths and weaknesses.

      Still, there is a world of difference between hoping to decide and influence a government, and actually increasing the odds of becoming the government. There is a huge difference between holding power and merely trying to sway who holds it and how it is used.

      Even under proportional representation, the party that usually stands the best chance of governing is typically the one that wins the most seats and votes—especially as more splinter parties emerge on either side of the political spectrum.

      The Greens’ opportunity for holding the balance of power could just as easily be eroded by one or more new centrist parties, which might each win a few seats that could prove pivotal, in deciding the fate and substance of future minority governments.

      If B.C. voters ultimately choose to reject P.R., you can bet that the pressure for uniting the center-left will only grow, and doubly so, if its ideological opposites remain united under the B.C. Liberal banner. Especially if they get a new leader.

      Until the referendum on P.R. takes place, there will obviously be no appetite for reform among most New Democrats and Greens.

      That’s a shame. Then again, I am not a member of either of those parties, or of any other party. I do, however, want them both to succeed, or more precisely, for their common agenda to prevail.

      Federal NDP leadership candidate Charlie Angus's waffling on the Kinder Morgan pipeline makes some provincial New Democrats uncomfortable.
      Charlie Angus

      Federal ties can create problems

      For starters, I think it’s high time that the B.C. NDP ended its formal affiliation with its national party namesake, just as the B.C. Greens and B.C. Liberals both did many years ago with their counterparts.

      The advantages of maintaining that national affiliation will become less significant with campaign finance reform, if the provincial party can no longer borrow or monetarily benefit from either the federal NDP or from big labour.

      Depending on who the federal NDP selects as its new leader, it could also have a negative or positive impact on the B.C. NDP.

      For example, only Jagmeet Singh has really come out swinging against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project, which the GreeNDP alliance has vowed to fight using “every tool available". Another NDP leadership candidate, Guy Caron, has been rather low key in his opposition to the Kinder Morgan project. And despite her clear opposition to the project, Niki Ashton has thus far been fairly muted on the subject, as far as I can tell.

      Though to be fair, the B.C. mainstream media's rather limited coverage of the party's leadership race to date may not do any of its candidates' policy positions any justice.

      Charlie Angus, by contrast, has been weak-kneed at best on the subject. 

      As the "blue collar" darling, he is surely the pro-pipeline New Democrats' favourite candidate, and the odds-on best bet to win the top job. Somehow I don't think that either Horgan or his new chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, would be disappointed with that result, as their party's greener contingent surely would be.

      The last thing that the B.C. NDP should want to do is get in the middle of that leadership contest, significant though its outcome surely is for its own political fortunes.

      In this century, the impetus for nationally affiliated provincial political parties has largely lost its lustre. Alberta’s proposed new United Conservative party is only the latest to concede that fact.

      British Columbians expect their provincial parties and leaders to put their citizens’ interests first, ahead of any national party or federal partisan interests. I expect that most B.C. voters would heartily welcome a reconstituted B.C. Green Democratic party that is not aligned with, or in any way beholden to any federal counterpart.

      Regardless of ideology, most British Columbians want their provincial parties and their B.C. government to put B.C. first in their approaches to nation-building and issues of material regional consequence. It has always been thus.

      Tommy Douglas (as seen on the cover of Vincent Lam's 2011 biography) headed a truly New Democratic Party when it was formed, but now it's 56 years old.

      What's new can become old

      What is in a name, anyway? The New Democrats long ago decided it should not be the “be all and end all”. Having too many names competing for largely the same vote had only served to keep the left divided and kept it removed from power, decade after decade.

      Both of the NDP’s original constituent parts, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), were themselves the result of mergers that just made sense.

      So let’s not pretend that mergers are an alien concept. They can work, and in the NDP’s case, could work much better, if the merger itself is not so limiting in its constitution as to alienate the additional voters needed to routinely form governments.

      The word “new” in the New Democratic Party was a fine name for the new national party that resulted from the merger of the New Party (as the CCF had renamed itself) and the CLC, way back in 1961.

      But it has been 56 years, for heaven’s sake.

      Many folks would love to entertain something that actually is new and fresh, whether or not it is marketed with that buzzword that so many “Mad Men” beat to death over the ensuing decades.

      Today, the word “green” is the new “new”, with more colour and content.

      It is not just “new and improved”; it is value-laden, evocative, and ideologically neutral.

      Yet on its own, as the only label for a party, the word “green” suggests a singular focus that is at once unfair and potentially too myopic, precisely because it’s more of a social movement than a cogent ideology.

      The bottom line in party-building should be two-fold.

      The first thing partisans need to ask and answer is this: what is it we really stand for, as our raison d'être? What is it we hope to achieve through the exercise of power?

      The second question they need to answer is, how might that best be accomplished?

      If the B.C. NDP and B.C. Green parties were to honestly grapple with those two questions, unencumbered by personal, parochial, or other vested interests, I suspect they would rapidly find more common cause than not for uniting.

      As their respective platforms showed in this last provincial election, their common ground is as vast as their material differences are minimal. The GreeNDP confidence and supply agreement makes that point in spades.

      Truth is, under Andrew Weaver’s centrist leadership, the B.C. Greens have morphed into an arguably greener variant of the NDP, minus its formal affiliation with organized labour, and all that that suggests.

      Is that distinction really so great that it should cause the two parties to remain permanently divided? Is it really grounds for those two natural allies to regard each other as opponents, when they agree on so much of the balance of the policy fields that they both are so dedicated to addressing?

      I would hope not.

      A Green Democratic Party candidate would stand a good chance of winning Vancouver-False Creek from the B.C. Liberals.

      This is when foundation should be laid

      If the two parties can agree on as much as their common vision for power-sharing suggests, why wouldn’t they want to consolidate their tenuous hold on power, by formally locking arms? Winning takes an army, the bigger, the better.

      It is self-evident that a united GDP whose parties just garnered a combined 57 percent of the popular vote would stand a much better chance of beating a united Liberal party than either the NDP or Green party would stand on its own.

      I won’t go through the whole vote-splitting argument; but suffice it to say, those two parties’ best chance of defeating the one that barely won the largest number of votes and seats is to unite. Ideally, while also hoping that the Liberals fracture into smaller coalitions.

      Having been there, done that, with the old Social Credit party, which essentially divided itself into three parties (Socreds, Liberals, B.C. Reform) before inevitably reuniting under the B.C. Liberal label, I know this.

      Factionalism is never the best formula for effecting positive change, which can only be achieved by people who hold power and who are committed to working with each other. When people allow themselves to be divided by their relatively minor differences, the first casualty is usually the goals they share in common.

      Parties seem eternal, but the coalitions that define them are ephemeral. They either liberate or limit their capacity for effecting change in government.

      Today’s lesson is this: a Wildrose, as it were, by any other name, might smell as sweet to those who are naturally drawn to its odour, in pursuit of power and all that it affords.

      The time to think about that, New Democrats and Greens, is now, united as you are, of sorts.

      The time to contemplate next steps is now, in anticipation of the referendum on P.R., however it goes, while you remain in the catbird’s seat.

      Presumably, their interest in embracing that undetermined model is not driven entirely by self-interest. It is, rather, rooted in what they believe to be the best and fairest way of producing proportionately representative results, for all parties that field candidates and win votes.

      I realize, it runs against the grain to even raise the prospect of uniting those two parties in light of their respective recent gains—one in government, by the grace of the other, whose balance of power rests on a fluke of political circumstance.

      Yet consider this.

      Typically, it is when parties lose power that they become most vulnerable to fissions. Or sometimes, they lose power because those factions materialize and splinter their coalitions.

      Only when the negative consequences of those largely artificial divisions become abundantly clear do those losing parties tend to wrap their mind around healing the wounds that gave rise to those divisions in the first place.

      Losing—especially repeatedly—can be a powerful motivator for partisans to look beyond their labels, and to reunite as the natural allies they are, in pursuit of what is really most important: winning power, to use power, to achieve good things.

      It is the rare party, indeed, that can seize the moment to unite with another when they each feel they have just won something they wanted, be it power or the balance of power.

      It is tough to contemplate sharing one’s hallowed turf, as a long-term strategic imperative; one that rightly sees unity as a better route to power, which alone can produce the commonly desired change that is so elusive to those who choose to remain in silos of contrived distinction.

      Even rarer is the party that chooses to do that while holding power, acting from a position of strength, instead of waiting until it is defeated, largely for the lack of that resolve.

      Think about it, GreeNDP. Just doing that would blow the Liberals’ socks off.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at  towardsanewgovernment@gmail.com.

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