Stuart Parker: Insights into the possible fate of B.C. NDP leadership candidate Anjali Appadurai and her supporters

    1 of 6 2 of 6

      Even before Anjali Appadurai’s formal announcement of her candidacy for the B.C. NDP leadership, my various inboxes had been filling up with correspondence from her supporters, urging former New Democrats to rejoin the party to support her candidacy. Many current and former NDPers see this charismatic, articulate, ecologically minded young woman as a kind of Hail Mary shot at reversing their party’s steady rightward drift over the past third of a century.

      There are lots of reasons to be excited about and impressed with her as a candidate. Not only has her enthusiastic, large, and diverse stable of volunteers been quicker and thicker on the ground than the frontrunner, former attorney general David Eby, but Appadurai’s campaign matched his first-day fundraising haul, raking in $30,000 at a single event.

      Her performance as a first-time candidate in the 2021 federal election was similarly remarkable. Despite having less money, a dismissive media, and little help from the national campaign and civil-society organizations, she came stunningly close to capturing the riding of Vancouver Granville—much closer than when the NDP, LeadNow, and a host of blue chip NDP-aligned civil society organizations like the Broadbent Institute had moved heaven and earth to elect Mira Oreck there four years previously. Appadurai took the party from 27 percent of the vote to 34 percent of the vote in one of the nation’s wealthiest ridings, including all of Shaughnessy. She missed becoming Shaughnessy’s first eco-socialist MP in history by just 432 votes.

      Had notorious gadfly Imtiaz “the Hand of Iraq” Popat not chosen to run for the Green Party there at the last moment, she almost certainly would have won, needing less than a third of his votes to triumph.

      Can Appadurai become B.C.’s premier by the end of the year? This question, and the implications of an affirmative answer are things B.C.’s ecologically and socialist-minded residents should consider. As a long-time spectator, participant, and analyst of B.C. politics, I thought I would share some of my thinking on this front to help others wrestle with the questions that I am.

      The premier's chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, worked with John Horgan in ensuring that David Eby was dealt some very radioactive files.

      First, it is necessary to understand the nature of the leadership race before Appadurai entered it. It had been expected that the caucus’s two main factions, the dominant one associated with premier John Horgan and his chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, would be standing behind North Delta MLA and Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon, one of the few caucus members more ruthlessly ambitious than Eby himself. And everyone knew that Eby, the then attorney general and housing minister, whom I’ve heard had nearly deposed Horgan prior to 2017 and who has been nurturing an ambition for the party leadership since 2013, would also enter the fray with the backing of younger, newer caucus members like himself.

      This cold war between Eby and his bosses has been shaping internal party and, particularly, caucus dynamics since before the party became government and has fallen into a highly recognizable pattern: that of the 1989-2003 rivalry between former prime minister Jean Chrétien and his finance minister Paul Martin.

      The publicly popular, younger, ambitious lone wolf versus the gladhanding old-school establishment leader who achieved high office based more on decades of loyal service than any discernible agenda is a story Canadians were steeped in during that decade and a half. And Horgan and Meggs have managed Eby largely the way Chrétien and his chief of staff “Fast” Eddie Goldenberg managed Martin. They handed Eby the most radioactive files and then imposed unpopular decisions and limitations on his management of the files.

      Whereas Chrétien hoped to destroy Martin by making him, as finance minister, the front man for highly unpopular austerity policies that plunged thousands of Canadians into homelessness and poverty, Horgan attempted to feed Eby a succession of poison pills, from an electoral-reform referendum rigged to fail to a chronically underfunded public housing system to opposing any substantive reforms to the real estate and development industries like the land-value capture tax proposed by CUPE’s Harpinder Sandhu.

      Eby has, in turn, responded in a Martinesque fashion, making himself into an increasingly isolated, secretive workaholic to ensure that Horgan and Meggs not get wind of a possibly successful policy and sabotage it before it can be implemented.

      Those who do not remember the Chrétien-Martin years were therefore pretty surprised to see Kahlon drop out of the race and come out as Eby’s first big public endorser. This is precisely how those years ended. Most of Chrétien’s team suddenly defected to the Martin camp and arranged for nothing short of a coronation for their new man. That is because those who put the interests of the party first—once they saw that Martin had built an invincible financial and organizational juggernaut—realized that if his victory were inevitable, it might as well be used to heal rifts and make an orderly transfer of power between two bitterly opposed factions.

      Conventional wisdom holds Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon's "coronation" of David Eby will help secure a long-term future for the party as a united, effective governing force.

      (I think there are other reasons more important than the “unity of the party” that also motivated Kahlon to do what he did. Even in their majority landslide of 2020, the party was nowhere near winning the regions in which South Asian people are held in highest esteem like the Cariboo and Thompson plateaus. Instead, the party built up huge majorities in the province’s two major cities and made major inroads into the Fraser Valley, where South Asian people face the most discrimination at the ballot box. My bet is that Kahlon did some polling on his own, maybe with some help from Meggs and discovered that he is not a viable candidate for premier until Jagmeet Singh’s term as federal leader ends.)

      Whatever the underlying motives, the conventional wisdom in the inner circles of the NDP is that the coronation of Eby by Kahlon is an important thing to do to secure a long-term future for the party as a united, effective governing force. This is much the way Liberals talked about the transfer of power from Chrétien to Martin.And, as a consequence, when someone got in the way of that, the efforts to stop that candidate were extreme, ungracious, and lacking in a sense of proportion. Furthermore, the efforts to punish the woman who tried to get in the way still goes on. Sheila Copps, Canada’s first female deputy prime minister, is a name many in Canada have forgotten, a shocking fact given her prominence on the Liberal front bench beginning in 1984 in her informal status as leader of the Liberal “rat pack”.

      The first woman to bring her baby to work in the Canadian Parliament faced a blistering campaign to purge her from the party that lasted three years and she remains frozen out of important patronage opportunities and other honours a generation later, even after her desperate and embarrassing efforts to regain admission to party circles by becoming a vigorous defender of Justin Trudeau during the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

      Former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps lost her nomination after challenging Paul Martin for the Liberal leadership in 2003.

      This is my biggest fear for Appadurai. She is getting in the way of a high-stakes deal between the party’s two dominant factions and, unlike Copps, she won’t just be denouncing the old boys’ clubs orchestrating the hand-off; she will be denouncing the planet-frying austerity politics of the incumbent government as she campaigns. That will surely earn her even more antagonism than Copps and her supporters received. I fully anticipate threats being as big a tool for keeping people on Team Eby as they were for keeping people on Team Martin, not just threats of lost nominations and promotions for MLAs. I’ll wager Appadurai supporters may also get intimidating calls from bosses if they work for trade unions or NDP-aligned civil society organizations like the Broadbent Institute.

      But I do not think it is the only way this might go. Copps earned the ire of the Liberal establishment in part because she made it clear that she was making a serious run for prime minister and was confrontational and direct about the flaws she had seen in her 19 years of caucusing with Martin.

      Appadurai might be able to avoid this if she modelled her campaign on that of another forgotten Canadian politician, Donovan Kuehn. In 1996, the B.C. NDP was under tremendous stress. It had been in shape to win a snap general election in the fall of ’95 following their highly popular (and completely unjustified) militarization of the Gustafsen Lake siege in 100 Mile House. But hours before the call, the RCMP raided the party’s offices as part of the Bingogate scandal investigation on live TV.

      The party already faced considerable internal challenges, with a Gramscian working class labour wing associated with employment and investment minister Glen Clark and a patrician technocratic Third Way wing associated with then premier Mike Harcourt. Although not implicated in the scandal, Harcourt stepped down, leaving the party leaderless with less than one year of its mandate remaining.

      Clark immediately presented himself as a leadership candidate and supporters flocked to him, not just out of a general belief in alternating power between factions but out of a real sense of how few months the party had to turn things around and win an election. A coronation was necessary in the minds of all.

      Back in 1995, NDP frontrunner Glen Clark's campaign had no concerns about shining a spotlight on a young Donovan Kuehn after he entered the leadership race.

      Into this fray emerged by my old schoolmate Donovan Kuehn, the other child of a Black mother at our lily-white West Side high school, Point Grey secondary. Although his mother Sadie had served as a COPE school trustee for many years, Donovan himself had never sought public office. The only significant office to which he had been elected was president of the Young New Democrats, a position he had only recently retired from.

      Although two dissident MLAs also ran against Clark, Corky Evans, who criticized the party for its approach to rural people and policies, and Joan Smallwood, who criticized the party for its embrace of Third Way austerity, were more substantive candidates and received more convention delegates, their treatment was different than that of Kuehn. Smallwood ended up not unlike Copps, a pariah within her caucus, never to be elevated to the party’s front bench again, stuck at the back of the backbench. Evans survived challenging Clark in part because of his flamboyant and affable personality and in part because of the party’s significant losses in rural B.C. in the 1996 election (three of the five NDP seats bordering Evans’ riding were lost) and the absolute political necessity of not deepening its unpopularity there by appearing to punish its best rural advocate.

      Kuehn, on the other hand, rose significantly in political standing because he consistently presented himself as an apprentice politician, a candidate who was serious but not a serious candidate. By conceding, from the outset, that Clark would win, he enjoyed frequent accolades from Clark supporters, extra mic time and a kind of mascot status, as the son of a radical left school trustee and the 1960s Freedom Rider who brought her to Vancouver. And because the media was already seeking to narrate the leadership race as a Clark coronation, they amplified Kuehn’s voice, often giving him more coverage than Evans despite Evans ultimately receiving 234 convention delegates to Kuehn’s 23.

      Should Appadurai present herself as an apprentice-mascot who defines her job from the outset as assisting David Eby in more effectively reaching climate-conscious youth, the campaign might well grease the wheels for her succeeding George Heyman for the party nomination in the provincial riding of Vancouver-Fairview, the northern part of Vancouver Granville that she decisively won in 2021.

      The problem is that if Appadurai were the kind of go-along, get-along politician who could stomach putting on such a performance, I think we would have seen some sign of it by now. Even if she wanted to, could she repress her natural defiance and frankness for four straight months on the campaign trail? Doing so would be an extraordinary feat of self-control.

      NDP leadership candidate David Eby is unlikely to experience a benign challenge from Anjali Appadurai.

      On the other hand, Appadurai might face even stronger forces of reaction if her criticism of the party grows more incisive and structural. Here, we might wish to look to the 1971 NDP federal leadership race in which radical left “Waffle” faction candidate James Laxer came shockingly close to beating David Lewis, Tommy Douglas’s anointed successor, despite Laxer never having held public office. Laxer, in 1971, went beyond saying the NDP had sold out and should return to its roots; he called for a radical remaking of the party to reconnect it to social movements and workers.

      Laxer’s 37 percent terrified the party establishment and caused the last major centrally directed purge of any major Canadian political party’s membership rolls. Anyone the party could link to Laxer and his campaign was urged to quit the party and many who did not take the hint were formally expelled. Laxer became ineligible for membership and, following a very poor showing as an independent candidate in 1974, was pushed out of electoral politics for the rest of his life.

      Just in case my readers need reminding, 2022 is not 1971, 1996 or 2003. Our culture, especially on the political left right now, is far more authoritarian, antidemocratic, and intolerant of criticism. Indeed, many of the young people who stand behind Appadurai, raised under constant cell phone surveillance, trigger warnings, the doctrine of “safe spaces”, and oppressive social media bullying, are not merely flirting with authoritarianism like 1970s Maoists from the counterculture; they are culturally authoritarian because they know no other world than the authoritarian surveillance state in which they have always lived.

      How well Appadurai’s support could hold in the face of threats and intimidation is anyone’s guess but it is entirely reasonable to assume they will be easier to intimidate than a Waffle delegate on the convention floor half a century ago.

      Let me conclude by saying that I would not rule out an Appadurai victory and I won’t discourage anyone from joining the party or renewing their membership to support her. I just worry for you and your candidate because, if my recent experience is anything to go by, there is no depth to which the NDP establishment will not sink to destroy a sincere and earnest critic.

      Stuart Parker is a writer and broadcaster who serves as president of Los Altos Institute. He's also a former leader of the Green Party of British Columbia and has, at times, supported the NDP. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.