The following is a private letter, republished with permission, from retired BC NDP cabinet minister Corky Evans to a friend, discussing their party’s recent election failure and uncertain future. Though not intended as a polished manifesto, it should be required reading for anyone interested in rebuilding the NDP.
August 10, 2013
Thank you for initiating the dialog about the state of our Party. 100 members with your commitment to change could save us.
We lost an election we could have won. This is not a particularly new phenomenon. The only difference between this one and many in the past was that the pundits and the press told us we would win.
Otherwise, it was pretty much as we remember. We thought we could win. We didn’t.
Of course Adrian must go. His image has been damaged by attack ads the same way Mr. Dion and Mr. Ignatieff were damaged by similar smear campaigns in the recent past. They were both fine people and they both had to leave so that their Party could move on, so must Adrian.
It would constitute huge failure however, if we, the membership, celebrated the departure of our Leader and believed our troubles were resolved.
The first Leader I ever ran for was Bob Skelly. Bob did a terrible job of campaigning. And, I don’t know, but I would wager, that in spite of his troubles he got more of the popular vote than we have received lately.
Indeed, we continue to decline regardless of who we chose as Leader. Getting rid of the Leader is sometimes necessary but it solves nothing except allowing folks to feel that they can begin again.
The only way I can think of to describe our problem is to say the Movement that we were has become the Institution that we are.
The same thing happens to every religion as it turns into a church, every political movement that outlives it’s vision, every business that grows big enough to forget what it started out to accomplish.
The Pope dies, the CEO gets paid to leave, the Leader resigns, and the institutions that they led, precisely because they are institutions, survive and carry on as before.
It seems to me that a movement becomes an institution pretty soon after it spawns a number of people whose well being, financially or psychologically, is dependent on the survival of the organization, rather than its success.
And survive we do.
We survive even if our Leadership candidates sign up bogus membership to get nominated.
We survive even if we cannot attract enough voters to grow or win.
We survive when we have nothing to say to citizens who are not already committed to our way of thinking.
We survive even when we have to get someone else to pay our President.
The people who increasingly dominate positions of leadership electorally or in the Party do not need to win elections for them to remain secure. So secure, in fact, that there are those among us who have never held a job that wasn’t, essentially, political.
Please do not misunderstand my intent. I do not wish to denigrate the folks who dedicate their lives to make us function. They Are Us.
Our problem is not ”who” they are, it is that they exist in critical mass and their voice is perceived to be our voice and their voice is not interesting. It is an institutional voice. It is pretty much like listening to the Ford Motor Company or the BC Medical Association.
I remember when one of the Leaders I worked for asked some guys many of us know to purge our Party of the troublemakers (that was not the word he used.)
They did a good job. We got Slates so the people we didn’t like couldn’t serve in Executive positions. We got Mike Muffins (members with nothing to say who stand in the line at the microphone) at Convention so they couldn’t speak. Candidates got a Message Box and were told not to say what they thought and to stick strictly to only what they were given to say.
The “troublemakers” were sidelined and we became an effective, and boring, machine. Leaders and Leaders staff tell MLA’s what they can and cannot say and punish independent thinking. Or, worse, speaking their mind. We are now a modern political machine, and we sound like one.
We are rarely, anymore, embarrassed. There is no blood on the floor at Convention. We have become a successful Institution and a failed Movement.
The contradiction in this analysis, if analysis it be, is of course that some of this organizational behavior is necessary and some of it even works.
In an age of television many believe that we cannot allow real debate at convention and we cannot have MLA’s saying what they think about stuff because everything, everywhere, is grist for the mill and can be used against us.
I remember the election when every Liberal candidate in BC, including Gordon Campbell, had a sheet of stupid things Corky Evans has said to quote from.
Of course, every quote on the page was taken out of context and was, to me, defensible. But in a time where the sound bite has replaced discourse as the way that people receive ideas, it can be argued that it is better to be boring than to risk being made to look stupid.
I do not know how to fix this. I could not write a tract entitled ”What is to be done,” because I do not know. The thing I do know, though, is that discussion is medicine for screwed up situations. Self-criticism can heal.
The message box, on the other hand, is not discourse. It is poison, like drinking the cool-aid at Jonestown.
I’d like to see us cut everyone a little slack and see if we couldn’t be a bit of a movement again, a bit embarrassing at times but also interesting and current and vibrant and less controlled, less careful, less run by anybody in particular.
This isn’t about Adrian, who I am pretty sure knows what he has to do. It is about us as a Party with a diverse base of support. I doubt very much if we know the details of what it is that we have to do, but I believe we know the spirit of the changes needed. So we best talk.