Saturday, November 28, 2009

Disappointing speech from Carole James at BC NDP convention won't threaten her leadership

BC NDP leader Carole James delivered what can only be described as a disappointing speech at the party's convention this morning, long on rhetoric but lacking in new ideas or a strong explanation and defence of how her centrist approach can win the next election.

James delivered the speech adquately to a generally enthusiastic audience of party delegates but content-wise it was lacking details or strategy, instead relying on attacks on the BC Liberals recent performance - a target-rich environment - and predictable calls for a minimum wage increase, ending child poverty, better health care and education, support for the arts, etc.

Missing from the speech was any reference to climate change - even with the Copenhagen summit coming shortly - or the word "union" - despite the presence of dozens of union leaders and activists.

And the core of James' message was deep the speech - page 7 of 8 in the printed version, where she made it clear that the appeals to BC business - which have so far fallen on deaf ears - will continue.

She also signalled that after avoiding talking about the economy - the number one issue for voters - in the last election, now she will do just that.

My friend Sean Holman of Public Eye Online has an excellent clip of James' post-speech media scrum where the word "economy" is mentioned at least half a dozen times.

Here's what James said in her speech to delegates:

"I also want to hear from British Columbians about other changes needed to make our economy grow. Changes that are consistent with our values of environmental integrity," James told the crowd.

"In the coming months, I'll be engaging you and a broad range of British Columbians from all walks of life, and experts in their field - including concerned business leaders - on how we tackle the big challenges that face us and move beyond the conflicts that hold us back."

"How we combine a forward-looking business climate with a more equitable society. This kind of openness will make our journey to a sustainable, new modern economy that much faster."

"It's not my conviction that British Columbians won't disagree at times. But in the name of economic progress, we must build on our common ground."

"In the name of social justice we must do our duty," James said in ending that section of the speech. [I have added the bold emphasis above.]

Let me disagree with Carole James, as I have done before, not with rancour or mean-spiritedness but from a different perspective.

And I do so as the owner of a small business for 12 years as well as a former communications director in the office of former Premier Glen Clark, a former NDP executive member and still a supporter in general of the NDP - while often a critical one.

There are arguments in favour of a centrist strategy - but today's speech did not make them to the audience that needs to be behind the leader's approach.

And Carole James has been reaching out to business for the past four years or more - without any sign of success.

If anything, business organizations solidified their opposition to the NDP in the last election, spending heavily to ensure they do not have to cooperate or deal with a Premier James in power.

This is not to say - as some have assumed - that the NDP should have nothing to do with business, run up the red flag and plan for worker soviets come the next election.

I am decidedly not anti-business either - I have worked with many businesses over the 12 years of communications and strategy consulting and have business clients to this day.
I believe business will work cooperatively with an NDP government on some issues - as it did with Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark - and oppose it strenuously on others.

None of this is rocket science - but expecting a Kum Bay Ya experience with the province's hard-nosed business organizations is simply unrealistic.

Some individual businesses might even welcome an NDP government willing to listen to their concerns - which have been ignored or minimized by Premier Gordon Campbell.

But on some key issues of importance to the NDP, many businesses will by and large attempt to block, fight, protest and object to them, period.

As if to illustrate that point, in today's Vancouver Sun a letter to the editor from Philip Hochstein, head of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, attacks BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair's call for more government spending.

Hochstein instead argues for smaller government and lower taxes, saying that even the BC Liberal government has spent more than necessary on public services.

Hochstein's ICBA spent $600,000 in pre-election and election period radio ads absolutely lambasting the NDP.

And while the ICBA is perhaps the most hawkish of anti-NDP business organizations, the BC Business Council also ran ads attacking the NDP and supporting the BC Liberals.

Still, the NDP's leadership now has two years to convince the party that the path of moderation and the olive branch to business will lead to success.

Former cabinet minister Moe Sihota should easily become the party's new president at a vote Sunday morning, as he heads a so-called "unity" slate.

Like James, Sihota favours courting the business community as part of a centrist strategy to win election.

"I don't think leadership is the issue with the NDP. I think market share is the issue," Sihota told Province columnist Mike Smyth.

"For the NDP to be successful, it needs to have stronger relations with all sectors of the business community," he said. "We need to get past the imagery of the party that has been created in a very polarized province."

Whether this approach will succeed is at best unclear - but given that even James is supporting a resolution to be passed Sunday that would put her own leadership to a test by party delegates at their next convention in 2 years - what is clear is that James is staking all on the centrist strategy.

Two years from now, a new BC Liberal leader and premier will likely be in office, the economic and political context will be different and delegates to the NDP convention will have to decide what to do.

For this convention, a ceasefire on strategy and leadership are the order of the day.

Although the BC NDP are featuring a speech by Barack Obama campaign social media expert Rahaf Harfoush tonight, the party's website has not even been updated to include a full agenda for the weekend's schedule.

As of 2 p.m. today, only a draft agenda was online - without times for speakers, including leader Carole James - or details of the day's events.

The funniest button of the convention - supplied by Melva Forsberg of Babylon Buttons - reads: "Mo' business....less votes".



Unknown said...

"Kum Ba Ya" ??? Okay, Wikipedia ( lists it as an alternate spelling for what it calls "a standard campfire song"

Anonymous said...

Yay! Carole James has arisen like a phoenix and will lead us to the promised land.

DPL said...

Sounds like the woman really hasn't much of an idea on how to wow those extra voters

Stacy said...

I really, really want to get behind the NDP but I absolutely cannot with Carole James at the helm. Two failed elections with her as leader is reason enough for the NDP to choose someone new. She should step down and give someone else a chance to be leader. I cringe whenever I hear her boring voice trying so desperately to remain calm so that she doesn't sound shrill. I want someone who sounds like they have some passion in them and who will give the Libs a good fight.

Anonymous said...

As long as the NDP tries to be a centrist party, the BC Libs can maintain their coalition of the right. Of the right of center think the NDP can win the support of the center, then the right will stay together and not splinter off into BC Conservatives or Refederation party or Unity or whatever.

On the other hand if the NDP move to the left then the right thinks its okay to splinter. That's when the NDP sneek in.

Anonymous said...

Carole James . . . FAILURE, FAILURE & more FAILURE.

Carole James, is either the Neville Chamberlain or Kim Philby of the NDP.

So you have choice either a moron or a Gordon Campbell "mole" out to destroy the party from within but as long as she exists Campbell will be Premier forever.


Mark Crawford said...

My criticism is of how many NDPers are dependent on the "absent mandate"-i.e. the mandate that comes not from genuinely persuading the voters to support the NDP platform, but simply from waiting until the normally governing party rots from within and collapses.

Since many MLAs and operatives can count on this happening 3 or 4 times durin their working lives, they don't bother doing the really hard job of selling their ideas. Nor do they favour an electoral system that would give them more incentive to do so. "Carole will probably win, so don't worry about it."

The problem with the absent mandate is that it quickly dissolves once in office, like a castle made of sand. It was frustrating to watch the Harcourt government, with its bright youthful cabinet and impressive policy agenda, struggle to motivate and mobilize the public.

I predict that Carole James, who reminds me of Harcourt in more ways than one, will experience a similar fate, even if she does succeed in being the first woman to lead a party to victory in a B.C. general election

Anonymous said...

Don't they say that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it?

Why couldn't this bunch of NDP knot-heads stand up for themselves, and parade their own heroes?

Three NDP premiers (and 2 fill-in guys)...and these farsighted convention planners take on the PAB attitude and act like they're ashamed of their own history.

Where was Joy MacPhail? Corky Evans?

I'd like to have heard what the NDP stands for ... not this cringeworthy stuff about "Bidness" from a guy who doesn't even know what's going on in BC.

At the Bayshore, no less. Jeez. I don't know whether laugh, cry, or puke.

Disgruntled NDPer said...

On the eve of Copenhagen, which is arguably the major turning point (one way or another) in the climate crisis, not a single mention of climate change or the pending emergencies from the NDP leader -- shame on James, shame on her, and the NDP delegates who sat politely and applauded.

The BC NDP under James has seen a slow but certain leak of votes to the Greens over the past decade, and the exclamation mark of this failure to address the environment was the horrible misstep on the Ax the Tax campaign.

Not a single mention of 'union' in her speech? This is the NDP leader who says BCers don't care about right or left wing. To hell they don't! What kind of backroom PR strategy nonsense is James being fed? Avoid all principle, strive for the vacant middle, and hope for the best?

I want back into my BC NDP. I want to renew my membership of old. Under a spineless political leader like James - no way, never, I vote Green again, and again.

I'm prepared to drop everything and work again for the NDP if, and only if, they get someone who can lead with heart, with passion and with principle.

Rod Smelser said...

No professional political strategist in any nation in the democratic world has ever recommended any strategy other than a pragmatic, centrist one for any party that is on the doorstep of winning power and wants to go that last, extra mile.

That might be combined with some clever bits of fringe pandering that are intended to appease extremist elements in the party's base, but the trick is always to keep that kind of crap away from the mainstream audience, ... as in Republicans pandering to the religious right, including those determined to stop ALL abortions, but making damn sure that most normal economic conservatives don't end up hearing or seeing any of the garbage and the bullshit.

A lot of the talk about what the NDP 'MUST DO' is really just complete and utter drivel. The party lost by under four percentage points in a campaign where they were heavily outspent and where some purely technical and organizational gaps hampered the party's chances of winning. With that in mind, what is the need for some kind of ground-up re-think of everything? For what possible reason are some voices demanding a revolutionary change in the party's approach, a wholesale return to the barricades?

There can be only one reason. This is about old-fashioned loyalty tests, not electoral performance or any kind of even remotely rational strategy.

I just want to say one more thing. I find it a bit weird that the most snidely derisive and implicitly sexist dismissals of Carole James achievements seem to come from women. Perhaps some of these women see themselves as smarter than her. Or perhaps they are embarassed by a woman who's not afraid to enter an adversarial arena without some kind of assurance from major power-brokers that she's not going to lose, everything's been fixed up.

Whatever the case, I hope Carole James is elected Premier in 2013, and becomes the first woman elected to the Premiership of a major province, and the first person with Metis origins to be elected a Premier since Peter Lougheed. I have neither any patience nor any respect for armchair experts who claim that for Carole two shots at it is two shots too many.

Anonymous said...

Rod Smelser,

You make a convincing argument for the handlers, not so much for the membership or friends of the left.

I'd be very interested to hear your interpretation of the current NDP disconnect with its own SUCCESSFUL history ... as I read the tea-leaves, the current disavowal seems unhealthy -- a desperate desire to be just like the despised Campbell Gang.

I'd just like to see them show the province that they can handle SUCCESS as well as defeat, that Barrett, Harcourt, and Clark were premiers, and that unions are (like a free press) essential to a healthy democracy.

It's an abomination that voters can find solace instead, in a "Green" party which is closer to the Gordo Gang than it is to anything green.

Thanks Rod, if you'll talk a bit more about NDP and its history. Is there no place for it now?

off-the-radar said...

thanks for the great column Bill.

I don't want a liberal lite "alternative" like the "choice" in the US between the Democrats and the Republicans.

Seriously, do we want to be the US or Sweden?

Sweden is heavily unionized with progressive taxes and an outstanding social record including few homeless and very low child poverty.

We could learn a lot from Quebec too. Their citizens are committed to social justice and social programs. Quebec cut child poverty in half during the last decade.

. . . and no mention of environmental issues?! Carol James and her advisors gotta go otherwise the Liberals will get a new leader and win again.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:59 says, more or less, what I wanted to say to Rod:

[i]You make a convincing argument for the handlers, not so much for the membership or friends of the left.[/i]

It's true that good political strategists are ever cognizant of the vast middle vote, and much of strategy goes into ways to seize these votes. This is not the question, Rod. The question is how much are you prepared to sell out or compromise and bend, and for whom, in getting that vote?

From my vantage, Carole James has surrendered too much, to the point that her mantra includes ridiculous nonsense such as, "people aren't interested in right or left anymore" - this is the consummate fence-sitting non-stance aimed at being all things to all voters. The result under James: it has translated into non-positions for the confused middle, and has pissed off the party rank and file on the left.

It's true that Tony Blair's strategists worked miracles to get him elected the first time, but what was the end result of that third way strategy? Blair landed squarely on the lap of George Bush, into Iraq, and into the arms of corporate England. A social democrat in name only.

Good strategy can and does capture undecided middle votes without selling out too much principle. It takes creative, imaginative strategists and a willing & capable leader. Right now, the BC NDP has neither.

When NDPers like you, Rod, hold Carole up as the NDP hopeful for 2013, I can guarantee you, through the strategists I know, this is music to BC Liberal ears.

Henri Paul said...

12:21 PM Anonymous said...
When NDPers like you, Rod, hold Carole up as the NDP hopeful for 2013, I can guarantee you, through the strategists I know, this is music to BC Liberal ears.
I wish to expand this comment,NDP holds "GREAT HOPE" for Carol in 2013, failing that, then possibly 2017, short of this then, 2021, oh what the hell, lets cut to the chase 2025.

Anonymous said...

This weekend James tried pathetically to re-invent her Munich 1938 "loser image".

But no matter the spin generated by her gang of zombie weak-sisters or the cynical aid provided by yet another (Moe Sihota) in a decade long line of NDP "Quislings" there will never be an NDP government in BC as long as Carole (Neville Chamberlain) is ready to grovel to Herr Campbell.

I suggest an "umbrella and bowler hat" would be a fitting addition to her 2010 wardrobe.


Rod Smelser said...

I am delighted that Moe Sihota was elected President of the NDP.

Having someone of his intellect and stature in that position means that for the first time I can remember, and possibly ever, the BC NDP organization will be headed by someone with actual parliamentary experience and a knowledge of the business and professional worlds where the party needs to make inroads. I believe Moe can do wonders in terms of rejuvenating the party apparatus.

To say that in my sixtieth year I have seen too many winnable elections go down the drain for nothing, and have no patience left for the self-styled true believer crowd is an understatement. Depending on your mood it's either funny or infuriating watching these people blame Carole James for losing the election when in fact they are the ones who hold the NDP back with traditional methods and out of date notions as to what constitutes political reality.

We can try all we want to assure voters that the NDP is a relevant and contemporary party. The problem is that just at about the point where they're starting to think we're not necessarily lying to them, ... around the corner comes Bill and Svend banging garbage can lids together and singing, "Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion, cause it's good enough for me!"

The conversation kind of dies down after that. You cannot tell people you're "on their side" and then demonstrate that you march to a very different drummer and to a tune they don't like at the same time. It won't wash.

Harper's party seems to run into a glass ceiling at about 40%, partly because people haven't forgotten the excesses and extremism of the early Reform years, nor have they decided that religious right MPs can be trusted with a clear majority.

The NDP in BC runs into a similar ceiling whenever people perceive the party to be pre-occupied with ancient or foreign political doctrines and theories, rather than current Canadian issues and real-world problems.

Any suggestion that the NDP is guided by some sort of socialist sacred texts, rather than some combination of facts and evidence, expert advice, and public opinion is a signal to voters that the NDP is not ready for prime time.

A few quaint genuflections in the direction of the partys roots and traditions will be tolerated, but if people get the idea that the NDP is actually worshipping at the altar of ideology ... well, that's a 100% knock out factor.

Bill Tieleman said...

Rod - I always enjoy debating with you - it's an intelligent and thoughtful discussion even if we don't agree.

However, there was none of that at the NDP convention - none. Why not have a panel discussion on where the NDP should be going with different viewpoints?

Why didn't Carole James give an ounce of detail on why talking to business will inform her strategy and how it will work this time when it failed the last two?

And explain how people like me "hold the NDP back with traditional methods"?

Good grief, this party can't even post its own agenda on the BC NDP website the day of its convention!

And they want Obama experts on social media to advise them?

I have no role in the party and haven't for many, many years - they can and do disregard my views as expressed here and in other media.

What's more, the party leadership and staff and caucus staff all answer to Carole James, not some shadowy "traditionalists" who you think really run things.

You think the NDP has hit a glass ceiling because people perceive it to be pre-occupied with past theories - here's a more accurate view - the NDP has fallen on the floor because it has no new ideas, no ability to mobilize its voters and potential voters and because it has been administratively incompetent.

I don't buy all the left-right arguments as being the sole issue here - there are other fundamental questions about the party that also need to be resolved.

Lastly, if it was as simple as going another inch or two towards the middle to win elections - here and everywhere else - the BC NDP would be enjoying its fifth term in office - certainly the approach since Ujjal Dosanjh's hapless run as premier has been exceedingly moderate - and without success.

Rod Smelser said...

Bill, there's a couple of things you've said here that I couldn't agree with more.

The BC NDP website is poor, and I am not terribly impressed with the Federal NDP website either. And I agree that the left in Canada has had a dearth of intellectual leadership, no or few new ideas, and a lack of ready means to motivate people, whether its the swing voter or the activist.

I would never and have never said that all or even most of what the NDP has to do to win in BC, or make a bigger breakthrough nationally, is to move ideologically closer to the centre. Organizational improvements, such as some actual youth recruitment on campuses, better advertising, better software and more real support to riding organizations, are what I believe is needed.

But what I simply cannot fathom is why anyone thinks the next hill can be won by moving to the left and telling voters that the corporations will be tearing their hair out the minute the NDP gets in. That kind of fakey rhetoric is stupid and boring on so many levels, not the least the fact that Canadians know damn well that Conrad Black would never have been prosecuted in this country, and they don't believe any NDP federal or provincial government would ever change that.

I have often wondered why pollsters and opinion researchers who are on the left, whether here or in America, seen unable to come up with issues or perceptions that will have as much impact on voters as the "hot buttons" their right wing counterparts are able to put together. Do regular folks only have strong feelings about right wing populist ideas? Is there nothing from a left wing perspective that would fire them just as much? If not, it doesn't look good long term.

There's one point you make Bill that I personally have doubts about. You state that the "the party leadership and staff and caucus staff all answer to Carole James". In the past I have been reliably assured that previous leaders, like Mike Harcourt to be specific, had remarkably little authority over anything, even the choosing of their personal staff. So this assertion runs counter to all that. Have things really changed?

As to why there was no discussion on any of this at the convention, perhaps people arranging the convention imagined doing a free-wheeling discussion of where the party should be headed, and rejected the idea the minute they remembered any one of countless NDP convention harangues that were rung off with an emotional demand that the resolution be passed "unanimously".

Bill Tieleman said...

Thanks Rod - good post. The challenge to the BC NDP is much more complicated and layered than just "go centre" vs "go left" - you've outlined some of the issues to be resolved.

As to how much authority the leader has over staffing, certainly the caucus staff are the leader's responsibility. Party staff may or may not be less influenced by the leader but one has to presume they are not chosen without consultation at least.

Rod Smelser said...

Bill, there's a somewhat famous (infamous) episode from the Mike Harcourt era. He hired someone when he was opposition leader for his personal staff in Victoria. Certain party stakeholders didn't care for the guy, and Harcourt eventually had to let him go.

I have forgotten some of the names involved, but I am sure Mike Harcourt could fill in the blanks for you.

Yield left said...

Carole has said this is on her agenda. Sadly, she doesn't even know what one is. We have been duped into believing that we need big corporations to create jobs. What nonsense! - Resources create jobs - Know how creates jobs - Ideas create jobs- skilled workers create jobs. Large corporations create profits for absentee owners. The business leaders that Carole is going to talk with are 85% MBA types who don't even know what their company does or makes. They are leaders in about the same way that the carved figurehead on the bow leads a sailing ship.
The NDP, in my opinion, has (or did have prior to the most recent exodus of members) a huge constituency of business people.
Every lawyer or doctor in private practice, every artisan, every farmer, every independent newspaper editor, every documentary film-maker, every forestry consultant, every taxi-driver, everyone involved in the procurement, sale or delivery of goods or services including many who are on a wage is a business person and many already belong to the NDP.
David Zirnhelt, with 2 value-added enterprises on the go can tell Carole more about support for business than any CanFor or TeckCorp.
We have also been duped by the right wing press (and a little of our own labour rhetoric) that Socialists are anti-business.
Socialists believe in the stewardship of the Resources of the land for the benefit of the land and its citizens.
We are not anti-business,we are anti-extortion. We are not anti- enterprise, we are anti-exploitation.
We do not need to ask the carpet-baggers what to do. We need to present them a vision of a sustainable, people supporting, environment protecting society where businesses respect the triple bottom line and ask them if they can fit.
If they can't, they need to go. (and we mustn't allow them to take our stuff with them).
The only change of direction that appear likely within the NDP over the next 2 years will be the Carole & Moe show attempting to embrace the unrepresented center of the road. That is a mistake.
These people are only wooable because the current BC Liberals are somewhere right of Ronald Regan.
Neither Moe, nor Carole will be able to garner their full support.
If Campbell stays , We will have some middle/ right of middle"Unity Party" starting to emerge by 2013 to represent the middle. Every time the NDP moves right and gains 10 people,25 fall off the left.

Anonymous said...

I am an NDP voter, but I have to Carole James the right leader for the party?

Donna said...

I wish Gordon Wilson would resume politics and run for the leadership of the NDP.

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