Disaffected New Democrats, mostly from the left wing of the party, are calling for a “complete overhaul” of the NDP to make it a progressive “movement” driven by members, rather than a political machine where a centralized power structure dictates policy, strategy and who is allowed to run in elections.
There is a struggle for the soul of the party going on as it contemplates its future, with leader Andrea Horwath and her chief-of-staff Michael Balagus stepping down. A group of grassroots NDP members, committee chairs and riding association organizers see the leadership vacuum as an opportunity to seize control of the party from “Central” — a term used to refer to the power structure they see as heavily centralized around Horwath, Balagus and executive director Lucy Watson.
At a virtual gathering on Wednesday evening, it was revealed they have at least one ally in pushing that vision within caucus: MPP Laura Mae Lindo.
“If we don’t find a way to see what’s happening to us as a party right now as an opportunity to transition into a space where the people are leading it … then I feel like it’s a wasted venture,” said Lindo, adding there is an unacceptable disconnect between what party members want and what happens at Queen’s Park.
“If it’s not your party, then I personally don’t see why I have my name on the ballot to begin with … If there is anything you can dream up that I can do to do some pushing from the inside, I’m your girl.”
Lindo was addressing a Twitter Spaces meeting hosted by New Demo Chat, a social media group used by NDPers to communicate and organize outside of official party processes and channels. (They even have their own podcast.)
Former NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown also took part in the discussion. Earlier this week, she blamed party leadership for making it “impossible for me to stay” in the NDP caucus.
On the other side could be MPP and potential leadership candidate Joel Harden, who is viewed by some grassroots party members as being aligned with Watson.
“Central has divided the party so much that this is how we connect,” lamented Jay Woodruff, who sits on the party’s persons living with disability committee. “We can organize, we can do petitions, we can do statements from committees, we can play the Hunger Games-style resolution game at the convention and still never get [heard]. That is not what the NDP is supposed to be.”
The four hour-long online gathering was attended by nearly 600 people who aired their grievances with the NDP. It came just hours after Balagus’ resignation became public, which was a happy coincidence for those taking part, who saw it as evidence that Central’s hold on the party is waning.
“New Demo Chat and a lot of its followers have been calling for Andrea’s, Michael’s and Lucy’s resignation for over a year. We did not give a shit about what the election was going to tell us, we already knew they were damaging the party,” said Jessa McLean, the NDP’s riding association president for York—Simcoe and a candidate for party president in 2021.
“We saw the harm to our friends. We saw harm to our riding associations, and we demanded people do something well before this election. So I’m excited folks are really speaking out now because it’s such a pivotal time for change.”
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Speaking up has not been easy, many said. Event attendees said there has been significant pushback within the party against airing the NDP’s dirty laundry publicly, such as angry direct messages on Twitter and being told to stick to internal party processes or to leave the party if they don’t support Horwath.
But some noted there is no other place for progressives to go.
“We can’t leave that whole party behind and give up electoral politics to the centre or, worse, the right,” said McLean.
“If there’s something you say [that] hurts the party, it’s not you hurting a party. It’s the party creating a situation where they are hurting themselves,” added Charles Taylor, who was a candidate for party vice president in February.
Taylor laid out a vision for a revamped NDP that they said would be more like the party’s precursor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
Policy-making would be left to the NDP’s various committees, which would call expert witnesses much like parliamentary committees do. Those committees would be added to a “living” party platform that is updated over time, instead of the party brass releasing a new platform at election time that members are expected to quickly learn and get on board with.
Lindo voiced support for that direction, saying it is a far cry from the current situation in which party committees’ policy reports are not shared with MPPs.
“I [am] a little bit miffed by the fact that for us, once we’re elected, we don’t get those reports,” she said. “I don’t understand how we can do our job at Queen’s Park if there isn’t some kind of consistent communication between the people who are the reason that we are in these positions and us who are doing some of that work in the chamber.”
An NDP spokesperson told Queen’s Park Today that MPPs do receive committee reports when they attend provincial council meetings and have access to them.
The role of choosing candidates would also be put back in the hands of local riding associations. This was a particularly sore point during the leadup to the election, as several riding associations and would-be candidates complained their picks were rejected by Central’s harsh vetting and parachuted candidates.
The role of the central party, in Taylor’s view, should be that of a “service provider” to the rest of the NDP.
“So instead of Central dictating outwards, the periphery — the riding associations, the candidates and campaigns — would be approaching Central and saying, ‘oh, hey, we need a graphic about this. We need help with video production. We need help with accounting and things like that,” they said. “Instead of Central just like shoving stuff down our throats.”
Members of New Demo Chat are planning another meeting this week to further refine their ideas for what a new NDP should look like.
The push comes as the party, which is made up of an urban socialist faction and a labour faction that hails from places like Horwath’s hometown of Hamilton, shed some of its latter support to the PCs during the election.
The pre-campaign ousting of long-time MPP Paul Miller saw him raise opposing — yet similar — criticisms of the party, which he accused of “pushing out all the old guys” in favour of “younger candidates [and] diversified candidates.” Miller has had the public backing of Hamilton’s steelworkers for years.
Harden and Watson did not return requests for comment.