The federal NDP needs a culture shift at the top

Challenger for the party presidency says the party’s grassroots members feel stifled and excluded
Photo: The 2018 federal NDP convention in Ottawa. (United Steelworkers / Flickr)
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Canada needs a political revolution. We need to band together and push back as hard as we can against the rise of the right and the entrenchment of neoliberalism — and we need to do it now.

The pandemic has laid bare the failures of capitalism for those who never before questioned the system. COVID-19 has had the unfortunate effect of isolating us from one another, making real progress more difficult to achieve despite the technology available to us.

That’s one reason I’m running for the position of president of the federal NDP at this weekend’s convention. Together with other grassroots organizers, I’ve been developing ways to help amplify the work of progressives across the country and bring people together to tackle the big issues.

Grassroots ideas for the post-pandemic recovery

In an attempt to connect NDP members online, for example, a weekly Twitter chat was set up, #NewDemoChat. Out of sheer necessity, and the willingness of volunteers to achieve something bigger, it has become a support system for NDP members across the country who are trying to create space in their communities for political change, mutual aid networks and electoral success. We became the community we needed to help grow the movement. As this month’s NDP convention approached, we got excited.

Who could blame us? We have another federal election looming, and a lot has changed in the world since the federal party last met for a policy convention in 2018. People needed to share their great ideas on what a just recovery from COVID could look like. Members were desperate to reconnect with comrades, and reshape policy and the party. Convention presents an opportunity to really harness this enthusiasm. Instead, amid a series of bungles, delays and missed deadlines, and insensitive responses to accessibility concerns, our most valuable resource is being squandered.

Putting our democracy behind a poorly organized paywall only makes things worse.

A national convention, in its ideal form, can do many great things for a party, particularly the NDP. It can channel the ideas and values of its membership into transformative policies that we can use to set ourselves apart from the Liberals and the Greens, who never turn down an opportunity to try to outflank us on the Left. Conventions are also a time to get the grassroots lit, so to speak.

Generating excitement and hopefulness within the party is even more critical approaching an election during a pandemic. It should have been a time to create a sense of community with all our NDP siblings. We have squandered that opportunity before the event has even started.

Bureaucratic barriers to participation

Instead of being energized, as members we have felt frustrated and ignored — with countless potential delegates shut out altogether. Rather than bringing actual stakeholders in the fight against capitalism to the table to discuss policy, we have put a price on access, even requiring $99 for students and folks struggling with unemployment.

Other barriers were put in place too.

The Resolution Book, the list of policy proposals submitted by the membership for debate at convention, wasn’t available until a month after it was scheduled to be released — with no explanation offered.

Credentials were sent out at the very last moment. Dates were changed. Ridiculous time limits were put on the new process where the membership, for the very first time, would be able to prioritize the over 400 resolutions put forth, to determine exactly what we would get to discuss as a group at convention. As of this morning, the day before convention starts, we still have zero details on the election process for the party executive, including for candidates such as myself. Nothing.

We talk a lot about democracy on the Left. The NDP are proponents of electoral reform; we understand the need for better systems, and for transparency and accountability. But we don’t practise what we preach. Can you imagine, if Election Day was imminent, and Elections Canada hadn’t provided a voters list? No details on dates and times and methods for voting? Some candidates still aren’t even sure they are on the ballot. All we know for sure at this point is that we will use first-past-the-post voting to determine the outcome.

Absolutely everything about the convention serves as a reminder that the priorities of the grassroots and the priorities of the current leadership are completely at odds. The errors are so glaring, and repetitive, one has to think we are intentionally being kept scrambling, unsure and disconnected from one another.

Culture shift needed in party leadership

Without a dedicated effort to make policy formation accessible to the masses, we are going to lose more than we can ever gain.

During a time when we need connections, appreciation and input into the way out of COVID and beyond, our party leaders have instead turned inward. We have candidates unwilling to run again, riding executive members walking away out of frustration, bold progressives who don’t see their needs reflected in Ottawa. This is not how to build a movement.

The NDP will never outspend our opponents. What we have instead is a grassroots membership that will outperform the Right in terms of organizing, as long as we give them the tools to do it and the respect they deserve. We can mobilize all of our supporters if we make them feel like they matter and that their voices are being heard. Especially in these tough times, we can not expect people to navigate their way through all of these bureaucracies themselves.

Political participation is hard enough in today’s economic climate. Putting our democracy behind a poorly organized paywall only makes things worse.

Our volunteers, if they are properly inspired and equipped, can help us achieve the political revolution we need. They will, and are, encouraging each other, helping each other build.

They are doing this in #NewDemoChat, as part of groups like Courage, and they will do it for the party. But not in its current form. We need a culture shift at the top, and we need to engage in Big Organizing now. We need to push that Overton window to the left and put up policies that will inspire people to give their all to a big cause. If we do all of this, the force of our grassroots will be immeasurable. And that is how we will win.

Jessa McLean is a community and political organizer from Scarborough, Ontario. Jessa was the NDP candidate for York-Simcoe during the 2019 federal by-election and again during the 2019 federal election.

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