B.C. NDP’s disqualification of Appadurai was about threat to Eby, not rules

Party could lose not only the next election but a generation of furious young activists
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Anjali Appadurai is a climate activist and movement leader. A star candidate for the federal NDP in the last election, she came within a few hundred votes of winning a staunchly Liberal Vancouver riding. Most recently, her campaign to lead the B.C. NDP recruited thousands of new members in a matter of weeks. As veteran B.C. political journalist Rob Shaw tweeted today, she “could easily be a high-level NDP MLA” and “may represent the future” of the party.

Appadurai should be a success story for a party that views itself as a voice for social movements and young people. An internationally renowned climate advocate who first made headlines as a youth spokesperson at the 2011 UN Climate Summit, Appadurai, now 32, is exactly the kind of candidate the NDP should be looking to recruit and elevate. Her clarion call for real and radical climate action has resonated with a generation that often feels alienated from the political process.

Instead, party apparatchiks voted behind closed doors last night to disqualify her from the B.C. NDP leadership race. It is an unforced error of epic proportions, one that could cost them both their government and a generation of young activists.

This is a story that veers sharply into inside baseball territory. How much does the public really care about the internal machinations of a political party?

But it is about more than the future of the B.C. NDP and the implications for the one remaining leadership candidate, David Eby, now the next premier. It’s about how party democracy functions, and more fundamentally, what happens when young people and social movements seek to seize the levers of power and make the radical course corrections needed to address climate change.

Pour one out for the old David Eby

Despite being the architect of his own misfortune here, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Eby. With last night’s vote, his leadership will forever be tainted.

The former head of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and lawyer with Pivot Legal Society was, at one point, seen as a standard bearer for the party’s left flank. But like so many before him, he was swallowed whole by the machine of party politics, first as Attorney General, where he studiously ignored RCMP misconduct and violations of press freedom, and then as a leadership candidate.

Most expected a post-Horgan leadership race to pit Eby against Ravi Kahlon, representing the more right-wing, pro–fossil fuel wing of the party. Instead, Kahlon immediately threw his support behind Eby and became co-chair of his campaign. Scuttlebutt is that Eby promised not to change course on issues like LNG, fossil fuels, and old-growth logging in exchange for Kahlon clearing his path to the premier’s chair.

Former Attorney General David Eby will be British Columbia’s next premier.
@p_greaves

In announcing his candidacy in July, Eby repeatedly said he would represent stability, telling the Daily Hive, “Really I don’t see any radical shifts happening here for government.”

It was to be a coronation, with most MLAs throwing their support behind Eby. Then came Appadurai’s insurgent challenge from the left, one that Eby initially said “frustrated” him, because “it delays moving into the office by several months.”

It was a churlish comment, and it may well have galvanized his opponent’s supporters.

But for Eby, Appadurai’s candidacy felt like a betrayal. He had waited patiently, carried the flag for the party’s left flank, and was now to be rewarded for all the compromises he had been forced to make along the way. Under his leadership, things would be different. Maybe not too different, but those are the sacrifices that power demands.

The lobbyist and the environmentalist

The chief electoral officer (CEO) appointed to oversee the leadership race was Elizabeth Cull. She has worked as a senior associate for the lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton, and was a registered lobbyist seeking to influence the provincial government on files related to LNG as recently as 2020.

Anjali Appadurai was disqualified behind closed doors last night.
Facebook

Cull submitted a 24-page report recommending Appadurai’s disqualification to the party’s executive, and it formed the basis for their decision to do so. The executive declined to allow Appadurai to respond to the allegations against her before rendering their decision.

Amid a litany of unforced errors, making a fossil fuel lobbyist the face of your efforts to boot out a popular climate activist must be near the top. Even if Cull’s motives and actions were as unbiased and pure as the driven snow, the optics are disastrous.

Chief electoral officer Elizabeth Cull. She previously worked as a senior associate for the lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton, and was a registered lobbyist seeking to influence the provincial government on files related to LNG as recently as 2020.
BC NDP

The complaints that underpin the recommendation of disqualification are that Appadurai’s campaign coordinated with external groups to sign up members, that some of those new memberships are, in Cull’s words, “fraudulent,” and that these actions “may” be violations of both party rules and B.C. election law.

Cull also determined the Appadurai campaign lacked credibility, describing herself as “troubled by the internal inconsistencies in the information provided by the campaign and its volunteers,” a polite way of saying she thinks they’re lying about a lack of coordination with Dogwood. Cull noted that Appadurai was critical of her in the media, something that seems to have contributed to her assessment.

Coordination with external groups

Before Appadurai entered the leadership race, a Zoom call on August 6 was held with her and her supporters to determine if she would run. On that call, representatives from Dogwood pledged their organization’s support. Several of them volunteered briefly on the campaign, subsequently quitting one role or the other to comply with campaign rules.

Meanwhile, Dogwood and 350.org, another environmental NGO, were running ads on social media and sending emails to their lists encouraging their members to join the NDP to vote for Appadurai.

Dogwood are responsible for their own conduct, and could face fines for improper spending, but unless they coordinated their efforts with Appadurai’s campaign their actions can’t be held against her. Appadurai insists there was no coordination, and argues the CEO changed the rules in late August and then applied those rules retroactively to the August 6th meeting. The CEO would likely argue she clarified rules that already existed and that Dogwood’s efforts represented an illegal in-kind contribution.

Anjali Appadurai is a long-time climate activist.
Facebook

I know, I know. Your eyes are glazing over. My read on this after talking to a lawyer and a number of insiders is that mistakes were made. As Appadurai’s campaign took shape in the wake of the August 6th meeting, more care should have been taken to avoid any overlap between campaign volunteers and Dogwood staff. There likely wasn’t sufficient awareness of the new rules among a makeshift team of volunteers in those early days. And whatever Dogwood’s plan was, whatever assurances they thought they had from Elections BC that their conduct was above board, they miscalculated the impact it would have.

But those errors appear to have been made in good faith and addressed once raised, at least on the part of Appadurai’s campaign. It’s hard to justify the ultimate penalty of expulsion, and shutting down a democratic exercise, on these grounds.

‘Fraudulent’ memberships

Cull said Dogwood encouraged people to join the NDP to vote for Appadurai even if they were members or supporters of another party, even though “the BC NDP requires members to affirm not only that they are not members of other parties, but also that they are not supporters of other parties.” She pointed to communications in which they encouraged people to temporarily quit other parties to participate in the leadership race and noted that parties don’t cross-check membership lists with each other.

It is also apparently scandalous that David Suzuki and his family joined the NDP to vote for Appadurai while also having attended a Green Party fundraiser, as if being more concerned with results on climate than partisanship were some shocking and nefarious plot.

So long as you allow anyone who pays you $10 to become a member of your party, you can’t complain if people quit other parties to join yours and vote for their preferred candidate in a leadership contest. In fact, it’s the number one strategy political parties use to grow their membership base, typically welcoming these converts with open arms.

The B.C. NDP has been contacting new members to investigate the validity of their memberships following a spot check that suggested up to a quarter might not be legitimate members. Cull reported that around 18 per cent of those new members who answered a phone call from the B.C. NDP were found to be ineligible to be members, almost all due to being “members or supporters of other political parties.” She wrote that 80 per cent of those are members or supporters of the Green Party.

Interestingly, she draws a comparison between a spot check of the membership list as it stood on July 1, when she reports only 1.4 per cent of members were ineligible due to being “members” of another party, and in its most recent form, when 25 per cent were found to be “members or supporters” of another party. Not only is a list including a bunch of new signups always going to be more error-prone than a list of established members between contests, she switches from “members” to “members and supporters” to make the distinction appear larger. A neat trick.

But how is she defining “supporters”? She doesn’t say, and the B.C. NDP did not respond to a request for comment. But I spoke to a new member and supporter of the Appadurai campaign who said he was asked if he had supported another party in the past, and others have reported on social media that they were told they are ineligible if the answer is yes.

If that’s the standard, it is very troubling. Anyone who is currently a member of another party and joined the NDP did so in violation of the rules and may fairly be excluded. But those who voted for another party in the past cannot now join the NDP? That would be a deeply anti-democratic attempt to restrict membership to only long-time supporters.

It also ignores the obvious fact that many young people don’t give a shit about partisanship. They want climate action, among other policies, and they’ll switch between parties that share the same voter universe (like the NDP and Greens) depending on who they think will deliver the strongest policies. The job of a party like the NDP is to win those young voters over and convince them a vote for the NDP is the most effective way to achieve their goals.

By telling them their memberships are fraudulent, and that they don’t belong, the party is alienating a generation of its own core supporters. Not smart.

Exact numbers aren’t publicly known, but the rumour is that Appadurai may have signed up close to as many members as Eby’s new sign-ups *and* the existing party membership combined.
Anjali Appadurai's Facebook

But the really problematic part for Cull is that the Eby campaign appears to have done a very similar thing with the United Steelworkers union. At least one of their locals sent a message to members encouraging them to sign up for the NDP to vote for Eby even if they support other parties and reminding them they can just quit after the leadership vote. The message was accompanied by an affiliate link to join the party provided by the Eby campaign.

If Dogwood telling people they can temporarily join the NDP to vote in the leadership is fraudulent, why isn’t it also fraudulent when the Steelworkers do the same thing?

The nuclear option

In conversations with various NDP insiders over the past few days, a common theme has emerged. Eby and the party brass must have truly feared that he would lose. Their cover story has been about ensuring a swift coronation for the next premier, but if that’s true then they’re, well, a bunch of idiots.

The damage done to the party brand here is incalculable. And it was all predictable. So it only makes sense if this was the nuclear option. Break glass in case of emergency.

Exact numbers aren’t publicly known, but the rumour is that Appadurai may have signed up close to as many members as Eby’s new sign-ups and the existing party membership combined.

Eby’s campaign was entitled and overconfident, and they may have let themselves be out-organized by a candidate who tapped into widespread frustration with the NDP’s actions in government, specifically their failure to live up to campaign promises to wind down fossil fuel expansion projects and protect old-growth forests.

That “deep disappointment with the direction of the NDP government was the silent but effective recruiting partner that brought in the many thousands of British Columbians who flocked to my campaign,” wrote Appadurai in her response to Cull’s report.

Some will argue that Eby was always going to win. Perhaps. But we’ll never know for sure now. Some will argue that the alleged infractions are worse than I’ve portrayed them, and warranted disqualification. I encourage everyone to read Cull’s report and Appadurai’s response in full and draw their own conclusions. But I also argue that those people are missing the point.

Appadurai was the underdog, the people’s champ, and these clowns just made her a martyr. None of her young supporters give a flying Fig Newton about whether she knew what Dogwood was doing. Many of them had lost faith in the NDP, and she lured them back. Now they’re mad as hell.

All of this prepares the terrain for an ongoing civil war within the NDP, which is an absolute gift to Sonia Furstenau and the Greens, who will be gleefully mopping up disaffected New Democrats. Angry activists are already committing to run slates in every electoral district association and fight for control of the party. “This isn’t over” is a phrase being used a lot on Twitter.

And lest you think Appadurai’s supporters represent some fringe, remember that her disqualification has been publicly opposed by a half dozen federal NDP MPs, several elected officials in other provinces, multiple riding associations and dozens of high-profile party officials and supporters. This is now a party captured by industry and at war with its own grassroots.

It makes Eby look intolerably weak as he prepares to face the electorate in a general election. His own party thought he couldn’t win in a fair fight, so they appear to have stuck their thumb on the scales. And he let it happen.

“I think that what happened here is that I entered the race, wasn’t considered a threat, went on to sign up thousands of new members to the party, and at a certain point it became clear that the number of memberships that I had brought into the party exceeded that of my opponent,” Appadurai told Rob Shaw in an interview Tuesday.

“And so until that point, this race was welcomed by everyone involved. But as soon as there was leverage of a potential win, I believe that the pieces were put in place to disqualify me from the race.”

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