Politics is often about compromise.
Compromises are great when they work.
They suck when they don’t.
The provincial New Democrats spent a week in a leadership crisis that climaxed with a two-day caucus retreat complete with a hired, professional meeting facilitator.
The result is the worst possible solution for the New Democrats if they are interested in being a viable competitor in the next provincial general election.
In 2010, the provincial Conservatives were in a crisis. The Old Man who had led the party for most of the preceding decade had left abruptly. They didn’t see it coming. They weren’t ready. In order to avoid a potentially divisive leadership fight in the same year as a general election, the Conservatives came up with a compromise. Kathy Dunderdale - already chosen for the role by her predecessor - would stay on as premier.
That left them with a leader who had no agenda of her own and hence left the party without a sense of direction. What’s worse, no one else filled in the gap. The result has been a disastrous collapse of Conservative support in the province.
Sure, the Tories won a majority government in 2011 but they lost most of their normal base of support in St. John’s. They had the smallest turn-out of eligible voters since Confederation for a party that formed government after a general election. They remain at the bottom of the polls and, if current trends hold, they’ll lose the next election as surely as Darrell Dexter and his party did in Nova Scotia.
The New Democrats got into political difficulties by different means and those details are important.
For starters, there’s the letter. Some people have focused on that. Anyone who heard Dale Kirby CBC Radio Cross Talk mid-week now understands that the letter as a carefully crafted effort to trigger a leadership contest under the party constitution.
The notion that the letter was a poor choice or “spitballing” is nothing more than falling for the frame that embattled party leader Lorraine Michael tried to stick on the crisis last Monday. She attributed the problem to political inexperience or confusion.
Well, no. The caucus members were trying to do exactly what they wanted - question Michael’s leadership - in the only way the party constitution allowed. The words from the letter are plan enough:
We believe that a leadership convention in 2014 is critical if there is to be party renewal and growth in support for the New Democratic Party in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Leader Fights Back
Michael’s response was anything but amateurish. She immediately tried to hold power by contacting the two weaker reeds in her caucus to see if she could split the enemy. She didn’t waste energy on the two she knew – based on dealing with them for two years – were strongest in their views.
The tactic worked. Both Gerry Rogers and George Murphy expressed regret at signing the letter. Murphy cooked up a preposterous story about intimidation and threats.
Armed with the knowledge that those two had changed position, Michael gave the letter to CBC’s David Cochrane and appeared on Here and Now to tell the province that she wanted to meet with caucus. “I’m going to sit with them,” she told Cochrane, “and talk and see if that’s what they really mean.” She only said that publicly after she had confirmed that the caucus all anted variations on the same theme.
The Caucus Wants What the Caucus Wants
The tactic worked, but only up to a point. Remember that of the four members of the caucus other than Michael, only George Murphy appeared to change positions completely. Gerry Rogers still wanted a leadership review. She said so publicly. Apparently, she still wanted Michael but wanted some way to stimulate public interest in the party. That seems to be what Rogers meant when she said the party would emerge from the crisis stronger for the effort. As we learned on Wednesday, Rogers is actually the one who sent the letter to Michael on behalf of the caucus as a whole.
Straits-White Bay North member of the House Chris Mitchelmore wanted a leadership contest in which Michael could participate, as he told reporters during the week. Again, Mitchelmore connected the leadership competition with attracting interest to the party.
St. John’s North MHA Dale Kirby quickly became the target of media attention. Many people assumed he was behind the letter or was the dark force that had led the others. Some criticised him publicly as the ringleader of the plot. That’s all as maybe since he clearly wanted a leadership review of some kind.
The Joe Clark Manoeuvre
After a two-day session, Lorraine Michael emerged from the meetings early on Saturday afternoon to announce that she would ask the party executive to arrange a leadership vote in 2014.
She had no details of how the party executive would conduct the vote. It could take place at the annual party meeting in October. It could happen earlier. The vote could be one involving all members. It could be one just of delegates to the convention. Those details will come.
Regular leadership reviews used to be a popular thing in political parties. Over time, they fell out of favour. They fell out of favour because, more often than not, the review created problems no matter what the approach. And whatever good might come from a leadership vote, the problems far outweigh them.
Joe Clark is a useful example. Clark won the Conservative leadership in 1976. He faced a leadership review the next year. He faced grumbling over his leadership as well as several other leadership votes until 1983. That was the year one third of the party voted for a leadership contest among as many candidates that wanted to come forward. Two thirds and a bit wanted him to stay.
Over time, the number of leadership reviews made Joe Clark’s leadership itself a perpetual issue. In the end, one of the key questions for Clark was what the magic number was. People wanted to know what number of “yes” votes in the balloting would force Clark to resign and trigger a leadership contest. Arguably 50% plus one would be good enough to meet conventional or written constitutional practices.
But in political terms knowing that half the party wants you out, makes it impossible for any leader to continue. So how many votes does a leader need to stay on? 75% maybe. Well, that could work since odds are that 25% disapproval would be a normal thing at any one time. Maybe two thirds is enough. That’s the figure Clark settled on and he won it. But only just. In effect, whatever number you pick becomes the new trigger. In Clark’s case, 66 became the new 50.
The Year of Leading Dubiously
That’s where the New Democrats are right now. They’ve set themselves up for a leadership crisis from now until whenever the party sets the voting day. People will wonder about the details. Reporters will ask about it. The longer the executive takes to sort out the details, the greater the curiosity their delay will arouse. Some will look for historic leadership reviews to compare with the New Democrats.
Behind the scenes, the anti-Lorraine forces can organize and start their quiet efforts to unseat her. Those who like Lorraine but who think a leadership contest has merit will vote against Lorraine. Lorraine’s own people will have to organize votes for her as well as fend off the anti-Lorraine or pro-leadership contest forces. They won’t have a clear target. They cannot even hope that the anti-Lorraine votes will be split among a range of choices so that she can claim a plurality of votes in a leadership contest.
In a single week, New Democrats came forward to talk about their support for Lorraine. But a number openly criticised her. People talked about her age. They wondered out loud what people have wondered for a long while. They wondered whether a leader in her 70s will be able to lead a credible campaign in 2015 that would implicitly have her stay as Premier – if the Dippers win – until she is in her 80s. Imagine how much more of that will now come in the leadership review campaign.
Then there is the issue of a vote that Michael loses or, even worse, wins by only a slight margin. If she loses, the party executive will have to organize a leadership contest in the same year as the general election. If she wins by a weak margin, then doubts about Michael’s leadership will just keep going.
All of this will have to happen at the same time that the party should be getting ready for the next election. The party won’t be able to do both at once. Lorraine and her people will have to split their time between the two tasks, at best. They will have more trouble finding candidates this year and next year than they are having now.
Weak or absent election readiness is one of the issues that lay behind the call for Michael to resign. New Democrats are worried about the 2015 election and about the party’s stagnant position. Look at the letter the caucus members sent unanimously to their party leader: “We collectively make this request out of genuine concern for our party's ability to attract quality candidates and build on our level of public support in advance of the 2015 election.”
New Democrats should be genuinely concerned. They have taken a bad situation and made it that much worse. The New Democratic Party problems going into the 2015 election aren’t about a lack of policies, internal policy disagreements, or about promoting oddball ones like wood pellets.
The New Democrats have a fundamental problem with election readiness and the party’s current leader. The problems got bad enough that the caucus acted in the only way they felt they could. That wasn’t a poor choice. That this letter was their only choice suggests that the party has many more internal problems than some people are willing or able to recognize.
This may be a sign of what political scientist George Perlin once called the Opposition Syndrome. He argued that the longer parties stay in opposition, the more they get consumed with internal divisions at the expense of trying to win an election. Their personal interest trumps the larger party interest. Indeed, they may well believe – even if they never voice it – that the two are the same thing. Politicians get comfortable. Change threatens them so they fight against it even when all the signs point rationally to the need for change.
Lorraine Michael’s comment to reporters – quoted in the Telegram – might a good indicator of just that sort of problem:
Michael acknowledged the past six days have been damaging for her party, but said that she’s trying not to focus on that.
“I really have no idea how damaging it might be. All I know is we have to start from where we are and we have to build,” she said. “What happened has happened, and our position is we have to move forward, and that’s what I’m doing.”
There’s no sign the New Democrats are moving forward. Indeed, Michael’s dogged determination to stay in the job against any and all arguments, despite the continuing crisis that erupted last week, shows just how much is stalled.