The NDP Threw a Convention. And the Floor Stayed Clean.


Robin V. Sears

The party convention is one of the few political rituals that hasn’t migrated to the internet. As veteran strategist Robin Sears writes, “They are where the party’s activist core meet, mate, fight, and get hungover together. They are bonding occasions essential to a party’s continuing health and momentum more valuable than any other.” How did the 2018 NDP policy convention in Ottawa rate? Read on. 

Political parties are incredibly fragile institutions, given what essential pillars they are to genuine democracy. The New Democratic Party and the old Progressive Conservative Party in the 1990s, and the Liberal Party a decade ago, each went into what might have become terminal decline, if circumstances had continued to conspire against them. The NDP had the smarts to elect a transformational leader in Jack Layton. Canadian conservatives were saved by a small group of party elders brokering a peace agreement among the fractious splinters into which their tribe had split—but only after 15 years of name-calling.

For a party in crisis, the choice of an effective leader is an essential first step. Sometimes it requires a jack-booted strongman to enforce discipline. More often, a patient conciliator with inspiring charisma is the key. The Liberals were lucky that Justin Trudeau prevailed in their last contest after two disastrous predecessors. The NDP were blessed in finding and elevating Layton, let down by his successor Tom Mulcair, and now possibly about to re-ascend to Layton’s heights under Jagmeet Singh.

Singh’s performance in recent months has been far from world-beating, to put it kindly, but that is the fate of new and untested opposition leaders. The Conservatives may yet wish they had made a different choice given how underwhelming Andrew Scheer has been in his first months. As some Tory wags in the often-cruel political village of Ottawa whisper, “There is a reason folks end up in the Speaker’s Chair. It’s because they may make good referees, but never stars….”

Singh partially redeemed himself with his internal critics with a very impressive first convention speech in Ottawa that combined humour, self-deprecation, passion and compassion. Winning the support of nine out of 10 delegates to the party’s largest non-leadership convention ever was a surprise to many, and has him emerging from his first real test with shining colours.

Those who aren’t political junkies tend to regard party political conventions as being slightly below seniors’ curling tournaments or championship dog grooming shows as scintillating television. They tend to feature an endless chorus line of unrecognizable militants at microphones, shouting incoherently about subjects no one has never given any thought to, with terrible sound and worst video the norm, only occasionally lifted by an inspiring speaker, usually non-Canadian.

NDP conventions are examplars of the form, with the policy debates being typically repetitive and full of insider shorthand and acronyms that ordinary Canadians might not be able to translate as part of either official language. This year’s convention included aging lefty boomers demanding that the “party establishment” stop wasting valuable convention time with pointless outsiders, and ensure that at a minimum of 70 per cent of session time be devoted to serious policy debate. There is a certain Groundhog Day quality to such events for veterans, as one blinks a few times at the sight of the older and more fragile delegate giving the same speech, on the same resolution, in the same hall that one first heard him offer when younger, bearded and louder 40 years earlier.

But you would be wrong to dismiss the convention’s centrality to the health of any political tribe. They are, after the selection of an effective leader, the most important event in any political party’s control—elections themselves being necessarily out of anyone’s control, in politics or not. They are where the party’s activist core meet, mate, fight, and get hungover together. They are bonding occasions essential to a party’s continuing health and momentum more valuable than any other.

What looks like a successful convention to the media and casual observers is often very different that what activists scoring would conclude. Yes, size and professional presentation always matter. But those are tabled stakes today. A good leader’s video, a strong capable convention staff, sound and lights that appear high-tech are must haves. But the deeper and more lasting proof of a successful convention is heard only by eavesdropping in corridors, in the washroom, in the delegates’ whispered mutters to each other in line-ups at the mikes.

They focus on words like respect, dignity, authenticity, effectiveness referring to party elders, caucus members, the leader and his staff. They might be sore at having lost a resolution fight or a place on a party executive but they will go home boiling if those defeats were seen to be unfair, “fixed,” or the product of an autocratic party establishment.

Second only to the leader in relevance to a convention’s success— and it’s a close second—is its chair or chairs. All party conventions, even the highly orchestrated American ones, are potentially volatile beasts. If the room is too hot or too cold, too dark or too crowded, the organizers are laying a very poor foundation for any political success. If there is not enough time to eat or to gossip in the hall, delegates’ nerves will fray by day two or three. But it is the adroitness of the person with the gavel that is the real key to convention triumph.

The rules are the rules—except when they aren’t—in the hands of a great convention chair. He or she must have great feel for a room, its shifting moods, its troublemakers and its opinion influencers. The chair needs to know when to push, when to back off, when to allow a little looseness in timing or procedure, and when to smack the gavel down with a sharp crack.

The NDP in convention this year was blessed to have a seasoned veteran in the chair in the person of Barb Byers, a labour union executive, party activist and Order of Canada member from Saskatchewan.

What a performance. With a range of styles and tricks, she nudged a room of nearly 1800 men and women into compliance with humour and confidence. Adopting the style of a tough old aunt, whom few in the family would dare cross, she was a master in the role. As one frivolous point of order after another was piled up from several mikes—an old convention veteran’s trick for sneaking a final attack line into the debate pretending that it has something to do with procedure—she stared down at the latest miscreant and said, “That, as you well know, is not a point of order…will the delegate please take his seat.” He duly shuffled off, head down, to the bemusement of many around him.

She was dealing with a very different convention than any before in the NDP. This was the year that the aging baby boomers of the Broadbent era were firmly shuffled offstage. Replaced by now-greying Layton generation leaders and, even more dramatically, by very young and more ethnically diverse delegates than the party has ever before seen. Not only were the multicoloured-turban Sikh contingent out in greater numbers than ever before, but young brown, black and indigenous Canadians were out, loud and proud. The NDP began this process under Layton, saw it stall since his death, and this year explode into a party delegate body that looked more like urban Canada than ever before.

The boomers may no longer sit on stage or be prominent in the lineups at the mikes, but many quietly played their traditional roles offstage and quietly on the floor. They would nudge conciliatory language into resolutions at provincial caucus gatherings, ensure that elders’ votes were counted at crucial moments on the floor, and attempt to demonstrate by example that passion must be blended with empathy and compromise as a path to political victory. The planning for the convention had caused considerable nail-biting among the old hands in the weeks leading to the opening gavel. There seemed to be little evidence of the behind-the- curtain work of convention political management essential to a blood-free convention floor.

In the end, this new generation, many in their early 20s drawn by their not-yet-40-year old leader, in harness with just enough of the aging veterans, pulled it off. The closest to a serious embarrassment was on an old NDP chestnut—a just peace in the Middle East—but by eleven votes the party compromise held. Tom Mulcair had ruled on the Palestinian issue with an iron fist, tolerated but resented by many even centrist New Democrats. This year, the lid could have blown off badly, with the passage of very incendiary anti-Israeli texts. It narrowly did not.

So, after a long difficult period for New Democrats following the death of the sainted Jack Layton, one heard many of the older delegates muttering to each other that “This feels like a return to the best of the good old days, no?!” And among the younger delegates you heard the kind of buzz that comes after a triumphant hockey game by a favourite team, or the chuckles in the elevator at the end of a great rock concert. The 2018 convention will be remembered as a success, but the harder task for New Democrats begins on their arrival back home—stealing back from the original thieves the label of the relevant progressive political party to a majority of Canadians.

Contributing writer Robin V. Sears, a principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group, is a former national director of the NDP during the Broadbent years.