OTTAWA — The NDP’s decision to postpone its policy convention to next year may bring “unintended consequences” and challenges in retaining party members, says former Beloeil–Chambly MP Matthew Dubé.
Federal council members decided in December to postpone the party’s biennial convention, due this year, to early 2021. The decision means NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will not face a leadership review, which happens at every policy convention, in just a few months.
Members will also have to wait to debate policy, such as the party’s prioritization on issues including climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and Quebec’s Bill 21.
“It’s no secret that MPs play a large role in keeping their activists and volunteers on board with what the party is doing,” Dubé told HuffPost Canada. “And when you lose those MPs, the convention is then a pretty important opportunity to make sure those folks are still involved with the large, pan-Canadian effort.”
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The former caucus chair said there’s “a little bit of disappointment” among members in Quebec, where 13 of 14 incumbent NDP MPs, including Dubé, were defeated in October.
Dubé said the party’s new diminished presence in the province means the NDP will have to rely on centralized efforts, through Montreal-area MP Alexandre Boulerice or party headquarters in Ottawa, to take care of members in lost ridings if the party hopes to regain ground in Quebec.
“Neither of those scenarios are ideal,” he said.
The party spent considerable time and resources in Quebec after its so-called “Orange Wave” breakthrough in 2011, when it won 59 of 75 seats in the province. In the 2015 election, however, the NDP won 16 Quebec seats.
One of the key things the party has to do is “lock down who’s running again or not” and focus on ridings where former MPs are choosing not to run again, Dubé said. He said he supports Singh as leader.
Asked if he would be running again, Dubé said, he hasn’t decided yet, adding that it’s been “quite, quite nice” to spend time with family — particularly with his baby daughter who was born weeks before the election.
Sussanne Skidmore, treasurer for the federal party, explained the decision to move the convention was based on the realities of a minority Parliament situation.
NDP strategist Karl Bélanger said moving the convention seems to be due to reasons related to money and organizational capacity. “I don’t see it as anything more nefarious than that.”
Former leader Thomas Mulcair was dumped by NDP members in a leadership review months after losing the 2015 election. The move set forth an extended leadership race that starved the party’s fundraising machine.
Singh isn’t facing the same leadership pressures, despite losing 20 seats on election night. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, in comparison, has announced he will resign, even though his party gained 26 seats and reduced the Liberals to a minority government.
“Politics is not about logic,” Bélanger said. “Logically, Andrew Scheer grew his party, increased the number of seats, won the popular vote, and logically he was bringing his party in the right direction towards government.
“The flipside is Jagmeet Singh lost seats, lost votes, brought his party in the wrong direction. But the expectations were different … so the fact that he was able to save the furniture allowed a lot of New Democrats to breathe a sigh of relief.”
Bélanger, now president of Traxxion Strategies, said NDP members have reacted positively to Singh’s performance during the election because he appeared to exceed expectations, “even though they were set very low.”
The party’s national director Anne McGrath told HuffPost that postponing a policy convention “is not unusual” in minority government situations.
“After Jack Layton became leader in 2003 there were at least three convention delays, primarily because of being in minority governments,” she said. McGrath was Layton’s former chief of staff.
Conventions also cost money, which the NDP needs more of after the party spent approximately $11 million during the 40-day election campaign.
McGrath said a “bare bones” convention costs about $500,000. The price can be as high as $1.5 million, considering signage, speakers’ fees, and advertising expenses.
Conventions are also opportunities to offer seminars for candidates and training for campaign managers ahead of elections.
The NDP held its last convention in downtown Ottawa in February 2018. Members voted on a slate on motions that veered the party back to its socialist roots.
That was “pretty bare bones,” McGrath said.
Though she said there hasn’t been “significant pushback” to postponing, the NDP national director acknowledged there’s been “a little bit of grumbling” about it.
“And I totally understand that because I would like to have a really big convention right now as well,” she said. “But you know, in a minority parliament you have to be very, very focused and clear on your priorities.”
Former longtime Burnaby NDP MP Svend Robinson, whose comeback bid was thwarted this fall, has expressed concern that the decision flouts the party’s constitution, which states a biennial convention should be held every other year.
“The fact that previous federal executives of councils may have ignored the constitution is frankly irrelevant in this context because the constitution has to be respected,” he said during a call from overseas. “The membership of the party is entitled to that respect.”
Robinson said he was told by the party’s president that options for a convention in the first two months of 2021 will be presented at the next federal council meeting in mid-February, quelling concerns it could be delayed further.
“The outcome is positive,” he said.