Originally Printed in National Observer, October 20, 2022
By Avi Lewis
There were no pets, dead people, or ghosts involved.
Nonetheless, the B.C. NDP has disqualified leadership candidate Anjali Appadurai, citing collusion with a third party (the campaigning organization Dogwood) in recruiting many thousands of new members.
And with that, one of the fastest, most dramatic political insurgencies in Canadian history reaches the end of its first phase. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near done yet.
Unlike the usual shenanigans in party leadership races, where membership rolls are sometimes padded with fake identities and nonexistent entities, the people who joined the NDP to vote for a climate justice champion are entirely real.
What is really going on has less to do with messy internal partisan debates, and more to do with why many thousands of real actual people were prepared to buy a B.C. NDP membership for $10 in the hopes they could vote for Appadurai for leader of the party, making her premier of the province.
(Full disclosure: I’ve been what they call a “super volunteer” on the Appadurai campaign, since participating in the public Zoom call when she made the decision to run.)
This decision of the party could have far-reaching consequences: Appadurai’s disqualification is a nuclear option. It risks tainting the administration of the new premier, former Attorney General Dave Eby, and sends a message to a whole wave of NDP members that they are not welcome in the governing party. More ominously for the NDP, it unnecessarily hands the party’s opponents a cudgel that they will no doubt deploy relentlessly between now and the next provincial election in 2024.
So why on earth is the B.C. NDP doing this?
Simply put, the party is disqualifying Appadurai because if the leadership race went to a vote of party members, there is every likelihood that she would win. Because a 32-year-old climate justice champ and a handful of climate campaigners just out-organized the B.C. NDP establishment, an impressive and accomplished government minister, and a caucus full of MLAs who support him. And they did it in 25 days.
Understanding how that happened – amid all the noise in this news cycle about broken rules, fraudulent members, Green Party takeovers, and Dogwood’s third party activity – gets us quickly to the real significance of this bombshell moment in B.C. politics.
Since 2017, the B.C. NDP has – to be polite – changed direction on some pretty fundamental issues. It’s best summed up as the B.C. environmental left’s unholy trinity: Site C, LNG, and old growth. After campaigning against the $16 billion mega-dam, Christy Clark’s “pipe dream” of fracked gas export infrastructure, and for a “paradigm shift” away from old growth logging, under John Horgan, all those industrial projects are marching ever onward. This as the skies fill with smoke, the poor and elderly cook in their homes, shellfish cook on our shores, the gardens shrivel under drought, and the rain, when it comes, can trigger biblical flooding.
This is one reason why the B.C. NDP’s membership dropped from a high of 40,000 to just 11,000 before this leadership race: an important segment of the party’s base has been de-mobilized by the government’s decisions on these very issues.
But there’s another reason as well. The NDP has moved time and again to shut down any internal debate about these visceral and existential issues. Attempts to introduce anti-LNG or ambitious climate resolutions at party conventions and in party bodies have been lost, buried, ruled out of order, systematically boxed out and procedurally shut down. Local electoral district associations can’t build coalitions or momentum around shared climate concerns, because the party doesn’t make their contact information centrally available (citing privacy concerns.) Young climate activists who have tried to run for party positions have been blocked or undermined.
In other words, the B.C. NDP decision-makers have been shoving a cork in a bottle filled with an expanding gas: the rising climate anxiety that comes from living in this province on the front lines of the emergency. And it seems that they thought the cork would hold. It didn’t.
Appadurai didn’t throw her hat in the ring until August 6, just 25 days before the deadline to sign up new NDP members to vote in the leadership election. As a longtime climate justice activist, her candidacy generated intense excitement, igniting a fast and furious wave of organizing as environmental groups (especially Dogwood) let their members know that there was an opportunity to put someone in the premier’s chair who ran for the NDP in the last federal election (coming 431 votes shy of winning) and whose previous job was at an NGO called the Climate Emergency Unit.
To be crystal clear, under both NDP and Elections BC rules, third parties like Dogwood are absolutely allowed to encourage their members to get involved in leadership races. Coordination and collusion aren’t allowed, but in order to believe that this was a grand conspiracy, rather than a spontaneous, grassroots uprising…well, you need a reason to see this kind of movement mobilization as a threat.
Sadly, the folks running the B.C. NDP apparently do. Caught completely unprepared for this wave of excitement around climate justice, party insiders freaked out. They launched an absurd narrative about a Green party hostile takeover, and hired an outside firm to start calling thousands of new members, looking for reasons to disqualify them.
While that process will likely continue – a surreal spectacle of a political party actively trying to reduce its membership rolls – at a certain point it must have become clear that there were simply too many thousands of new members to fix the math and quell the insurgency. So instead of trying to purge thousands in a short time, they simply disqualified one: the one that inspired all the rest.
So this phase of the battle is over. The B.C. NDP will no doubt continue to amplify the charges against Appadurai for a few news cycles, though those charges will never be proven in court, because the judgement against her was cleverly constructed to be fiendishly difficult to get to judicial review. And then the party and government will move on, hoping to put this behind them and work on changing the narrative with a new premier.
Dave Eby inherits a badly bruised position, but I suppose there is still hope that he will see this tsunami of climate-anxiety-driven electoral activism as a true source of political energy. Perhaps he will come out with climate policy that is a little bit stronger than the current CleanBC plan, which, as readers here know, is a decent start at climate policy – if its gains weren’t wiped out by fossil fuel expansion subsidized by the same government.
The real significance of this debacle, though, is twofold: first, it’s an important chapter in the long story of the fight for the soul of the NDP.
While the BC Greens and Liberals are undoubtedly the first beneficiaries of a riven provincial NDP, there are still many across the country who see the party as the only electoral force that might still simultaneously embody climate urgency, a zeal to confront the hoarding class, and a deep (if neglected) tradition in working class organizing. With Rachel “I heart pipelines” Notley ascendant again in Alberta, the next scrap at the NDP corral won’t be long in coming.
More urgently, this was the most successful and electrifying electoral intervention by the climate movement in Canadian political history. It was in every way a pop-up candidacy, and yet it rocked an experienced technocratic governing party and stole a march on it in less than a month. And when the hammer came down, it was able to move more than 5,000 people to send protest emails in less than 24 hours.
That’s the thundering power of social movement organizing. And Appadurai’s meteoric run should be seen as a portent by movement millennials toiling away in the issue silos of the non-profit industrial complex: this was a flex. Getting into the mess of party politics is, sure, messy. There is also power here. Moving at the speed of trust can also be a rush.
And we can’t stop here. If a political party of the left and a generation of brilliant activists and communicators can’t find a way to respect and cooperate with each other soon, then we’ll all find ourselves putting our bodies in front of public health clinics in the era of Prime Minister Pierre.