Solidarity trumps competition in NDP leadership race

Written By Fran Yanor

So, that’s it. Hours after the race was officially launched, 48 MLAs were already queued up in lock-step behind the single NDP leadership candidate declared so far: Attorney General and Housing Minister David Eby.

Without waiting to see who else might run; before knowing what myriad of skills or new perspectives another candidate might bring to the leader’s position, four dozen of the party’s elite declared Eby their guy. 

It’s a classic winning strategy – not unlike the organizational savvy deployed by Pierre Poilievre in his current run for federal Conservative Party leader (only done better) – get out front, fast and strong. Effectively shut down potential competitors before they can build grassroots support or momentum. 

The NDP officially launched the leadership race on July 17. Two days later, Eby announced his candidacy with all but six NDP MLAs pledging allegiance to his camp. The cut off for candidates to declare themselves is Sept. 4, with the final membership vote tallied on Dec. 3. It costs $15,000 to enter, and an additional $25,000 to run. 

Solidarity blocks competition

After such a show of solidarity by the NDP caucus, on such short timelines, who could afford to risk the $40,000 needed to run against Eby? What sane person would try?

This sort of maneuvering is expected between candidates in a normal leadership race as each campaign team tries to outpace and out-think the other. When there’s only one candidate, it comes off as autocratic. 

When there’s only one candidate, it comes off as autocratic. 

Eby said this week, if he’s elected leader, he won’t call an early election. Meaning, the people of B.C. will have no say on who’s running the province until autumn 2024.

In what might arguably be a trend, Horgan was also acclaimed as NDP party leader, although back in 2014, his ascension catapulted him to Opposition leader. Three years later, the public decided whether he was ready for B.C.’s top job. 

Real leadership contest “unlikely”

“It’s disappointing that a real leadership contest is looking less and less likely,” said BC Green Party MLA Adam Olsen in a release this week. “A leadership contest is a core element of democracy, giving people a choice between different policies and approaches.”

The NDP say representing diversity is important, but without a true leadership contest, varying perspectives won’t be represented, Olsen said. 

“A leadership contest is a core element of democracy, giving people a choice between different policies and approaches.”

Adam Olsen

Which is not to say Eby is unqualified. He’s been a rising star in the New Democrat caucus since he defeated then BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark in the 2013 election. Trained as a lawyer, he’s smart and capable. He’s quick on his feet in front of the cameras and in the legislative chamber. He’s tackled complex issues – ICBC, casino money laundering, limits on political donations, and more.

On the other hand, he’s got baggage. The BC Liberals pronounced him the “failed housing minister” for having delivered only a sliver of the 114,000 new housing units promised by the NDP in the 2017 election. They blame Eby for his management of housing shortages and skyrocketing real estate prices during what may be the worst housing crisis in the province’s history. 

The Opposition also accused Eby of being soft on crime and for not moving fast enough on inner city street criminality and the ‘catch-and-release’ of repeat offenders back into the community. They also point to Eby’s early “radical” activism days and his anti-law enforcement, pro-activist work with Pivot Legal Society, a strident Vancouver advocacy group in favour of defunding the police, and the BC Civil Liberties Association, which makes a habit of suing the police on behalf of various causes. 

“David Eby’s record is too radical and abysmal to be premier,” Trevor Halford, BC Liberal MLA for Surrey-White Rock said in a release.

For the BC Greens, Eby represents the “status quo” of a government that hasn’t done enough on issues of affordability and climate action. 

Why Eby?

Maintaining the status quo may be exactly what the NDP want and if Eby’s leadership represents that to his cabinet and backbench colleagues, it must have resonated. From that perspective, Eby could be seen as a wise, stable choice, ensuring the government agenda continues to unfold – without much more than a minor cabinet shuffle. 

With only one candidate running, the waters ahead are pretty smooth race-wise. Dissent is averted and embarrassing heated debates between sparring candidates are effectively quashed. Fissures in the united NDP front are thus avoided, as are any unexpected and unsettling race results in the middle of the government’s term.

Yet, perhaps not everyone is in agreement. A couple days ago, when Finance Minister Selina Robinson announced she wouldn’t run as a candidate, she declined to endorse Eby as premier. Robinson reportedly said she wanted to wait until all candidates had declared before endorsing anyone.

“Whoever is picked, a really good challenging race is helpful.”

Nathan Cullen

And last week, when Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen spoke with Rob Shaw explaining why he won’t run for NDP leader, he didn’t couple his choice with a pledge to back Eby. Instead, the MLA for Stikine said he hoped for a competitive leadership race. 

“Whoever is picked, a really good challenging race is helpful,” Cullen said. 

Makes sense. A leadership race is supposed to be a competition. And a healthy democracy encourages public debate and diversity of thought; it doesn’t shut it down.

Note: Besides Cullen and Robinson, the following NDP MLAs were not listed as supporters by Eby the day he declared on July 20: Roly Russell, MLA Boundary-Similkameen and parliamentary secretary for Rural Development; Michele Babchuk, MLA North Island and deputy whip; Brittny Anderson, MLA Nelson-Creston and Premier’s special advisor for youth; and George Chow, MLA Vancouver-Fraserview and minister of state for trade. Premier Horgan and Legislative Speaker Ray Chouhan are expected to remain neutral.