The New Democrats are going to pay a big price for the messy coup that saw a minority of MLAs force Carole James out as leader.
There is lots of blame to level at everyone involved, including James and her advisers for failing to head off the sniping.
But the 13 dissident MLAs who publicly pushed for James’s ouster share responsibility for handing the Liberals a victory in the next election.
And, perhaps, for showing that the NDP simply isn’t viable as an effective opposition party.
Most of the anti-James faction did a lousy job of articulating their complaints, especially considering the seriousness of their actions. Jenny Kwan gave the clearest explanation last week. James didn’t consult MLAs enough and changed positions caucus had agreed on. Under he leadership, the party had failed to set out clear positions on key issues. And she was angry two unions had been tapped to pay party president Moe Sihota a salary.
Those might be important issues to work on. They aren’t a reason to launch a coup and risk destroying the party.
After a weekend spent trying to reach some sort of truce, James decided it was impossible and stepped down.
The coup came although James had won party support in a vote last month; the delegates included a representative from each riding association. And the party constitution called for a leadership review vote at next year’s party convention.
But the dissidents wanted her gone now.
The result is a divided caucus and party and a baffled public. The Liberals are in trouble. The NDP looked to be on track to win the next election, based on the polls.
Yet a minority of MLAs forced out the leader. That raises questions about maturity and judgment.
It also makes voting NDP risky. Who is to say the next leader - the premier, if the party forms government - would not be forced out by a group of disgruntled MLAs? Voters can’t make a confident choice when the party is that unstable.
For that matter, who would want to run for leader — or donate and time and money to a leadership campaign - when the whole exercise can be overturned by a dozen MLAs who decide they don’t like the way things are going?
The NDP’s self-destruction isn’t just a concern for party members.
Our system relies on a effective opposition to critique government actions and policies and raise questions and concerns.
But it’s also important that the opposition party be a credible government-in-waiting.
If the party in power knows that the voters are prepared, given a reason, to hand the government over to the opposition at the next election, it has to take care. The governing party has to moderate positions, listen to critics and respond to the public.
The NDP hasn’t convincingly made the case that it can be a credible alternative. In 49 years, it has won three elections: In 1972, when David Anderson and the Liberals split the vote with the Socreds; in 1991, when Gordon Wilson and the Liberals split the vote with the Socreds; and in 1996, when Wilson’s PDA and Jack Weisgerber’s Reform party took votes from the Liberals.
And in each of those cases, the New Democrats got a lower share of the popular vote than they did under James last year.
The NDP has, in 50 years, been unable to build a base large enough to win a two-party contest. (The reasons don’t really matter for the purposes of this discussion.)
The polls suggest it had a chance of ending that bleak history. That’s unlikely now, at least until 2017.
At a certain point, something has to change if the province is to have a functioning party system, with at least two capable of winning enough voter support to form government.