This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the 2012 New Democratic Party Leadership Convention. Held in downtown Toronto, it was the culmination of about four months of deliberation regarding the leadership of the country's social-democratic party.
With the unfortunate passing of Jack Layton last August, the NDP was elected with a strong mandate. However, the party was thrust into new territory as official opposition and without Jack's leadership the party was almost rudderless for much of 2011, leaving the Liberals to be the de facto opposition in the House of Commons.
Although it was immediately obvious that the NDP needed to select a new leader, the process didn't really get started until about November, with the first debate taking place in Ottawa at the beginning of December. I was in attendance at the event, and I was pleased not only with the calibre of the candidates, but also with the atmosphere of respect and cooperation. Despite the fact that over the course of the four months it took to ultimately select a leader, there was a distinct lack of infighting. Candidates openly disagreed with one another regarding policy matters, but never in a venomous way.
As the convention approached, it became obvious that Thomas Mulcair was the frontrunner, and friendly opposition galvanised behind Brian Topp. Mulcair, a bilingual anglophone from Montréal, was previously a cabinet minister in the Québec Liberal Party, advocating for sustainable development in the province. Despite his agreeable environmental record, he drew significant criticism for his socio-economic perspectives, namely bringing the party closer to the "centre" in order to capture votes from Liberal supporters. Topp, who represented traditional leftist NDP principles, notably strong labour support, was not able to successfully unite those segments of the party against Mulcair.
With that background out of the way, I would like to talk briefly about the convention. I think that the NDP did an excellent job overall in setting up a great event. Despite some of the criticism from the media, the event was exciting, well-attended, quite effectively managed. That said, there were a few issues I'd like to briefly address.
The most controversial item is the failure of the voting servers during the second ballot. While there is no way to tell what exactly happened, there were reports of a Denial of Service problem, causing massive delays and much frustration in getting votes entered both live on the net and in person at the convention. Regardless of whatever happened (I doubt that the Conservatives were behind some malicious attack), the NDP probably could have contracted out the work to a group that was more capable of running such a project. The reality is that the failure to run the internal elections reflected very poorly on the NDP as an organisation. I heard someone beside me when we were voting saying "how is anyone going to let us run the country if we can't run an online election".
Secondly, there were many media reports around low attendance on the convention floor. While much of the time the room was packed with supporters and the media, there were plenty of times when there was literally nothing going on. By virtue of setting up large gaps in the timetable, there were many instances where the media were filling dead air. In my opinion, the party could have better organised the schedule so that there would not be long periods of inactivity. That said, some of these were unforeseen, such as the voting problems. At any rate, it a again negatively impacted the NDP in the media, leading the average Canadian to get an impression that the party was not very exciting. My uncle pointed out to me, quite rightly, that the NDP missed a great marketing chance by failing to deliver exciting television.
Perhaps the most disappointing element was the voting structure. In an attempt to be inclusive, the NDP used a preferential ballot system for those voting before the event. While the idea behind the preferential ballot is quite simple, many watching the event from the outside were very confused by it. What's even more troubling, however, is that such a high proportion of those voting used the preferential ballot that the ones cast live (in person or on the internet) only accounted for a minority of the votes overall. That has two devastating effects: firstly, it meant that none of the candidates ever moved up or down in the standings as the race went on; secondly, no candidate was able to throw his or her support behind someone else as there was no way to ensure that these votes would actually move anywhere. The product of this was, predictably, a lack of excitement in the event, and a perceived lack of control over events by the leadership candidates.
All that said, the NDP ran a very successful and fun event. I am exceptionally lucky to have attended and I will go again in a heartbeat. I sincerely hope that the NDP takes a hard look at some of the problems they experienced in the convention so that they can learn from them for next time. However, for now, this items are water under the bridge and the party now has to move on to re-establishing itself in the House of Commons.