When news broke last week that 34 NDP supporters were threatening to break with the Ontario party, leader Andrea Horwath’s loyalists swung into action.
The Gang of 34, the loyalists said, didn’t represent real New Democrats. They were old, bitter and out of date — champagne socialists holding onto a past that is no longer valid.
“Too bad the NDP 34 won’t put down their white wine, get back into their work clothes and come to see how average people feel about the election,” Ontario Public Service Employees Union president Warren (Smokey) Thomas wrote Wednesday on rabble.ca.
Most of the letter’s signatories, he said, aren’t even NDP members.
On CBC TV Tuesday, NDP strategist Kathleen Monk said, in reference to the 34, that political parties often plant operatives in the enemy camp to sow discord.
“There are people in all political parties . . . who often take out memberships just to later rip them up very publicly to grab a few headlines,” she said.
In fact, the story behind the Horwath letter is not quite the wine-sipping conspiracy that Monk and Thomas suggest. It is simpler.
New Democrats are deeply divided on the direction their party should take. Federally, the differences were papered over in 2011, after the party made huge inroads into Quebec and emerged as Canada’s official opposition.
In Ontario, the divisions are more visible.
At base, the question is one of electability versus principle. How far to the right can a social democratic party veer without compromising its reason for existence?
Or, to put it another way: If the NDP simply wants to be a right-wing version of the Liberal Party, what is the point of voting New Democrat? Why not vote Liberal. Or Conservative?
Which, in effect, was the question posed by the 34.
The letter to Horwath refers to them as long-time supporters who have always voted NDP but are dismayed by the Ontario party’s new, rightward direction. They include:
• Cathy Crowe. She’s an advocate for the homeless and street nurse who ran twice for the Ontario party. She says her NDP membership expired two months ago.
In spite of her own doubts, she is endorsing two NDP candidates in the June 12 race.
• Michele Landsberg. The former Star columnist has been in the NDP for decades. Her husband, Stephen Lewis, is a former Ontario NDP leader.
Landsberg says she tore up her party card once, when Bob Rae was NDP premier, before eventually pasting it back together. She recently allowed her membership to lapse again.
“It’s like being in a lifelong marriage and having a fight,” she told me by email. “You’re still in the relationship.”
• Geoff Bickerton. He’s research director for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and a paid-up party member. The debate inside the Ontario NDP, he told me by email, is nothing new. It has been going on since the ’70s.
• Sue Colley. She was a senior political aide in Rae’s NDP government of the ’90s. She’s not a party member now. Her partner, Gordon Cleveland (who also signed the letter), has done work for the party and donated money.
• Winnie Ng. A long-time labour activist and unionist, Ng has run federally for the NDP. She says her membership has probably lapsed but that this hasn’t prevented the party brass from calling on her to volunteer in campaigns.
“Since I’m among those who are being referred to as ‘embittered’ or ‘yesterday’s losers,’ I guess the line has been drawn in the sand,” she told me.
• Judy Rebick. She ran provincially for the party in 1987 and was involved, during that period, on the NDP’s left. She’s not a party member now but says that, until this year, she’s always voted New Democrat.
Does the Gang of 34 matter? At one level, the answer is no. Bickerton says they are not trying to form a ginger group within the NDP. He says they did not even intend their letter to become public.
But at another level, their action underlines the party’s great, unresolved question.
In its rush to the centre, can the NDP remain different from other parties? If it can’t, why should voters bother with it?