I have to admit to a curiosity of mine during COVID, something that I’ve found myself doing from time to time. That curiosity has been to watch how some things have continued to operate in a COVID environment, things that have nothing to do with the response to COVID but are still parts of our democratic society. The functioning of political parties has been a big part of that curiosity for me, particularly when it comes to preparing for the next Federal election.
Being that we are in a minority government, the parties still need to be ready for the eventuality when it comes. But because of COVID, that obviously can’t happen in a normal way. While it’s easier to adapt some things, like fundraising methods, others aren’t as straightforward. Candidate nominations are a good example of that, where you can’t pack a hall full of people for a nomination meeting. But those nomination meetings have gone virtual and are continuing, as candidates continue to put their names forward for the various parties. And it was in watching this whole process play out that an interesting piece of news came out from CTV’s Evan Solomon late Sunday night, a bit of nomination news that will surely grab attention:
Oh Avi Lewis, what to make of this? I’ve never hidden my views on this Mr. Lewis, his activism around the Leap Manifesto and how it caused so many problems for the NDP. It was a grenade that he and his group threw into the 2015 federal election, the first that had a serious chance to elect an NDP government and contributed to how things went. It also contributed to the convention defeat of Tom Mulcair, despite Lewis’ pleas in the media that he didn’t mean to “blow up” said convention. While I always respected his journalistic work, I can’t say I’ve felt the same for his political work like that. And this is where things get a bit complicated.
What always rankled me about Avi Lewis was that he threw such policy grenades at the NDP, then stood on the sideline and tried to tell others to make it happen. He got to keep his purity intact and forced others to try to do the hard work of squaring some of these policy circles. That always bothered me and at the time I would say that “if he thinks the NDP should run on these things, he should run and be a candidate himself”. The bigger point being, he should finally put up. So in a sense, I guess I tip my hat to him for finally doing that.
For what it means though for the NDP going forward, it could be nothing or it could be everything. The fact that he is choosing to run in West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country is the first clue about how this all might end. The fact is that this riding is pretty Conservative in many ways. The Liberals currently hold it, but the NDP are nowhere in the picture, having finished fourth here in 2019. The Greens actually finished 3rd here with 22% of the vote in that election, making it one of their better showings in the country. And during the last BC provincial election, where the NDP romped to a large majority, the Greens nearly won a part of this seat while the NDP finished a distant third. The Green presence makes sense here, especially when you consider that this is the former seat of one of the first Green transplants from the May years, when former Liberal MP Blair Wilson flipped to the Greens right before the 2008 election and ended up finishing 4th.
Running in this riding for someone like Lewis is more than a tall order, as it would appear to be unwinnable for even a “star” NDP candidate. Even when the NDP had its best ever electoral result in 2011, the party only gained 24% of the vote and finished well behind the Conservatives. So while it’s true that 2021 is not 2011, things haven’t changed that much in the NDP’s favour. Lewis will have to basically build a riding organization from scratch and raise big money in a riding where the last NDP candidate only spent $5,500 on her entire campaign. Those are all very big challenges to overcome and while I expect that Lewis will be able to raise a fair bit more money than the last candidate, that alone won’t overcome those challenges. So in the “nothing” category, this could just be a quixotic run by a big name that comes to nothing.
But on the other “everything” hand, this could be a big problem for Jagmeet Singh. First off, guaranteed the NDP will face a whole new barrage of “Leap Manifesto” attacks from here to eternity just by the virtue of Lewis being a candidate in such an unwinnable riding. It seems like a lot of potential pain to go through for little (if any) political payoff. Also, the presence of Lewis running in the next election could have the potential to undo the hard work of rebuilding bridges between the central party and the Alberta NDP of Rachael Notley. When Notley spoke at the NDP convention last month, we saw the result of that careful work to bring those two sides back together and if Avi Lewis acts like Avi Lewis has in the past, that could easily threaten to blow all of that up. That would also go for Saskatchewan as well. And come election time, the central party will depend on the support and volunteers of those provincial sections to win much needed seats in both provinces. If Lewis acts as he has in the past, he could single-handedly put all of that in jeopardy.
And when I say “if Lewis acts as he has in the past”, to me that’s the real wildcard here. He hasn’t shown himself to be a team player when it comes to his political activism and given some of his past comments around Leap, he is going to have to prove differently to many people. That whole episode left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and it will be on him to show if he’s learned anything from that experience.
Of course, the extent to which any of that will matter will come down to if he can win a seat in the House of Commons. If he’s just a candidate who loses, any problems that might come with his candidacy might very well be limited to that campaign (although one can do a lot of damage in a campaign). The only way that this becomes an “everything” situation for the NDP is if he actually wins that seat. The would put him in that caucus and would put all of this to the test. If he was able to be a team player, work within a caucus structure and be a constructive MP then it could be a boon for the NDP. But it’s just as likely that if he won, he could become the ultimate “enfant terrible” in that caucus, which would be bad news for not just the party, but for Jagmeet Singh.
The one big question that makes me wonder why he’s taking this step now is “Why?”. The fact is that Avi has made it clear for the longest time that he had no interest in seeking office, even going as far as to say only five years ago that “I know what we do to these people and I wouldn’t relish being on the other side.” He of all people does know that firsthand, having witnessed it in his own family. So I am very curious as to why he’s doing this now and what’s changed his perspective on it. Yes, I admit that it always got under my skin that he would make such grand pronouncements of policy from the sidelines and refused to get in the fray, but I also respected why he wouldn’t.
So the answer to that question of “why now?” should go a long way to answering a lot of what we think might happen. Where Avi’s mind is at and what his motivations are will tell us what this is all about, and that will go a long way to telling us if this is everything or nothing. I’m more inclined to lean towards the “nothing” side because in order to make it more, you need to win. And while I’ve witnessed first-hand and come to deeply respect the campaign savvy and abilities of the Lewis family as a whole, this is a big, uphill challenge, even for them. We’ll see what comes of it but like many things to come so far in 2021, this isn’t one that many folks had on their bingo card.