Anjali Appdurai hosting a Tedx Anjali Appdurai hosting a Tedx, Source: Treehouse Institute - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / license linked below

The pattern of vicious attacks on left challenges to social-democratic leaderships continues in British Columbia, Canada, argues John Clarke

In British Columbia, where the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) forms the provincial government, the party establishment has taken ruthless and decisive action to protect its role as an enabler of fossil-fuel interests by disqualifying leadership contender Anjali Appadurai, a noted environmentalist, from the party’s leadership race.

The blocking of Appadurai cleared the way for the coronation of former BC attorney-general and housing minister, David Eby, as the new party leader. Obviously aware that the tactics employed to move him into his new position will leave a very nasty taste, Eby tried to sound conciliatory and impeccably progressive as he set out his plans.

‘British Columbians are seeing some of the most dramatic climate impacts in all of Canada, and that’s why I think there’s so much support for us being leaders on this issue’, Eby declared. However, his own track record with regard to ‘climate impacts’ is a good reason to take these fine words with a generous pinch of salt.

Fossil-fuel interests

Anjali Appadurai has a well established reputation on environmental issues going back to her role as a youth delegate at the UN Climate Summit in Durban in 2011. The powerful speech she delivered at that time focused attention on her as an activist. In running for leadership of the BC NDP, she was advocating a change of course that would have set the party and the representatives of fossil-fuel capitalism at odds. Such a challenge to a long-standing record of collaboration with these interests was simply intolerable in the eyes of the party establishment.

The BC NDP’s provincial executive voted to disqualify Appadurai on 19 October, based on a report issued by chief electoral officer Elizabeth Cull, who has herself functioned as a lobbyist for natural-gas interests. The report put forward allegations of ‘serious improper conduct’ during Appadurai’s leadership campaign, and charged co-ordination with environmental groups that ‘conducted membership drives on [Appadurai’s] behalf.’ It also asserted that ‘individuals were being encouraged by these same third party organizations as well as by individuals to fraudulently join the BC NDP despite being members or supporters of other political parties.’

Responding to the allegations, Appadurai ‘accused the party of applying a “secret” definition of what a “supporter” of another party actually means, suggesting that some of those deemed ineligible to hold NDP membership were not formally associated with any other party.’ She added, quite plausibly, that: ‘There is nothing wrong when someone joins our party from another one, hoping that under new leadership the party will embrace a more ambitious direction.’

 Appadurai also suggested that she was facing ‘an absurd narrative … about a Green Party “hostile takeover”, in order to justify an aggressive attempt to define membership qualification in the most extreme and exclusionary way.’ She noted that the CEO published a bulletin during the campaign ‘purporting to make campaigns responsible for what third parties do during leadership races’, and then applied the dictate retroactively in order to establish a case.

The main environmental group that was accused of improper conduct issued a statement expressing its outrage at the accusations. This included the observation that: ‘The B.C. NDP has decided to attack Dogwood, the climate movement, and their own members. The people who control this party are terrified of grassroots democracy, because it threatens the status quo.’ Appadurai noted that: ‘3,500 New Democrats and others across B.C. and beyond have emailed the BC NDP executive to speak up against this unjust disqualification and to take a stand for the soul of the party.’

There can be no doubt that Appadurai’s campaign generated considerable momentum. She may ‘have signed as many as 13,000 new members to Eby’s 4,000’ in a situation where party membership had fallen from a previous high of 40,000 to a mere 11,000. Threatened with a rejuvenated party base and a leadership contender with a serious history of environmental activism, ‘Party officials and a network of allied operatives kicked into gear,’ in an effort to ensure that a free and fair vote for leader would never take place.

The hostility of the party leadership to Appadurai’s leadership bid is not hard to understand. Governing a province with an economy so firmly based on fossil fuels and extractive industries, the BC NDP has a well-established history of serving those interests. This has also involved ‘obstructive tactics (within the NDP) to prevent an open debate’ on the party’s dismal environmental record.

It should be noted that Eby had particularly compelling reasons to favour ‘obstructive tactics’. As attorney-general, he had been a key figure in both police operations and criminal prosecutions directed against Indigenous land defenders and environmental activists who challenged climate vandalism and other destructive activities by major companies. As recently as this June, a protest at his constituency office demanded that he ‘drop criminal charges against Wet’suwet’en land defenders’ challenging a pipeline being driven through their traditional territory.

Peace with capitalism

There is no doubt that the NDP leadership in BC was fully aware that their display of political gangsterism, in smoothing the way for Eby, would come at a price. A major section of the party’s base is deeply upset and their already shaky progressive credentials have been damaged further. It is equally clear, however, that they were fully prepared to pay that price and this, in turn, raises some important questions about the role of social-democratic parties at the present time.

The antics of the NDP establishment in BC invite comparisons with the conduct of their counterparts inside the British Labour Party in defeating Corbyn and subduing the left. Indeed, the same fundamental political considerations are at work in both cases. Social-democratic parties generally position themselves to the left of conservative and liberal parties. They form alliances with trade unions and social movements, and express working-class grievances to a limited degree. They also, however, especially when in government, make their peace with the capitalist class and accept the limitations that come with this.

This contradiction between serving the needs of capitalism and responding to the aspirations of their political base is far sharper today than in the past. Working-class people want relief in the face of the present cost-of-living crisis, but employers want to restore profitability by driving down living standards. The climate crisis demands timely measures to reduce emissions massively, but fossil-fuel capitalism is at odds with such a course of action.

The conclusion that we must draw in this situation is that social-democratic parties, though they may duck and weave, are fundamentally not going to challenge capitalist interests, however much they might risk alienating their base of support. Just as critically, the apparatus within these parties sees any serious left challenge from within their own ranks as a deadly threat, to be defeated at all costs.

They will, of course, argue that their ‘moderate’ approach is all about winning elections, but that is far from the key question. Appadurai was bringing considerable new life into the tired ranks of the BC NDP, but she was doing so on a basis that threatened the more than cosy relations between the party leadership and the oil and gas companies. Along the same lines, it is well known that Labour Party officialdom was horrified that electoral gains were made under Jeremy Corbyn, in 2017. The problem wasn’t that he was unelectable but that he came too close to winning.

For people like David Eby or Keir Starmer, winning elections is a very important objective, but ensuring that the parties they lead operate within a political consensus that is acceptable to their respective ruling classes is an even more vital consideration. If it comes down to it, they would rather stay on the opposition benches than see their parties transformed by a wave of new members and leadership contenders that actually want to challenge capitalism.

We should be supportive of serious left challenges within social-democratic parties, but we should do so without illusions. The defeat of the Corbyn project and the crushing of Anjali Appadurai’s leadership bid in BC are both indications of the limitations of the effort to revive these parties. Certainly, the building of movements on the picket lines and in the streets, and the political developments that can come with this, offer much greater possibilities for us at this extraordinary time.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.