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How the NDP got back in the groove

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Victoria — On May 17, 2001, the morning after the Liberal landslide annihilated the NDP, the losing party's provincial secretary, Ed Lavalle, woke up with the first sentence of a mission statement ready to write down.

''In a crowded globe, we need to treat each other better and we must take responsibility for each other," Mr. Lavalle remembers four years later.

"Then right away I thought: Our visions and our values are the things that are important to people and they shouldn't be diminished and threatened with becoming extinct."

It was an upbeat thought for a party official who recognized that the once-mighty NDP had sunk so low that things -- he hoped -- couldn't get any worse. On that morning, the threat of extinction for the party was real. After two consecutive terms in office and more than seven decades in B.C., the NDP had regressed to the point where it was uncertain if enough support remained to regroup and become a viable, political force once again in the province.

Four years later, the party can claim a victory -- a partial one at least -- in that effort. With early returns pointing to a significant improvement on the two seats taken in the 2001 blowout, Leader Carol James looks to have put the NDP back on the map. The question in the coming months will be: Can the party build on the momentum and pose a real challenge to the Liberals in 2009?

Getting to this point wasn't easy. The party had to rebuild from the ground up, bring in fresh blood, heal old party wounds and, with a modest tack to the centre, put itself back in the game. No one would have confidently predicted that back in the dark days of 2001.

Mr. Lavalle saw that his first responsibility was to write down a mission statement to give the party a new platform. The second and third tasks were to address how the NDP had failed so miserably.

In some ways, the disastrous outcome was a relief for front-line campaign workers such as Jim Rutkowski, who travelled with then-Premier Ujjal Dosanjh on the bus.

"It was an extremely difficult time to go through and we didn't have the intellectual energy to give the future of the party much thought," he said. "The defeat was so complete and absolute that after it was over, we had no choice but to go and start all over again from the beginning."

Doors slammed in Mr. Dosanjh's face while he was campaigning in 2001 and some campaign workers spent afternoons watching Oprah instead of venturing outside, where few voters welcomed anyone wearing an NDP button.

"It was ugly out there," said one volunteer who returned in 2005. There were some threads of optimism the NDP could cling to, despite the devastating results, says NDP strategist David Schreck. The turnout was healthy and, while the NDP won only two seats, the party received more than 20 per cent of the vote.

Mr. Schreck resigned from the premier's office in early 2001 after he said no one heeded his warnings that the party was heading for a massive loss in the spring election. But he was there, attending meets in the summer of that year, as the party began the painful process of rebuilding.

Everyone agreed it needed to change, but there was no consensus on how.

Then, the dawning realization in the weeks after the election of how deep Gordon Campbell's government planned to cut services helped act as a catalyst. Old party wounds dating back to the bitter leadership race after Glen Clark resigned in 1999, began to heal and by the end of May, the party's provincial council had a first draft of a plan.

Over the short term, the goal was to try to present some sort of meaningful opposition with just two MLAs -- Jenny Kwan and Joy MacPhail -- while the long-term plan was to rebuild the party as the only political vehicle in the province for democratic socialists. That meant discarding the idea of an alliance with the Green Party, which had split the left-of-centre vote, costing the NDP seats in a handful of ridings, including previous strongholds such as Vancouver Island and the Central Kootenays.

Cast into the political wilderness, NDP officials and party leaders sought audiences in small venues. In a speech at the NDP convention in late 2001, Ms. Kwan, the MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, told party stalwarts to focus on meetings of community centres and housing co-ops and environmentalist campaigns.

"In the House, we asked the questions that British Columbians were sending in to us by e-mail, by fax, by phone calls," Ms. Kwan said. "We tried to be an effective voice for people who wanted answers."

Every other week, Ms. Kwan and Ms. MacPhail, who had assumed the leadership of the party, took turns travelling around the province to listen to community groups.

By 2003, Nelson resident Alwine Braun was listening to the NDP with renewed interest. A health-care worker who had voted for the Green Party in 2001, Ms. Braun said the depth of cuts made by the Liberals left her stunned.

"I was one of the people who thought we needed to change," Ms. Braun said, "and I didn't realize how much I would be affected and how the people in my community would be hurt by the Liberals. I had changed and the NDP had changed. It was time to work with the NDP again."

When Ms. MacPhail said she would not seek the leadership of the party in 2003, there was a consensus that an outsider was needed to help the party distance itself from the NDP of the 1990s. A leadership convention was the perfect opportunity, said provincial secretary Gerry Scott, who took over in March of that year to rebuild membership. In 2001, the party had fallen to a low of 12,000 members, but that number doubled by 2003 after the election of Carole James, a former B.C. School Trustee president who narrowly lost her first provincial campaign for a seat.

Mr. Scott said the party now has about 40,000 members with many new members attracted to the more centrist NDP.

By the time of the decent showing by the federal NDP in 2004, the change within the party had become quite noticeable. It gained further momentum with a successful by-election that year.

"We felt we had some real momentum building by the by-election in 2004," Mr. Scott said. "It became the major event for us and we made significant effort there and took it very seriously."

For the by-election in Surrey-Panorama, the NDP went with a new face with Jagrup Brar as its candidate. The massive political machine the party had in the mid-1990s re-emerged.

On the day of that by-election, the NDP had more than 500 volunteers working to get voters to the polls, with the result that Mr. Brar won with 20 per cent more votes than the Liberal candidate.

That by-election win and the emergence of Ms. James as an unchallenged leader, gave the party a jolt of much-needed credence, said Allan Tupper, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia.

"They have the articulation of a policy platform and they have credible popular vote and an established, credible leader," Prof. Tupper said. "The question, however, remains of how resilient is this group."

For long-time New Democrat members such as Vancouver firefighter Rob McCurrach, the moderation of the party has been painful -- but not as painful as the changes his family has had to deal with over the past four years. Mr. McCurrach said his sister, a health-care worker, had her wages cut and that his elderly parents worry constantly about health care."

I'm a 30-year activist with this party and it was tough to see the NDP move to the centre, away from labour," he said. "But I've changed, and the province has changed. We can't go back to what things used to be."

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