The big question facing the provincial New Democrats this morning is how do they get the toothpaste back in tube?
Leader Lorraine Michael, age 70, returned form a month long holiday in India on Sunday to a surprise e-mail from her caucus suggesting a leadership review in 2014 in preparation for the 2015 provincial election.
Michael is a genuine political icon in this province. Under her leadership the party won a historic 5 seats in the last provincial election – up from just one seat in the House of Assembly. In fact, the NDP’s share of the popular vote eclipsed the Official Opposition Liberals.
The former Roman Catholic nun, educator and social justice crusader replaced Jack Harris as leader in the Spring of 2006. In the Fall she was elected to the House of Assembly in Harris’s old seat of Signal Hill – Quidi Vidi, defeating Jerome Kennedy.
Over the past seven years she has earned the admiration of the province. She has been the most popular opposition leader in the country for years and has kept the NDP at 20% or above in the polls for the past 10 consecutive CRA polls. An Environics poll put the NDP in first place at 38%, ahead of the governing Conservatives.
In short, she has become a reverent fixture and powerhouse on the political landscape. St. Lorraine has bested premiers Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale and most of the government frontbench in debate. She is tough, feisty, cagey, intelligent and not one to be pushed around by anyone.
Michael feels betrayed and says her leadership has never come up as an issue in caucus or in discussions with the party’s executive. Her interview with CBC Journalist David Cochrane last evening was Michael at her best. She played the victim, extended her hand to a mediated settlement and painted the caucus as a bunch of spineless cowards that were afraid to face her in person. There was no indication of the iron lady that rules her caucus.
Brutus and the co-conspirators were left to wiggle, broadsided by the fact that the leader took a confidential letter from her caucus public. The letter was designed to set the stage for a discussion on her leadership, on preparing the party for the 2015 election. Instead the leader, feeling her back was against the wall came out swinging.
Any political pundit or New Democrat who can feign genuine surprise that the rank and file want a change is being disingenuous. As great as her accomplishments as leader have been, members of the party and the public know that the party has grown as much as it can under the current leadership.
It has been obvious for some time that a change in leadership was necessary to propel the New Democrats through the glass ceiling of rural Newfoundland and Labrador. The revival of the Liberal Party means the free lunch is over.
She leads a youthful caucus, Gerry Rogers was born in 1964, Dale Kirby was born in 1971, Christopher Mitchelmore was born in 1985 and George Murphy was born in 1963. Than means the average age of the NDP caucus is just 42. Micheal’s health and age had been the topic of concern leading into the last provincial election. Is Micheal more out of step with her caucus than those of us on the outside might have known? Is she out of step with the progressives within her own party?
As a political observer, I have certainly felt the New Democrats would have a new leader before the next election. It was a question of how, when, and who would succeed Michael and build on her great success.
The challenge facing the caucus was that no-one appeared prepared to share those observations with the leader, who was doubling-up her resolve to stay put and lead her party to the promised land in 2015.
The timing of the letter and hopefully a frank, private discussion with the leader was strategic. The caucus wanted to have the thorny issue of the leadership resolved prior to the 2015 election.
No one was more surprised than the caucus to learn the letter was in the public domain. The letter was a private correspondence with the leader from caucus. It should have remained private. The caucus did not meet in her absence and pass a non-confidence motion. They brought their concerns to the leader. The public relations nightmare that has enveloped the party is not the way any New Democrat would have liked for this conversation to happen. However, survival instincts have trumped concern about the party’s political currency.
The damage to the NDP’s brand is the result of this heads-up letter making its way into the public domain. This is an undisciplined grasp to hold onto power that may result in the destruction of every single gain made under her leadership. I sense a bit of “I built this party and I can undo it” in this public approach. There is an obsessive ego at play here that is putting herself ahead of the party.
This is not a revolt, it was a request for a dialogue.
The damage is done, the NDP would do well to look at the Liberal and PC Parties experiences in regicide. Joey’s refusal to leave left his party in the political wilderness for nearly two decades. The P.C’s 1997 caucus revolt against Lyn Verge soured the public and painted a picture of disunity and distain.
The other example that comes to mind is the 1987 rebellion of the 14 member Liberal Caucus against Leo Barry. Like Michael, Leo returned from a holiday to a letter from his caucus demanding a leadership review.(he had just won a convincing leadership review at the Liberal Party AGM)
Barry had brought the Liberals out of the political wilderness in the 1985 provincial election increasing the opposition party’s presence in the House of Assembly from 4 to 15. Like Michael he took his case to the media believing the grassroots of the party would put the caucus in its place. The end result of that process saw Barry resign as a leadership candidate and leader of the party. Clyde Wells was elected leader. He build on Barry’s 1985 gains to bring the Liberals back to power in the 1989 election.
It is time to select a new leader and move forward on the strong principles that have made the NDP the alternative to the Liberals
If the NDP hope to become the Official Opposition or form a government, it is time for change, new energy and to prepare for 2015.