Courage at the NDP convention

Courage at the NDP convention

by loljapes

One of the bigger socialist organizations in Canada at the moment is Courage Coalition. Courage bills itself as a “coalition of the independent left”, although in reality the bulk of its activism work is done within the NDP. At the last NDP convention in 2018 Courage managed to get 3 of its prioritized resolutions passed, so, going into the 2021 NDP convention, hopes were high that Courage would be able to push NDP policy positions in a socialist direction.

Before appraising Courage’s efforts, it’s worth spending some time discussing the omnishambles that was the 2021 NDP convention. It’s been three years since the last party convention, meaning that even before the event began the NDP was technically in breach of its own constitution, which required conventions to be held every two years.* If the delay in holding the convention was the only issue, it could perhaps be forgiven as an unfortunate necessity of the COVID pandemic. However, there were a host of other organizational and technical issues that continued to plague the convention throughout the course of its three-day run.

The convention was hosted virtually, meaning participants had to join an online video call to attend. However, the organizers had not arranged closed-captioning or sign language interpreters, meaning hearing impaired delegates had no way of following the course of events. Furthermore, the process of addressing the convention during the resolution debates was fatally flawed. Delegates wishing to speak on a given resolution were required to enter a virtual ‘PRO’ or ‘CON’ lobby, which took them out of the main convention session. Once a person entered these lobbies there was no easy way for them to follow the course of the convention debate. This led multiple times to speakers being called from the lobby by the convention chair, only to raise a point that had already been addressed, or to make an amendment to a resolution that had already been passed. Playing by Robert’s Rules is taxing at the best of times, the NDP convention somehow found a way to make the process even more tortuous by essentially adding input lag to the equation.

In addition to the purely technical inconveniences, there were others flaws in the convention structure that seem more deliberate. Resolutions were divided into seven topic blocks, with a ranked-choice vote by delegates determining the order resolutions would be debated in. Each policy block was only only given 45 minutes of debate to get through resolutions, and each speaker called by the chair was given three minutes speaking time (this was reduced to two minutes on day two of the convention because of how much time it was eating up). This meant that during most blocks only the two highest-prioritized resolutions made it to the floor for debate. This was a contrast to the 2018 convention, which managed to get through about five resolutions per block. It’s rare for radical resolutions to rank in the top two spots, and resolutions that don’t get voted on at convention are very unlikely to make it into the policy book, so constraining the time for debate dramatically curtailed the scope of resolutions that could get passed. Furthermore, the process for determining which delegates were called to speak from the PRO and CON lobbies was opaque, meaning that favored delegates were sometimes called to speak multiple times while others had no opportunity to speak at all.

Despite these frustrations, Courage did an admirable job organizing for the NDP convention. During the convention, Courage used a Discord server to coordinate delegates from across Canada. The server was relatively active and regularly had over 100 people online when the convention was in session. During the policy blocks, Courage members on the Discord were rapidly drafting statements for any members who got called by the chair to speak, this gave inexperienced delegates confidence to enter the lobbies knowing that they would be saying the right thing, and was doubly important given the problems with the lobby system discussed above.

However, for all this coordination, Courage’s efforts at the convention were ultimately hamstrung by their inability to get resolutions ranked high enough to be brought to debate. Courage formally endorsed between five-to-seven resolutions in each block, but of the 40 resolutions endorsed by Courage, only 2 ended up being debated on; ‘Justice and peace in Israel-Palestine’ (ranked 2nd in block 4) and ‘Clean Water in Indigenous Communities’ (ranked 1st in block 6). Because both of these resolutions achieved very high scores in the delegate vote, it’s almost certain they would have achieved exactly the same ranking even if Courage hadn’t supported them. In fact, it seems that despite the active Discord server, the number of delegates who voted the Courage ‘party line’ was likely in the low tens.** If Courage wants to make a greater impact at future NDP conventions, it simply has to get better at getting its favored resolutions to the front of the queue.

Some of Courage’s woes at this convention can be chalked up to the virtual format of the event. Small groups like Courage depend on persuasion of non-aligned delegates and coalition building with other groups — an online event obviously gets in the way of those sorts of dynamics. Furthermore, the clunky way delegates were called to speak gave the chair even more power than usual to shape the proceedings. Going forward, Courage would be wise to resist the regularization of online conventions. Whatever gains are made in the way of ‘access’ are more than offset by the increase in the ability of convention organizers to sideline quarrelsome groups like Courage. That being said, the best way Courage can hope to make a greater impact at future conventions is by bringing more people. The top ranked resolutions in each block at this convention achieved scores between 6000 and 9000. Any organization that managed to bring 300 delegates to the convention would command 3000 points for its highest ranked resolutions, and would likely be able to bring any resolution it wanted to debate. The difference between 100 people in a Discord server and 300 organized delegates at convention is the difference between an activist group and an actual movement. I, for one, hope Courage is able to make the transition from the former to the latter.

* One of the resolutions passed at this year’s convention (07-03-20 - Empowering Federal Council to postpone federal convention) loosened the requirement to hold conventions every two years, allowing the Federal Council to postpone conventions by 12 months in the event of ‘extenuating circumstances’

** Courage endorsed resolution 06-24-30 - Gender affirming healthcare as its third highest priority resolution in block 6. This resolution did not rank in the top 20 for this block. The 20th resolution in block 6 (06-40-20 - Creation of a National Registry for Artificial Intelligence Control Devices) achieved a score of 423. If you assume that: (1) The Courage resolution 06-24-30 got a score of one less than the 20th resolution (i.e. 422), (2) Resolution 06-24-30 only received votes from Courage delegates and (3) Every Courage delegate ranked the resolution in third highest priority for this block. You conclude that the highest possible number of Courage delegates was 422/8 = 52.8. Obviously the true number of delegates who voted for the Courage-endorsed slate is likely a lot lower.


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