The post-election NDP provincial council meeting is traditionally a polite, pro forma affair – no matter how disappointing the seat count.
As one losing candidate told me on the eve of the November 24 weekend council meeting at the U of T Residences on Chestnut. “We always say, ‘Let’s not blame anyone. We have momentum. Let’s move forward.’ ”
But the event came with some brutal honesty for leader Howard Hampton and bodes ill for his plan to take his sweet time in vacating the top spot he has occupied for a decade.
Candidates who gathered for the closed-door Friday-night debrief unleashed a torrent of criticism about ineffective strategy, lack of support from the central campaign and pointed questions about which ridings got priority billing and the precious resources that come with it.
When Hampton takes the podium after lunch on Saturday for his keynote address, there’s the obligatory standing ovation, but many in the ballroom take their time to stand, the disappointment a weight that makes it difficult to rise from their chairs.
Hampton begins this most anticipated speech with a litany of the obstacles the NDP faced in the campaign – not enough money, news media that ignored the party’s message and PC leader John Tory, who took the heat off the Liberals with his religious schools bid. Even in the best of circumstances, though, the NDP would have been losers, Hampton says. “The best the party hoped for was 30 seats. And that’s what we worked toward.”
But why didn’t the party shift gears when it was clear the campaign had stalled, some candidates asked during Friday’s meeting. Where was the Plan B?
“We had lots of plans,” Hampton says. “The problem was money.”
And so it goes for more than half an hour, with no prospect that things will change.
“It was a ridiculous speech,” one party operative tells me after Hampton’s address. “It blamed everyone expect him and his team.”
Indeed, Hampton gives every sign he would do it the same, were he to get the chance. “There are those who say we need to become an urban party or an environmental party,” he says. He doesn’t see any need for such out-of-the-box thinking, however.
“The historical base of this party is the social democratic base,” he says.
So it’s business as usual, with Hampton at the helm. He tells the crowd, “I’m not going anywhere.”
For some, it’s a little hard to take, among them Antoni Shelton, who ran unsuccessfully in York West and helped persuade other visible minority candidates to carry the NDP banner.
“We had many strong [visible minority] candidates, and they were running to win – one result of the heightened expectations going into the election,” Shelton says. “And when they don’t win, we have to deal with the fallout. Ten seats is not good enough.”
One of the issues that Shelton raised was the way in which priority ridings are decided and whether some extra effort should be made to put a little colour in the still all-white Queen’s Park caucus. When Hampton mentions Shelton in his speech, it’s in the context of bragging about the praise the Toronto Star gave the NDP’s transit-boosting platform for cities.
“I didn’t hear an answer there,” Shelton laments in an interview. Meanwhile, he worries that the party is losing some of its moral authority to speak out on minority issues when it’s the governing Liberals who are far more representative of Ontario.
There are those who are willing to give Hampton the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t think there’s any point in having a witch hunt,” says Mohamed Boudjenane, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation and candidate in Etobicoke North.
Boudjenane says he’s not sure anyone could have come up with a better seat count than Hampton, who lost nearly a dozen ridings by fewer than a thousand votes. “People did their best. Now we get ready for 2011.”
But many are far less forgiving. It’s not that anyone expects that Hampton plans to fight the next election. But says one party vet, “People were looking for a signal that renewal will begin. As it is, a certain sense of despair is setting in. People can only take so much of that before they start drifting away.”
Unlike the Liberals, NDPers are too nicey-nice to publicly turn on their leaders. “But he shouldn’t underestimate us,” says the veteran of many campaigns. “We’re not backstabbers, but the anger is there, and people are talking. And he should know that.”