Is Vancouver's NPA party ready to rebuild? Not likely

Post by Daniel Fontaine in ,



I realize this editorial won't make me popular with some folks within the Vancouver Non-Partisan Association (NPA), but I think the time may have come for them to retire their brand. After a disastrous showing in the recent civic election, and a very divisive leadership battle in 2002 and earlier this spring, the NPA brand is severely tarnished -- perhaps beyond repair.

Over the last three years, while the opposition Vision party was busy building grassroots support throughout the city, the NPA failed to realize that it needed to grow its base. In plain English, they've lost their way and appear more focused on managing the repercussions of internal warfare than putting forward a reputable slate of candidates.

It's 2008 and the NPA still refuses to hold any real policy forums or roundtable discussions to engage Vancouverites. They also seem oblivious to the importance of undertaking social media or communications campaigns that could help to attract voters under the age of 50.

Someone has to tell them this is not 1968. Pierre Trudeau is dead, we've invented the internet and the President of the United States is now a black man from Illinois.

The NPA simply can't rely on the tired and worn-out mantra that the socialist hoards are at the city gates and vote for us to prevent them from taking power. As you can see, enough voters thought the socialists were well suited to govern and they gave them an overwhelming majority on council.

It was clear to me in the last election the NPA seemed focused on retrenching back to their cozy West Side roots. Yes, it's their "core" vote, but the new political reality is they can't solely rely on these voters if they want to get elected in a rapidly growing culturally diverse city. That's especially true when you consider exit polls indicated voters of Chinese and South Asian descent, both strong supporters of the NPA in 2005, abandoned them in droves. The power of the city it seems is shifting east, with West Side real estate out of reach for today's middle class.

If the NPA party is truly interested in rebuilding and reaching out, I don't see any sign of it.

Take for example their first decision after the election. They announced that their AGM will take place on December 29th. That's a great outreach strategy if you want to sell egg nog, not rebuild a political group. Hold your first important meeting when most of your membership are out of town celebrating the holidays.

It appears there will be a number of new NPA Board directors elected that night. This new board will be there to guide the future of the NPA leading up to the next civic election. I predict that less than 200 voting delegates will be on-hand to determine the future of the NPA. This is a poor showing when you consider the membership of the party sits at around 5000 people.

The real question remains whether popular NPA councillor Suzanne Anton will have the stomach to stick around with whomever gets the crown on the 29th. I think she should observe from a distance and assess what rises from the ashes. If it looks like the new board is unwilling to do what it takes to renew the party, I wouldn't blame Anton a bit if she looked at all her options.

One of those options would be to pack up her bags (and the 55,000 votes she received) and start up a new truly centrist civic party in Vancouver, not beholden to labour groups or outside interests. A party that is socially progressive and fiscally conservative while remaining committed to putting Vancouver's interests above partisan politics. It would be a lot of work, but she only need look at how successful Mayor Dianne Watts has been in Surrey to understand what is possible.

If the NPA were truly interested in rebuilding and getting re-elected in 2011, here are a few things they would have already put on their to do list:

  • Immediately appoint a Renewal and Outreach Committee made up of some of Vancouver's community leaders from every neighbourhood in the city. Have this committee hold a series of townhall style forums throughout Vancouver. Be prepared to listen.
  • Reach out to the moderate left in Vancouver and begin recruiting a truly non-partisan slate of candidates and directors.
  • Re-build frayed relations with both Tory and Liberal aparatchiks.
  • Commit to working cooperatively with Anton & other caucus members, and offer them all the support and resources they can muster.
  • Announce a special members forum to determine if the NPA membership actually sees a future for the association. If the answer is yes, listen to their ideas and get moving on implementing them well before the election.
  • Hire a full-time Executive Director with expertise in change management, marketing and communications.
  • Design and implement strategies that are focused on the long-term, not simply winning the next election.
  • Begin calling themselves a political party and start acting like one.

If they look back at the last three years, the NPA could learn a lot from their Vision Vancouver colleagues regarding what it takes to win an election. I'm just not convinced they're ready to do that.

For that reason, I think the immediate future of Vancouver's NPA remains bleak.

Others are weighing in, as are these blog commenters. What do you think?


Good for you Daniel for asking the tough questions about the party you have supported.

If it's any condolence for the NPA faithful, I remember being around in the 1996 election where COPE failed to win one single seat!

But by 2002 COPE took every single seat it contested - and only failed to sweep because it didn't nominate a full slate. The 2005 results were close and now in 2008 Vision & COPE came close to a sweep again.

It shows that the electorate is volatile after decades of sleepiness under mostly NPA administrations - and that's why your advice is spot on - no one is going to win an election with old-style approaches.

While I certainly don't wish the NPA good luck, your advice is what they need to get out of denial and back in the game.

One last comment - a December 29 NPA Annual General Meeting? Are they totally insane or are they holding it in Maui, where there will be more NPA members than at a Vancouver AGM?

A good first step for the NPA would be to reschedule for the new year - what a joke otherwise.

Speaking of which, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to CityCaucus and its readers - I look forward to following your coverage and commenting in the year ahead!

How can you predict doom and gloom before a new board has even been elected and given some time to formulate a new plan forward? That's not going to be done BEFORE the AGM, or immediately after. The "TO-DO" list will be created by the new board, that's not something the current board is going to tackle before an AGM.

The AGM had to be held before the end of the year, hence the date of it. It is a stupid date, but, the NPA is only a shell of it's former self right now, so, who cares! Besides, this was scheduled by the current Board, not the new incoming Board.

Starting a new political party is the worse idea you offer, as it would take many years to build it up and gain exposure. While the NPA brand has been tarnished, it's still a recognizable brand that can be cleaned up with a better board, better platform and a great group of candidates. You also assume Vision isn't going to make any major blunders over the next 3 years, yet they already have.

So, unless you have a magical crystal ball, you can't predict what will happen in the future, or blame a board that doesn't exist yet for things it hasn't done yet. You just may have to eat your words.

I agree with most of what you say, Daniel, about needing to rebuild. I don't agree with retiring the brand. The NPA has encountered storms like the 2008 election before and lived to hail many more successes. Since it's inception it has been the preferred party of choice far more often than any other civic party. Who knows about Visions future. Could be just another flash in the pan like TEAM.
In fact, the NPA brand is very worthy. The snag has been in not being true to the brand. Much of what you suggest would implement a truly non-partisan approach, beholden to neither labour lords nor developers. I think Michael Geller makes some very good suggestions for a new approach as well.
I wouldn't be concerned with less than 200 attending the AGM. Few mid term AGMs get anywhere near that number. The more significant number is a membership of 5000. Few civic parties can boast that amount of support.
I also would discourage Anton from abandoning ship and forming a new party. It is much harder than it sounds and would only divide the vote - as Green/Cope/NDP have done for most of the last century.
I believe voters do want a non-partisan approach that considers first and foremost what is best for Vancouverites. The NPA is well situated to deliver. But there definitely is a need to get down to seriously delivering it.
Lynne Kent

"Begin calling themselves a political party and start acting like one."

Daniel, could you explain this point a bit more?

Good post, Daniel. I'm a Vision supporter but having no opposition isn't good for anybody. The NPA's gotta figure it out. Get some policy and engage people. At least let me know what you stand for so I'll have a clear reason not to vote for you. (But wait, maybe you'll show me you're worth voting for!) I'm a geek for city politics and I still have no idea what Ladner and the NPA had as a platform for last month's election.

It was pathetic to see the NPA try to dismiss Vision's momentum, saying things like it was the lack of a membership fee that made Vision popular. Right, the reason why people were into Vision was because it was easy to sign up.

No one has the monopoly on good ideas. Capture the public imagination by being open and accessible, and work with the community to build a compelling policy agenda. Drop the assumption you are Vancouver's natural governing party. Do this and you'll have a competitive party.

The NPA stands for the Non-Partisan Association. They pride themselves on not being a political "party", but rather an "association". The NPA's original sole purpose was to find good candidates to put up as part of a slate. That's it.

That said, in recent times, there has been lots of internal discussion regarding whether the NPA should have formal policies, hire political staff, issue media releases, do regular polling etc...The kind of things that other political organizations simply do as part of their day-to-day activities. That debate is ongoing.

It should be noted that many folks in the NPA still believe the association should fold its tent after each civic election and simply re-open the campaign office three years later.

I believe that Vancouver voters see the NPA as a political party, however, it currently has no real mechanisms to act like one. Hope that sheds a bit more light on my comment.

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