The best way to understand how something works is to start looking at the point where it breaks down. So, right now, the by-election in Virginia Waters (and the PC leadership contest happening alongside it) gives us a pretty excellent place to start thinking about the state of party politics in Newfoundland and Labrador. Provincial political parties have been going through a metamorphosis over the last few months, and a symptom of this deeper dis-ordering was Twitter’s collective partisan meltdown directed at The Telegram’s James McLeod on Saturday.
I’ll breeze over the PC leadership race first, because it’s pretty straightforward – the battle is between two candidates intent on challenging the party’s record in government and one candidate who wants to celebrate it. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, Frank Coleman has the leadership on lockdown, almost solely because he’s the only candidate who hasn’t gone out of his way to actively alienate his voting base (whether or not championing the record of a government languishing at ~30% in the polls will win him a general election is another question entirely). Bill Barry, despite being easily the most genuinely interesting and disarmingly sincere candidate, has almost no chance of surviving even the first round of voting at the convention. Besides having declared war on most Tory loyalists and the entire sitting caucus, he’s also trying to win a members-only, delegated convention by focusing on issues and policy instead of digging into the Machiavellian bloodsport that is setting up favourable slates in district associations. It’s respectable in principle, but, tactically, running against the party stalwarts is misapplied given the structure of the current contest – it might have been a good move in a more open leadership format (e.g. what the Liberals did in 2013), but it won’t do much good for him here. The fact that Danny Williams has spoken out against him probably won’t help, either.
More interesting – for all the wrong reasons – is the strange odyssey of Wayne Ronald Bennett. If you’re a giant nerd like me, you might remember Bennett as a leader of the short-lived ‘Newfoundland and Labrador First Party‘, a nationalist party that lived briefly from 2006-2011 and collectively garnered about 0.01% of the popular vote in the 2008 federal election. Bennett’s campaign for the Premier’s Office has been, to put it (politely) in his own words, very ‘non-traditional’ – he launched his Twitter-centric leadership campaign on vacation in Cuba by endorsing Virginia Waters’ NDP hopeful Sheilagh O’Leary over and against his own party. Shortly thereafter he denounced the governing party he wanted to take over as more corrupt than Communist Cuba, and suggested Newfoundlanders should mimic the Cuban Revolution and throw off the shackles of some unnamed oppression.
Not, of course, that I have any problem with a provincial politician calling for a Marxist insurrection. But it seems a little out of place in a Tory leadership contest. And as it turns out, that’s one of the least outrageous things Bennett has said over the course of his brief but beautiful campaign. Bennett is allegedly the victim of a vast and murderous Tory conspiracy that has variously denied him a 42″ flatscreen television and half a decade of Christmas greetings. Literally everyone he interacts with on Twitter, apparently, is actually a PC operative out to destroy his credibility (unless proven innocent), in the same way that all Muslim women and children are probably suicide bombers. If (i.e. when) he’s booted from the leadership contest on grounds of racist tweets, he plans to take the party to the Supreme Court and eventually throw his support behind Barry, who would be well advised to preemptively disavow this entire trainwreck. All things considered, Bennett might have been better off if he’d stayed in Cuba and defected.
Ok, so, admittedly that’s less about understanding party politics and more about indulging our morbid voyeurism for Wayne Bennett’s ten thousand dollar public meltdown. The real story is the Virginia Waters by-election – the stakes are high for all contenders. The Tories need to hold it to prove that there’s still some energy left in an increasingly tired-looking government – especially in the wake of the latest broadly crowd-pleasing provincial budget. Conversely, the Liberals need to win it to solidify the momentum they’ve been garnering in the polls over the last few months – a loss now would be a serious hiccup on their way to winning government. And the NDP need to pull out a respectable showing simply to demonstrate that the party’s even still alive at all.
So in this vein, it was genuinely illuminating when a story broke in The Telegram that Danny Breen, PC candidate in Virginia Waters, signed up as a Liberal supporter in the 2013 leadership. This is interesting for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is that it raises a few deep questions about just how valuable the Liberals’ voter database really is – how many of the ‘supporters’ they signed up can they actually count on to support them on voting day? But many internet partisans seized on these revelations as proof that Breen is some kind of opportunistic monster with no real political allegiance. This is painfully ironic for any Liberal grabbing this as a talking point given that Cathy Bennett – Breen’s closest rival in Virginia Waters – was attacked during her leadership bid as a treacherous Fifth Columnist for past ties to the Tory government.
Of course, we could very well adopt a blanket cynicism here: maybe both Breen and Bennett – hell, all politicians – are just crass opportunists with no loyalties except the naked pursuit of political power. But I think a more generous (and accurate) reading of the situation is that both major political parties – Liberal and Progressive Conservative – are functionally interchangeable at an ideological level. It’s increasingly obvious – as the last few months of floor-crossing attests – that there really isn’t any substantive difference in worldview between the two parties that can’t be chalked up to an intense (and often irrational) brand loyalty.
(In this, there is some truth to the old Dipper adage that “Liberal, Tory, same old story.” The only real site of ideological disagreement in provincial politics is the NDP. But this represents less a principled stand by the Left as such than that party’s failure to adapt to contemporary conditions and articulate an opposition to the dominant (neo)liberal consensus that isn’t stuck in the 1970s. In this case, resolute loyalty to an outdated orthodoxy isn’t exactly a virtue – ditto allegiance to a leader who was willing to destroy her party than relinquish the reins of power. The NDP don’t need to force themselves onto the exact same ideological page as their opponents, but they may want to make sure they’re at least speaking in the same mother tongue.)
There’s something about the sort of frothing hyperpartisanship provoked by the Breen story that has always struck me (and many others) as palpably feigned – internet partisans doth protest too much. By their very nature, of course, public arguments between partisans are not really meant to change anyone’s mind about politics – if it happens, that’s just a bonus. They’re a form of posturing; performances meant to be noticed and ratified by the powers-that-be within the community of a given political party (and the spectacular media apparatus that sustains it). But the latest partisan performances in nlpoli, at their core, betray a primordial neurotic anxiety – these perverse preoccupations with party purity signify that, more than anything else, there’s really no substantive difference between Grit and Tory, Red and Blue.
The more loudly and aggressively they police their partisan boundaries, the more obvious it is how blurred those boundaries really are. On the road to political power, there are few wellsprings of energy and aggression as deep as ‘the narcissism of small differences’.