Pageantry and democracy

I expect a lot of my friends are in Toronto, being part of choosing the next NDP leader. I was following the theatre and speeches of the seven candidates on Twitter this afternoon and I must say I had mixed feelings. Mostly about pageantry, ceremony and its role in politics.

I expect a lot of my friends are in Toronto, being part of choosing the next NDP leader. I was following the theatre and speeches of the seven candidates on Twitter this afternoon and I must say I had mixed feelings. Mostly about pageantry, ceremony and its role in politics.

See, I mostly hate it. I know it’s effective and can really provoke an emotional reaction in people that motivates them and gets them excited and that helps make a movement. But to me meetings and conventions are mostly about making decisions. The real work is what comes after. The more hype and energy we put into the big meeting, the less time and energy we have to discuss and make the decisions, to say nothing of getting down to business the day after convention closes.

I realize that puts me near ‘Maoist guerrilla’ on the leftist ascetic scale. But allow me to be a curmudgeon for a few more sentences before I go argue the other side of the issue. Because I have thoughts that way too.

There are around 4,600 people present at the Toronto convention centre. The Toronto Star’s Joanna Smith reported that around 50,000 people have voted either online or mail-in. Some of them have even cast their preferential ballots as well. So technically, the voters at the convention centre are statistically significant, but will they change the outcome of the vote? I wager not.

And yet they’ll be there for the next few days, camping and decamping, wearing lots of buttons, special shirts, cheering like lunatics and doing all those conventiony things. For what, exactly?

I think it’s mostly for the spectacle of it.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t blame the NDP for putting together the trappings of an old fashioned convention even when the real decision is being made by people across the country. It’s great political theatre capping the longest (and possibly most effective) membership drive and organization/party building exercise in this country’s recent history.

I think it’s genius. But honestly, I wish politics weren’t done that way.

On the other hand I do think any group of people seeking to work together and make sacrifices for a cause needs to tend to their morale and this sort of pageantry does have a place in social change movements.

When I started working at CUPW their conventions were notoriously fun-free zones. There was no official levity at all. Instead, parties were organized privately and mostly just contributed to fractiousness and rancor within the union. One convention saw a region establish what delegates referred to as a hostility suite.

It did change – slowly. One year, the National Secretary Treasurer raised many eyebrows when he (I expect at the last minute and without a lot of support) booked a ballroom at the hotel for a “social event”. But either there was no time or no money approved for anything else so everyone filed in to this fully lit room with bare folding tables arrayed at intervals and a standard mobile cash bar deployed at the far end.

Some inquiries were made as to the possibility of ‘music’ and the hotel manager dispatched staff to the stores to retrieve a spare standard issue clock radio. The highly innovative if materially limited staff then plugged it in and turned it on underneath the mobile podium microphone and attempted to locate a station that played that ‘rock and roll music’.

So that went well.

But three years later the union did throw a proper party to celebrate the anniversary of the 1965 strike that turned the organization into a real union. With a band, lighting and everything. And delegates genuinely felt a lot better about the union and their comrade delegates from regions that they were supposed to hate. People cooperated, trusted and worked together in ways they hadn’t before.

Which I think is what you want.

In any case, I wish the next NDP leader and all the people who give of their time and energy for the party the best of luck – over the next few days, to be sure, but mostly over the next three years.

One comment

  1. If I could have made a decision early enough, I would have voted well in advance so as to avoid decisions based on pagentry. Speaking from experience, making decisions on a convention floor isn’t wise. You have no perspective.

    Loved the CUPW stories.

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