The New Democratic Party’s political boat is listing today with the announcement by Vancouver East MP Libby Davies that she will not seek re-election in 2015. Her departure from the caucus will not only put in play one of the most secure NDP seats in the country, but more importantly will leave a gaping hole on the portside of the party.
There will be speculation about political reasons for her decision, coming after other strong women progressives in the NDP caucus, Jean Crowder and Chris Charlton, announced their retirements as well. But Davies is not stepping down because of politics. She is easily the most highly respected and influential politician on the left of Canadian politics and was certain to play a large role in the next Parliament, regardless of where the NDP is sitting.
Her announcement comes in the wake of a personal triumph in last week’s unanimous vote of the House to support her motion for compensation and justice for victims of thalidomide. It was a rare accomplishment that speaks strongly to her stature and political skills after 18 years in Parliament, eight years as House Leader and seven years as Deputy Leader of the NDP.
Libby Davies’ leadership role in the NDP has a special kind of credibility because it was never gifted to her by the party. She won the Vancouver East nomination in its largest-ever nomination meeting at the PNE Exhibition Gardens by just 26 votes over Rocco Di Trolio, who represented mainstream NDP views and Italian community credentials.
Davies, on the other hand, had been a COPE City Councillor, elected to Council in 1982 from a labour-community base largely outside the NDP, which ran its own separate candidates.
She represented the organizing and advocacy of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, which she helped found with her husband and political partner, Bruce Eriksen and legendary anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson. It was a street-politics that the politicians were largely oblivious of; but it was all too real to the residents of the Downtown Eastside, and they have given her unwavering support throughout her career.
Davies began politics as a City Council candidate at the age of 23 with COPE. She was elected four years later to the Park Board and then City Council — a rising star among Vancouver’s labour left leaders who included Harry Rankin, Bruce Yorke and Vancouver Labour Council President Frank Kennedy. In its prime, COPE mastered a community based, socialist politics that was exceptional in Canadian municipal affairs. It stood out for its success — out-voting Vancouver’s business coalitions and various NDP civic formations for almost two decades.
Once in Parliament, Davies carried those traditions forward as critic and campaigner on poverty, housing and women’s issues. She became a national figure through two national tours on housing and homelessness in 1998 and 2001. Then, in 2003 she was a national voice of support for harm reduction and for the first safe injection site in Canada. She received the Justice Gerald LeDain Award for Achievement in the Field of Law for her work on drug policy reform. She was the first MP to raise the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Parliament. In 2003, she won support for an all-party committee which later produced a report on the health and safety of sex workers.
In her early years as an MP, Davies worked closely with firebrand socialist Svend Robinson who had run for party leader in 1995. In 2001, Davies and Robinson were the primary NDP caucus supporters of the “New Politics Initiative” (NPI) that endeavoured to reenergize the party with social movement politics and a turn to the left in policy. The NPI stood in stark contrast to the “Third Way” NDP politics, advocated by many, to take the party down a “Blairist” road by signing on to much of the neoliberal economics and social policy of the last 20 years.
Jack Layton was not formally associated with the NPI, but his candidacy for leader in 2002 was seen as an expression of the NPI, especially in relation to his chief challenger and perceived front runner, Winnipeg MP Bill Blaikie. Blaikie’s bombastic anti-NPI speech at the 2003 NDP convention was crucial to its defeat. Davies was an early and prominent supporter of Layton, who immediately appointed her House Leader. In that role, Davies brokered, from the 2004 Paul Martin government, the “NDP budget” with $4.6 billion for social programs.
There are many reasons for the Orange Wave in 2011, but certainly one important factor was the performance of the NDP as the unofficial opposition in Davies’ years as House Leader.
The devastating results of Third Way politics for European social democrats, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, were largely avoided in Canada, and Davies played no small role in anchoring the party when the tide seemed to be heading in that direction.
She did not win every debate, nor did Libby Davies ultimately determine the NDP’s course. The NDP’s abandonment of policy and support for Conservative measures on minimum sentencing and some other crime bills came over her objections. Her principled positions on Palestinian rights made her the target of vitriol from inside and outside the party. She was sometimes a minority voice on strategic matters and twice chose not to run for leader.
Nevertheless, Tom Mulcair accepted the party leadership in 2012 with an almost simultaneous announcement — and reassurance to the activist base of the party — that Libby Davies would remain as Deputy Leader. By most accounts, Tom Mulcair has come to rely on her almost as much as did Layton. Someone to bring a big message to a labour convention or a skeptical audience? Someone to handle national media and complicated politics without a briefing book? She is one of the few who can do it day in and day out.
It is hard to see where that reassurance and voice for social change politics will come from now. It is a special mix of social movement skills, class and power analysis along with principle that makes it possible for a grassroots leader to play successfully at the top of politics without distancing themselves from the values and struggles that launched them into politics. These are not the primary characteristics that parties are looking for these days when they seek out candidates.
The anguish now in Vancouver East will be over finding a fitting successor and the old false choices between community struggles, social change politics and perceived electability. These will not be easy decisions, for even after Libby Davies’ 18 years as MP (almost matching CCF/NDP MP Harold Winch’s 19 years of tenure), at the next election the NDP does not own Vancouver East. The Liberals have won the riding twice, including the election before Davies’ win in 1997.
It is a safe forecast that without Libby Davies, Parliament and the NDP will list to starboard and tend to drag anchor when the winds blow. Her departure creates a vacancy for someone who might step up to articulate and champion a progressive, value-driven course for the NDP and the progressive movement beyond. More likely, it will be a season or two before another tested, principled leader of her kind will emerge out of community and labour struggles.
Fred Wilson is Director of Strategic Planning at Unifor. He is a volunteer Board member of the Council of Canadians and rabble.