Having entered the race to become the next leader of British Columbia’s governing New Democratic Party (NDP) as a long-shot candidate last month, climate activist Anjali Appadurai now looks increasingly competitive. A source with close knowledge of both campaigns says that Appadurai’s presence in the race has the party establishment “genuinely fucking scared.”
NDP brass are hell-bent on disqualifying Appadurai’s campaign and corporate media is happy to amplify baseless attacks against her. Reports are circulating that Appadurai has signed up many more members for the party than her competitor David Eby — whose status-quo bid for the premiership initially looked more like a road to a coronation than a contest. Appadurai is facing trumped-up allegations of campaign finance violations and unfounded accusations of attempting a “hostile takeover” of the party. The allegations are ugly but have so far failed to weaken the grassroots momentum behind Appadurai.
“There was a point at which, I’m not gonna lie, the pressure built to a real frenzy,” Appadurai told Jacobin. However, she remains determined to continue fighting as a voice for the social movements that have converged around her campaign, which filed its official paperwork on September 29.
“As long as I keep it focused on the movement and the reason behind it, [the party establishment] can do whatever it wants,” she says, adding that attempts to disqualify her leadership bid are symptomatic of a frightened party establishment.
“It’s looking for anything because it sees its own centralized power threatened.”
In the past month, unproven allegations of campaign rule violations have been leveled against Appadurai and an environmental group that is encouraging its members to get involved in the leadership race. The first allegation, which the party is investigating, concerns a September 4 online fundraising event during which an Appadurai supporter offered to pay the $10 party membership fee for those who couldn’t afford it — which would violate NDP rules. Appadurai did not immediately interrupt the supporter to correct their mistake but is clear that the supporter did not end up buying any memberships for others.
“That sort of misstep on my part would have been, I think, in any other circumstance, a slap on the wrist at most,” says Appadurai. “The story about these allegations has been blown up to proportions that it wouldn’t have been if we didn’t hold the power of these membership sign-ups.”
A separate investigation concerns the climate justice group Dogwood BC, which is encouraging its members to join the BC NDP and vote in the leadership contest based on each contender’s readiness to adequately address the climate emergency. Despite not endorsing any candidate — and getting the go-ahead for its strategy from Elections BC before the leadership race even began — the group is being accused of making a “political contribution” in violation of election laws. Dogwood insists no rules were broken.
Kai Nagata, Dogwood’s campaigns director, told Jacobin that the group — along with many other third-party organizations throughout the province — has for over a decade openly talked about political leadership races as opportunities for citizens to help shape political policy. The tactics it is employing in this race, Nagata says, are nothing new.
“We think that these contests should be as open and democratic as possible,” he explained. “People, especially youth who have to live with these decisions for years to come, should have a hand in shaping the agenda of anybody who seeks to lead our province.”
Nagata says the reason that such a strategy is being portrayed as a problem this time around is simple:
This is a party that is desperate to avoid a debate about oil and gas expansion. That’s really what set off alarm bells for many powerful lobbyists who are connected to the BC NDP and for many politicians, who have voted for and supported a massive expansion of fracking and export pipelines across the northern part of the province and have done so by suppressing debate within their own party.
some of those leading the public attacks [against Appadurai and Dogwood] are part of an emerging class of NDP-connected lobbyists, who appear to be worried they could lose their insider access under an Appadurai government and be unable to deliver for their clients, many of whom are fossil fuel companies.
Appadurai’s campaign has unapologetically taken aim at the BC NDP government’s climate record, with a particular focus on the fact the party rammed a natural gas pipeline through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory with militarized police protection. The insurgent candidate has also reportedly recruited many former members of the party who quit in disgust over the John Horgan government’s support for fracking, its greenlighting of the Site C dam, and its handling of protests against the logging of old-growth forests.
Rattling the Establishment
Eby, the establishment candidate, has had well-known leadership ambitions for years. Nagata says that before the current race, he invited Eby to visit him in the north of the province to see the destructive impacts of corporate fossil fuel extraction firsthand. Eby showed no interest at the time, but Nagata remains hopeful that he and other potential leaders come to appreciate the scale of the response that is required to address the climate emergency.
“The opportunity has been open from the very beginning for anyone who wants to lead the BC NDP to emerge as a climate champion,” says Nagata. “Appadurai has no elected experience, but she comes in with a deep understanding of the dynamics of climate justice and the climate movement, and so of course we’re excited to see that as part of the race.”
According to reported estimates, Appadurai has potentially signed up as many as ten thousand members compared to Eby’s six thousand, which could give the insurgent candidate an edge in the final vote — assuming she isn’t disqualified. The party had only 11,000 members before the race began. Nagata finds it odd that the influx of new members has rattled the party establishment so much.
“It’s just a very strange reaction to have so many people enthusiastic to join your political party and to be so very upset about that,” he says:
They can either try to proceed with the leadership race and have that discussion in good faith and let the members decide whose vision for leadership is more compelling, or they can simply try to torpedo one of their candidates and demonize their own members.
The party brass are also upset about an anonymous email — shared by a mainstream news personality and former Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) — allegedly sent to members of the BC Green Party (whose growth NDP operatives have tried to stymie for decades) encouraging them to quit the Greens, join the NDP, vote for Appadurai, and then return to their old party if Appadurai doesn’t succeed.
Although the email does not violate any election rules, Appadurai has made clear she does not condone such a strategy. Besides, she noted that it is the strength of her climate activism that has been the main driver in drawing back those who abandoned the BC NDP for the Greens in recent years, rather than any anonymous email or illicit “takeover” plot. “We have called them back into this party, which is the only real option for a true social safety net and for a true economic restructuring,” she explained.
Disturbingly, the NDP has, according to Appadurai, audited individual party members by calling them and asking if they’ve ever previously supported a different political party. “This kind of snake-eating-its-own-tail tactic is upsetting to me, because it’s the antithesis of what this party was supposed to stand for,” says Appadurai.
Other influential media personalities have helped boost bad-faith claims about her campaign attempting a “hostile takeover” of the NDP. In the right-wing Vancouver Sun, columnist Vaughn Palmer gave credence to that suggestion after cherry-picking and reordering quotes from Jacobin’s previous interview with Appadurai. Palmer excluded her comments about hoping to work with “excellent people” in the NDP caucus and her explicit commitment to the party’s foundational values. These commitments are well documented — Appadurai ran as a federal candidate for the party in 2021 — but they evidently eluded Palmer’s scrutiny.
“I take responsibility for not reaching out and building that relationship earlier, but also I’ve been very disappointed to see that my words have become fuel for a hostile takeover narrative,” says Appadurai. “I think that type of narrative is indicative of a power structure not being prepared for a challenge.”
Clipping the Wings of the Consultant Class
Climate activist and former federal NDP candidate Avi Lewis — whose grandfather, David, was one of the founding members of the party — told Jacobin that the BC NDP government has failed to listen to the concerns of the party grassroots during its five-year stint in power. The party’s lack of attentiveness is what has created an opening for Appadurai.
He notes that the climate wing of the party worked for months to get a resolution on the party convention floor in 2019 to debate the government’s support for fracking and liquefied natural gas and how this risked undoing progress made through the NDP government’s “CleanBC” program. The resolution was blocked at every turn.
“No clear resolution was ever allowed to come to the floor, through the usual procedural shenanigans and manipulations,” says Lewis. “The climate contingent in the New Democrats in British Columbia simply hasn’t had a voice in the party, and the NDP government has seemed to be happy to let that constituency go.”
However, he continues, the climate movement in BC is well organized, so it’s no surprise that it was able to put forward a strong candidate in Appadurai. But despite the climate movement making its concerns with the NDP very well known for years, “it’s clear that the party establishment just didn’t see [Appadurai] coming,” says Lewis.
“I just don’t understand why they didn’t simply outorganize [Appadurai],” he adds. “They had all of the machinery of government; they had forty-eight out of fifty-seven MLAs already endorsing David Eby.”
The party establishment’s reaction is all the more surprising in light of the fact that Eby “is not a neoliberal villain,” says Lewis, who notes that the former attorney general has implemented some positive reforms on housing and public auto insurance. Eby could have staved off Appadurai’s campaign simply by adopting bolder positions on climate issues, Lewis explains.
Lewis laments an emerging consultant class influencing every level of the NDP and treating the Left as “crazies who have to be kept out of the conversation.” “This is one of the legacies of the neoliberal generation in Canada,” he notes.
“The party has been moving to the right for decades, in an attempt to perform electability in the eyes of the neoliberal consensus as conveyed by the corporate media” — a dead end, given the Liberal Party’s domination of that cynical strategy, he adds. “The problem is that we’ve stumbled through the neoliberal period into an extreme landscape in every aspect of society, and we do need big solutions.”
Appadurai’s campaign already appears to have pushed Eby into action. A key former minister of the current government, Eby began his campaign with no commitments to fundamentally changing the government’s direction. However, in recent weeks his communications have taken a markedly different tone.
“[Eby’s] communications have fully adopted our language,” says Appadurai. “One of the emails he sent out said ‘we’re in a climate emergency’ and ‘intersecting crises.’” So long as her campaign is alive and kicking, Appadurai adds, she’ll continue fighting to shift the political conversation in BC and beyond.
“My goal here is to fill the imagination gap that neoliberalism has created for us, where we don’t understand that there is a pathway to do the things that we’re talking about,” she explains. “People are ready for a real signal from the Left, an actual story of the world that is real and transformative and radical.”