The obvious lesson from the May 27 British Columbia provincial election is ‘don’t trust opinion polls’. But what can we learn from the NDP campaign, besides the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs is not the only team capable of blowing a huge lead late in the game? *
Consider the observation of Tara Ehrcke, president of the Victoria Teachers’ Association (affiliate of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation). “My greatest disappointment about this election was not the outcome, but the fact that not a single party stood up and spoke out for a radical re-evaluation of the massive inequity in our society. No political party really spoke to the need to tax the wealthy and to reinvest that money in services that benefit everyone, collectively. Like every election in my adult memory (back to the Premier Bill Vander Zalm days of the eighties), the debate was between a neo-liberal party of the right, and an NDP trying to be a Blairite party of the centre who speaks left to a left audience, right to a right audience, and promises nothing to anyone for fear someone might not like it.”
Reporter Justine Hunter wrote in the May 16 Globe and Mail (BC Edition): “Over his two years as leader, Mr. Dix developed an agenda that was designed not to spook voters. The slogan was change, “one practical step at a time.” He courted the business community with the promise that he would not try to move too fast.
“It was a bad campaign,” said Innovative Research pollster Greg Lyle, a former Liberal campaign manager. The New Democrats were offering incremental change that was hard for voters to get excited about, he said. “He could have built a movement for a compassionate revolution.” Instead, he mounted a defensive campaign aimed at holding a perceived lead in the polls.
“It was a fundamental error, believing that their vote was solid.”
Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star columnist, put it best on May 16. He wrote:
“British Columbia’s election was many things….it was also a test run for the new, moderate, incrementalist NDP — the NDP that, in its federal form, Jack Layton refashioned and Tom Mulcair inherited. Indeed, three members of Layton’s brain trust — Brian Topp, Brad Lavigne and Anne McGrath — held key positions in the campaign.
“So the fact that this new, moderate NDP managed to lose badly in B.C. — in spite of its early and overwhelming lead in the polls, in spite of voter fatigue with Clark’s Liberals — casts a long shadow.
“The NDP was determined to portray itself as bland. Dix may have been Glen Clark’s chief of staff during the tumultuous ’90s. But his campaign motto this time was minimalist: “one practical step at a time.”
“His promises — such as one to ensure that nursing home residents receive two rather than just one bath a week — were underwhelming. It was at its core a strangely defensive campaign, as if the NDP were saying to voters: “We know you’re sick of the Liberals and wary of us. But don’t be frightened. You can vote for us without fear of our doing much.”
“To that end, Dix presented himself in his stump speeches as softspoken, amiable and cautious. His message was: under the NDP, things will change but marginally. The strategy didn’t work.
“First, the NDP can’t escape its own past. By any reasonable standard, it ceased to be a socialist party long ago. But no matter how many times it tries to purge its constitution of anti-capitalist language, a good many voters still view it as a party of the left.
“Christy Clark’s Liberals seized on this… My guess is that the New Democrats nationally will run into the same problem during the 2015 federal election campaign. It will be difficult to convince those who mistrust left-wing parties that the new, moderate NDP has changed its spots.
“Second, by focusing on incrementalism, Dix gave B.C. voters few positive reasons to vote NDP. The centrepiece of the party platform was the worthy issue of skills training. But Clark’s Liberals offered education goodies, too.
“Andrea Horwath’s Ontario New Democrats, who prefer equally bite-size pieces of practical policy to broad vision might want to reflect on Dix’s failure here.”
That brings us to the budget of the Ontario Liberal minority government, which Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath decided to support in the third week of May.
Let’s be clear. Premier Kathryn Wynne’s budget is a capitalist austerity budget. There is a 1% cap in annual programme spending; a 3% allowable annual rise in tuition fees; zero growth in hospital base funding; 2% growth in annual health care spending; $100 increase in the monthly Ontario Child Benefit (instead of the $200 promised in the Liberal poverty reduction plan), and income testing of seniors’ drug costs. A 1% hike in social assistance rates; 0% increase in the minimum wage. And, of course, all of this is built on a 2 year wage freeze across the public service, and on the imposition of unjust terms and conditions forced on Ontario education workers, including suspension of collective bargaining and the right to strike. A working class party that supports such an agenda ends up paying a big political price. Just ask Bob Rae.
For what they’re worth, the latest opinion polls, following NDP endorsement of the buget, show the Liberals up, and the NDP dropping into third place, well behind the Tories. The NDP Socialist Caucus slogan sums it up best: To survive, the NDP must turn left.
* If the judicial recount confirms the NDP win in Coquitlam-Maillardville, the B.C. Liberals will end up with 49 seats in the legislature, the NDP 34, and the Greens and independent Vicki Huntington one each.
The result would be almost identical to 2009, when the B.C. Liberals won 49 seats, the NDP 35, and Huntington won in Delta South. The final popular vote breakdown was: B.C. Liberals 44.14 per cent; NDP 39.71 per cent; Greens 8.13 per cent and Conservatives 4.76 per cent.