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BC election: what went wrong?

Bradley Hughes

May 22, 2013

For more than two years the BC NDP had been decisively ahead in opinion polls, and their campaign had more than the usual numbers of volunteers in campaign offices across BC. The May issue of Socialist Worker carried the hopeful headline “Say good bye-to the BC Liberals;” The Province newspaper, despite supporting for the Liberals, had to redesign their post election front page at the last minute from one whose headline declared, “Welcome to DIXie land” (in reference to NDP leader Adrian Dix). So it came as a shock to both the left and the right across the province, when the Liberals won 44 per cent of the vote and 50 seats, while the NDP won only 39 per cent of the vote and 33 seats. This is a decline in seats and percentage vote for the NDP.
It was not a landslide for the Liberals. Voter turnout was 49 per cent, less than the 50 per cent turn out last election, and all parties received less votes: the Liberals lost 28,000 votes, the NDP 48,000 and the Green Party 4,000 votes. As a fraction of eligible voters, the Liberals were only able to persuade 22 per cent to vote for them. There is no way this should be seen as a majority mandate for pipelines, LNG, and more attacks on unions and social programs.
To win, the NDP only had to persuade a little more than 22 percent, less than one person in four. Despite more resources from individual trade unions, the BC Federation of Labour and volunteers, the NDP failed—and with hindsight we can see why.
Too soft and too moderate
Dix emphasized again and again that this would be a positive campaign and refused to stoop to negative advertising. But the NDP took too broad a view of negative advertising. They did not campaign against the Liberal record of wage controls and wage freezes, on their dereliction of funding for transit, on the legislated increase in numbers of students in each class room, in the decrease of hospital beds per capita, on the hospital closures, on the doubling of tuition fees, or the public sector lay offs. This left the field open to the Liberals to also ignore their own record and run on a platform of jobs and a strong economy.
The NDP did not campaign against the Liberal record because they did not seek to reverse it. The same neoliberalism that drives the brutality of the Liberal regime also prevents the NDP from offering any major alternative. As a social democratic party working within the framework of capitalism in crisis, the NDP had no intention of opening more hospitals, or hiring enough teachers and nurses, (their pledge to hire 1000 more teachers worked out to one new teacher for every 500 students) or lowering tuition fees and so on. Instead the NDP campaigned on “change for the better, one practical step at a time.”
This is not the first time the NDP has clutched defeat from the jaws of victory by lowering horizons. Shortly after the Liberals were first elected in 2001 there were mass rallies against the cuts, resulting in the Liberals being hated. In 2004 a hospital workers strike against draconian legislation produced a near general strike across the province, which catapulted the NDP to lead in the polls. But the trade union leadership didn't support the strike and the NDP leader Carole James said she would not scrap the hated legislation; by 2005 the NDP fell in the polls and lost the election.
This election—with the exception of their opposition to the Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan pipelines—the NDP platform consisted of timid tinkering around the edges of twelve years of Liberal devastation of wages, transit, social programs, and education. The Liberal tax cuts now cost the province $3.5 billion a year. The promised NDP increases in taxes on corporation and the rich would have only amounted to $988 million after four years; measured in tax cuts, the NDP was 70 per cent identical to the Liberals.
As Socialist Worker stated in April, “The BC NDP platform is a welcome shift to the left for the party. The NDP has put forward plans to reverse some of the massive tax cuts that the Liberals are responsible for…However, it only deals with a small portion of the damage done by the Liberals… This is a huge missed opportunity for the NDP and for BC. The NDP could win this election on a much more radical program then they have put forward.” In addition, taxing corporations and the rich were never front and centre of the public campaign by the NDP. It’s now clear that the platform tweaks were not enough to mobilize voters crushed by a dozen years of Liberal rule.
Climate jobs
Ironically, the NDP defeat has been attributed to their supposed radicalism against pipelines. Halfway through the campaign the NDP announced that in addition to their long-standing opposition to the Enbridge pipeline they would also be against the proposed twining of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline. In an interview the day after the election with Global News, Tom Sigurdson, the executive director of the BC & Yukon Territory Building Construction Trades Council, said that the announcement on Kinder-Morgan was “a turning point for a lot of our members ... When he out-and-out said that it was not going to happen, that disappointed so many of our members.” Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal NDP who supports the tar sands, had a similar analysis in an interview in the Toronto Star, where he said that the opposition to the Kinder-Morgan pipeline was too strongly worded.
The seemingly sudden opposition to the Kinder-Morgan pipeline may have played into the Liberal campaign of jobs and economy, but it didn't have to do so. The problem was not that the NDP went too far opposing pipelines, but not far enough to propose the alternative of climate jobs. With much stronger corporate taxes, they could create jobs by funding renewable energy, retrofitting buildings, and creating rapid transit that would employ the same construction and resource workers who felt threatened by opposition to resource extraction.
The ballot box and the streets
This would have required following the lessons of Québec solidaire and connecting the ballot box to the streets, with a strong platform that reflects and reinforces movements. In two ridings where the NDP candidates had links to movements outside the usual NDP supporters they were able to increase the NDP vote and oust the Liberal incumbents, including Liberal Premier Christy Clark.
David Eby, who defeated Clark, has worked for the Pivot legal society that campaigns for legal rights for the poor, sex workers and others, and the BC Civil Liberties Association. George Heyman, who beat Liberal incumbent Margaret MacDiarmid, was elected leader of the BC Government and Service Employees' Union and more recently executive director of the Sierra Club BC. In both cases they appealed to activists and implicitly stood for more than the NDP was offering, but these were exceptions in the campaign.
What's next?
The Liberals will be confident to continue austerity and disregard climate chaos, but with only support from 22 per cent of eligible voters they are vulnerable to opposition. It won’t come from the constant voices inside and outside the NDP calling on the party to move even further to the right.
Compare the disarray in the NDP to the enormous strength of the anti-pipeline campaigns. The campaign—with indigenous, environmental and labour groups—not only pushed the BC NDP to speak out against pipelines, but even Premiere Clark has tried to look as though she might not allow the Enbridge pipeline to go ahead. This is the model we should take for preventing more attacks on housing, schools, universities and hospitals, a movement like that could even roll back the damage from previous Liberal governments—while raising horizons about a radically better world.
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a weekend-long conference of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "From Orange Wave to Third Wave: the NDP under Mulcair" and "Solidarity against austerity: lessons from the front-lines"

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