Fumbling to explain the massive gap between polls predicting an NDP win and the reality of Tuesday night’s larger majority for the Christy Clark Liberals, Angus Reid Public Opinion spokesperson Mario Conseco cited the NDP’s inability to excite younger British Columbians. He reported that polls gave the NDP a two-to-one lead over the Liberals among voters 18 to 34 years of age, and concluded: “If that young vote decides not to show up, you’re kissing goodbye to a third of your base, and that’s exactly what happened.”
This doesn’t come as a surprise to the Generation Squeeze Campaign. Our pre-election study showed both the Liberal and NDP platforms promised to increase spending for retirees at a rate that far outpaces investments in younger generations who disproportionately face the squeeze of lower wages and high housing prices. We therefore anticipated it would be difficult for either of the two major political parties to motivate the under-45 demographic to turn out.
B.C.’s 2013 election results confirm that many in the younger generations will continue to opt out of the political process when there is little choice between incumbent and opposition on issues that speak directly to the squeeze on Gens X, Y, and their kids. This insight has serious implications for parties in and out of power in jurisdictions across Canada.
To begin with, while it may not be good for our democracy, one can understand why parties in power don’t feel the need to court the youth vote. They are winning without it. Last night’s results show Christy Clark ran a masterful campaign emphasizing the rhetoric of growth and debt reduction to sell a platform which, by the numbers, will increase income taxes and corporate taxes to pay for increased spending – predominantly on seniors. With just half of British Columbians voting, she increased her party’s seats in the legislature on the basis of a mandate from around one-quarter of citizens… of which the largest block is over 55.
Despite the B.C. NDP’s message of change under leader Adrian Dix, analyzing the numbers by age demonstrates that his party offered much the same platform as the Liberals. Higher income and corporate taxes to pay for more spending – but very little of it on younger generations. Clearly that was not the kind of change for which Gens X and Y were looking for (although they are pleased to see a continuing commitment toward the health of their parents and grandparents!).
The B.C. NDP will remain in opposition at least in part because they failed to prioritize the changes needed and wanted by younger generations. Opposition political parties seeking different outcomes across the country would be wise to learn from this outcome.
On the road from opposition to government, leaders must compete more for the votes of those who are now choosing not to participate. Incumbents are being re-elected because they consistently win more support from the older part of the population – the part that shows up. This suggests that the path from opposition to government may be less about convincing voters to shift their support from one party to another, and more about shifting young people from abstaining to voting.
The B.C. NDP did not embrace this logic. Their effort to sell change “one practical step at a time” didn’t excite many in Generation Squeeze to opt back into the political process. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Bold, not incremental, adaptations are required to excite those who are struggling with wages that are down $4 an hour despite having more post-secondary education, and paying housing prices that are far, far higher than what they were in the mid 1970s.
In sum, opposition parties across Canada that aspire to a better fate than the B.C. NDP should pay attention to the scale of the challenges facing Gens X, Y and their kids – and design their platforms accordingly. Only then can we expect a greater proportion of younger generations to opt back into the voting process. And only then are opposition parties likely to translate large leads in the polls into large majorities in the legislature.
Paul Kershaw is the Founder of the Generation Squeeze campaign, and a policy professor at the University of British Columbia.