On the last day of the B.C. election campaign, the media were summoned to the Liberal nerve centre in downtown Vancouver for one final warning from Finance Minister Mike de Jong about the dangers of electing the NDP.
Pointing to a party document from 2010 that suggested independent power producers be nationalized, Mr. de Jong, in high “reds under the beds” dudgeon, told assembled reporters: “I’m not sure anyone has used the term ‘nationalize’ since Hugo Chavez.”
The minister went even further in a press release, linking the NDP to Fidel Castro as well as the late president of Venezuela, along with a reference to – nudge, nudge – the party’s “politburo.”
On the surface, Mr. de Jong’s rhetoric was laughable.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix had arguably run the most moderate campaign in his party’s history.
Apart from his opposition to pipelines, which expanded during the campaign, and some additional spending promises, the NDP commitments were surprisingly close to the political centre and not much different from those of the governing Liberals.
Coupled with the slogan “One Practical Step at a Time,” the NDP approach was designed to dampen concerns that a new, leftist dawn would be at hand under Mr. Dix.
Yet Mr. de Jong’s message was consistent with the Liberals’ cranked-up rhetoric about the scary NDP. Although Christy Clark delivered it with a beaming smile, it was still the same age-old theme that has defined elections in this polarized province since premier W.A.C. Bennett uttered his legendary warning 44 years ago: “The socialist hordes are at the gates, my friends!”
And, as it has in almost every election campaign in which the NDP appeared on the verge of victory, the tactic worked. Although other factors play a role and circumstances vary, voters still draw back at the last minute and voice their fears at the ballot box. An exit poll conducted by Ipsos Reid indicated that 11 per cent of voters made up their minds only when they marked their X. Most of them voted Liberal.
The May 14 result, in defiance of all pre-election opinion polls, has many wondering whether the NDP can hope to form government again in British Columbia.
“I don’t know,” observed Marjorie Cohen, political-science professor at Simon Fraser University. “Right now, it looks extremely bleak.”
The Liberals turned the 2013 campaign into a referendum on the peril of electing the NDP, rather than the Liberals’ own spotty record after 12 years in office.
“There still seems to be this deep mistrust of the NDP,” said political scientist Max Cameron of the University of B.C. “So it’s easy with undecided voters to wave the red flag of socialist hordes and tell them that if these people get in, they’re in trouble.”
Echoed Richard Johnston, also of UBC: “This rhetorical trope is rolled out election after election, and it keeps on working. In this election, it was rolled out brilliantly.”
History bears them out. Both professors likened this election to what happened in 1983. On the eve of the vote, one newspaper headline said: “Looks like NDP win, experts say.” Nervous voters recoiled, stampeded to the polls and delivered a healthy majority to the Social Credit.
“It looked like it was in the bag, and it didn’t happen,” Prof. Cameron said. “I remember thinking, ‘Does this mean this province is somehow fundamentally conservative in a way that the NDP is unacceptable?’”
Before that, in 1969, the NDP was sure its bright, forward-looking new leader, Thomas Berger, would be more than a match for the aging Mr. Bennett. NDP billboards showed men in business suits headed to Victoria with briefcases, under the confident caption: “Ready to Govern.” Instead of inspiring voters, it frightened them, and Mr. Bennett wound up with a huge majority.
All told, the NDP and its CCF precursor have won just three of the 23 elections they have contested in a province outsiders are still prone to call the Left Coast. Two of their victories, in 1972 and 1996, occurred when they were not expected to win. And in 1991, way ahead in early polls, the NDP almost blew it in the final two weeks.
“I do think there are historical trends that are significant,” said political historian David Mitchell, who has written the definitive biography of Mr. Bennett. “When it’s pointed out that the proverbial socialist hordes are at the gate, that can have an impact on an electorate that is even the slightest bit skittish.
“As they did under Social Credit, voters hold their nose and vote for the option that is least unappealing to them,” Mr. Mitchell said, adding that Ms. Clark’s remarkable communication skills helped drive hesitant voters to the Liberals.
Did fear trump everything? “Yes, absolutely. As it has in the past,” Prof. Johnston said.
With a report from Andrea Woo