As the room of shattered New Democrats emptied out of the election night party, Moe Sihota, the NDP president, shook his head in response to the unspoken question: What went wrong?
“We want to reflect on this,” he said. But after a minute, he conceded the obvious: Adrian Dix’s insistence on a positive campaign had failed. “Positive didn’t work.”
It was only in the last five days of the campaign that senior strategists were able to persuade Mr. Dix to unleash the attack dogs. But by then, it was too late.
The party that seemed to have the B.C. Liberals on the run for the better part of the past four years ended up with fewer seats and nearly 50,000 fewer votes, on the preliminary count, than in 2009. The battleground of the Interior ridings, where the NDP fought hardest to gain ground, proved resistant to the “change for the better” message. Mr. Dix made repeated forays into Kamloops North, home of Environment Minister Terry Lake, and dropped five percentage points in that riding.
On Wednesday, Mr. Dix had gone to ground and his party was left in a state of incomprehension over the results. They had not contemplated that they could lose. Even as the TV networks began to call a Liberal majority on Tuesday night, MLA-elect Jenny Kwan took to the centre stage at the NDP’s election night extravaganza to declare, “The orange wave, don’t worry, it’s coming.”
But it didn’t come and now the New Democrats, resigned once again to opposition status, are likely to unleash their frustration on their leader. “It’s all his fault,” said one New Democrat, who spent the campaign in the war room waiting for a chance to fight back against the Liberal attacks. “We know how to do this, and we weren’t allowed to. We were getting our ass handed to us every day.” By the time Mr. Dix conceded that his campaign needed to go on the counteroffensive, it was “too little, too late.”
But the campaign of sweetness and light wasn’t the promise that got Mr. Dix elected by his party two years ago.
In December, 2010, NDP leader Carole James announced her resignation following a caucus revolt by 13 New Democrat MLAs. In the leadership contest that followed, Mr. Dix promised to wage a more aggressive campaign against the B.C. Liberals than Ms. James – one that would not apologize for the sins of the NDP governments of the past.
In his last speech to New Democrats before the leadership vote, Mr. Dix offered a sharper, more ideologically driven agenda than Ms. James had pitched to voters in 2009. He said the NDP would make a mistake by tacking to the political middle. “We are not going to win the next election by sidling up to the Liberals,” he said then.
But 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.”
On Tuesday night, New Democrats gave their leader an enthusiastic welcome when he arrived to deliver his concession speech. It was a collective brave face after a night of disappointment. But he soon faced questions from reporters, wondering how long he will remain as leader.
“I still believe that running a positive campaign was the right approach,” Mr. Dix said. “Clearly our message didn’t get out in the way we needed it to get out to win the election, and we’re going to have to assess that in the coming weeks and months.”