As B.C. New Democrats gather this weekend for their first major meeting since last spring’s devastating B.C. election – in which they enjoyed unprecedented winning conditions but still came up short – they face a sadly familiar routine.
The NDP has won three of the 23 elections held in B.C. since it appeared on the political scene in 1933 as the B.C. wing of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. It is a win rate akin to profitable lottery tickets.
Many of the party’s 800-plus delegates are still struggling with the fact they are not attending a celebratory convention where Adrian Dix will tout his legislative agenda as premier. Instead, delegates will not even resolve the process for picking a new leader, and will debate only non-binding resolutions.
The New Democrats, under Mr. Dix, went into the spring campaign with a double-digit lead over the governing B.C. Liberals. Victory seemed plausible. The strikes against the Liberals were many: botched implementation of the harmonized sales tax; new leader Christy Clark did not seem to be connecting with voters; the Liberal coalition had fractured, with repairs absorbing a huge amount of effort; and a scandal over plans to woo ethnic voters.
Instead of victory, the NDP lost ground: Its popular support dropped by almost three percentage points from the 2009 election.
Now the party is in the familiar posture of rejuvenation and rebooting. Should it simply redecorate: pick a new leader and a new campaign strategy? Or does it need a full-scale renovation: new leader, policies, communications and structure? What does it need to do to win?
Several campaign veterans across the political spectrum offer advice on breaking the losing streak.
Carole James led the party through the 2005 and 2009 elections, but was ousted in a 2010 caucus revolt. She was platform co-chair in the past election.
To win, Ms. James said the B.C. NDP may have to abandon the priorities of some supporters to focus on an accessible agenda of compelling policies. Basically, a kind of political triage.
“Often we, as a party, try and please everyone,” she said. “You can’t be everything. You can’t do everything.”
Ms. James says the NDP flatters itself it by assuming voters will pore over its platform. “People are busy,” she says. “You have folks who want you to be able to identify the core action you’re going to take as government and express it to them. We didn’t do a good job of that.”
Beyond that, she wants a new leader with a “moral compass” and passion. “I’ll look for someone who has charisma, but they have got to have something beneath that – a reason to run.”
One might assume a former B.C. Liberal attorney-general would be happy to see the NDP carry on as it has in the past. But Geoff Plant says a healthy democracy in B.C. depends on a robust centre-left, progressive party. Also, he says a strong NDP would keep the B.C. Liberals on their toes.
So Mr. Plant’s prescription begins with the party deciding whether it wants to be a movement or government.
The New Democrats “need to tear the building down to its studs and start over,” retooling to deal with a reality that the party brand, in B.C., has become associated with “perpetual opposition status,” Mr. Plant said.
That renovation should include keeping as much of the base as possible while espousing a new vision to mobilize people who do not now vote. “In marketing terms, it’s like new customers.”
Then there’s the leader. Mr. Plant said Mr. Dix’s successor should be unattached to any aspect of the past 20 years of NDP history so as to be able to dodge all the “junk” that gets thrown at the party, including fast ferries – “ideally, somebody who is not a threat to the business community – somebody who has a message about the economy of British Columbia that’s credible.”
Geoff Meggs is a Vision Vancouver city councillor, long-time NDP activist and senior strategist for the province’s previous elected NDP premier, Glen Clark.
“The next election is very winnable. It requires an unflinching willingness to look at the issues that face all British Columbians. The solution will be found in finding what is common in the values of British Columbians as opposed to continuing to draw sharp lines,” he said, as happened in the pipeline debate during the past campaign. “A new leader will have to be innovative and creative in how they tackle that problem.”
But he said party activists would have to accept a more dramatic level of change than many appear ready for.