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campaign postmortem

Adrian Dix (right) leaves a press conference with a colleague after announcing his resignation as leader of the BC NDP in Vancouver, B.C., Sept. 18, 2013. He urged his supporters to stay on the path he had laid out.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Devastated by their May 14 electoral loss, B.C.'s New Democrats this week began to look toward the future with a new leader. A bitter debate about why voters once again rejected the NDP, however, is bubbling over.

Even as he announced his decision to step down as leader of the B.C. NDP, taking the blame for a disastrous election that the New Democrats believed they couldn't lose, Adrian Dix defended the tactics that shaped his campaign. His commitment to "positive" politics hasn't wavered.

While the B.C. Liberal government glides along, skating around contentious policy landmines ranging from B.C. Hydro rate hikes to pipeline developments, Mr. Dix waded this week into bitter debate within his party about why the NDP is still in opposition.

Mr. Dix will continue to steer the NDP until a leadership contest is held next year – and is likely to remain an influential figure beyond that. He says the party should not abandon his principle of refusing to play in the gutter.

The senior officials who crafted and executed the NDP's election campaign, however, have disavowed the strategy. The battle lines have been drawn, and as the party navigates its coming leadership contest, New Democrats are also choosing sides between Mr. Dix's high-minded principles and the raw politics of winning elections.

After an austere resignation announcement Wednesday, Mr. Dix basked in the warmth of friends and colleagues at Collingwood Neighborhood House in his riding. He ruefully recalled how the New Democrats had gathered in the adjacent hall years ago, when the NDP's Glen Clark was sworn in as premier. "When you win, you're in the gym. When you lose you're in the activity room," he said.

With the requisite dose of humour out of the way, Mr. Dix urged supporters to stay on the path he had laid out. "I don't think the people we want to reinvolve in the political process will be inspired by a descent into nastiness," he said. "We didn't fail because we were too positive. We failed, in part, because we couldn't communicate that message in time to people. We can relate that urgency. We will relate that urgency. That time is coming."

Some of the top NDP campaigners in the country, who spent two years helping Mr. Dix craft the B.C. campaign, have reached a different conclusion.

"In my view we lost this election because of errors of strategy," wrote campaign director Brian Topp in a 20,000-word postmortem on the campaign that was leaked to media this week. Mr. Topp, the architect of numerous provincial and federal NDP campaigns including Jack Layton's "orange crush" 2011 federal election campaign, says Mr. Dix should not shoulder the blame alone. But he also describes how his team was boxed in by the "well-intentioned" positive mantra, unable to fire back when it was clear that the B.C. Liberals' attacks were working.

The New Democrats were lulled, too, by complacency. They ambitiously targeted safe Liberal seats. Their internal polling didn't pick up how the party was failing to connect with voters. And their untested leader proudly eschewed conventional photo ops, leaving their opponent to win the artificial but influential image war.

Mr. Topp's report on the campaign failure has been rewritten over recent months, watered down in parts to reflect the angry back-and-forth between Mr. Dix's central team in Victoria and Mr. Topp's crew. An earlier version, signed off by four top strategists, reflected the tensions between those two camps: "Our team was unable to agree, write and execute a party political case," a draft in June states. Draft materials criticizing Christy Clark by name and attacking the B.C. Liberals in tough language were rejected. "Colleagues in Victoria vetoed all proposals along these lines."

Still, Mr. Topp's final report, dated in August, paints a devastating picture of a campaign failure. From the war room's perspective, here is how the NDP lost:

Positive, on its own, doesn't work.

"This campaign demonstrates again that negative messages about leaders cut through and are remembered, unless they are countered in kind," wrote Mr. Topp. "And there was a clear case to prosecute against the Liberal government's record, especially in the past four years. By choosing not to do this with any compelling clarity or heat, we absolved them from accountability. Politics is an adversarial process. If we didn't have any fundamental problems with the Liberal Premier or her government, why should the public?"

Adrian Dix, unscripted.

Mr. Dix had strong ideas about the need for authenticity. He eschewed the conventional trappings of political message boxes and theatrics. He honed a remarkable ability to speak without notes. He engaged with the media too much, seeking to answer questions at length. But that didn't produce a consistent message that could sink in during the 28-day campaign.

"It emerged over the course of these days that our leader's speaking style … was not serving him as well during the campaign … and did not make for memorable television," Mr. Topp offered. "Our reluctance to embrace the political theatre aspect of modern campaigning led to the BC NDP losing the 'shot of the day' to the BC Liberals too often. Christy Clark's constant appearance in a hard-hat and safety vest was the visual equivalent of her message discipline."

Front-runner's disease.

"We were, in our minds, already in office," Mr. Topp said. "However, the high standards we set for ourselves in the drafting of that [policy] document meant that some of its key elements were still being debated literally minutes before they were publicly announced during the heat of the campaign.

"We were not able to stop; sleep on each day's content; and then carefully write a simple, compelling criticism of the government on that topic followed by a simple, campaign-style policy proposal that people could hear and understand."

The Kinder Morgan gift – to the Liberals.

A week into the campaign, the NDP's internal polling did reveal a "slow leak" of support. Determined to reset the campaign, the strategists looked to the event on Earth Day to reach out to the 3 or 4 per cent of voters who were leaning to the Greens.

Until April 22, Mr. Dix had refused to take a stand on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Beginning the afternoon before Earth Day, the campaign team "settled into an extensive, detailed, exhausting and difficult debate about environmental policy." The position, which would define the party's approach to resource development, wasn't decided until Mr. Dix stood at the microphone. "The caucus didn't know this decision was coming and were surprised by it." Untested by polling or focus groups, the decision to oppose the twinning of the oil pipeline proved fatal. The Liberals' bounce was almost immediate.

The Topp reports, from their earliest drafts, have drawn a heated backlash within the party. New Democrats on the other side of the debate dismiss it as revisionist history, noting that at no time during the campaign were they told in the war room that there was anything but victory ahead.

Bill Tieleman, a former NDP strategist, goes further. He said Mr. Topp should have been dumped before the campaign began, when he announced he had joined a consulting agency in partnership with the NDP's chief rivals. "It was inexcusable that someone in that position would become a business partner with Christy Clark's former chief of staff and with Don Guy, who was advising the B.C. Liberals."

The whole point of a campaign postmortem is to learn from past mistakes. It is the new leader of the NDP – to be chosen sometime next year – who will ultimately decide how to run the 2017 campaign.

Mr. Tieleman says the debate about tactics is fundamental to the decision the party will make in selecting its next leader. "What is their strategy, how are they going to run an election campaign that wins?"

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