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.
"There is a tension the party hasn't resolved between the need for centralized, professional and costly campaigning and grassroots democracy. That's one of the difficulties the party faces. I don't see how any party can be successful in a contemporary political field without a very strong, state-of-the-art campaigning ability, which requires centralized financing and very skilled staff who are compensated at a level that a lot of our rank-and-file members aren't used to. That's a reality of modern politics."
Greg Lyle is a pollster and strategist for centre-right parties including the federal Conservatives, the B.C. Liberals and Vancouver's Non-Partisan Association, and was campaign manager for then-Liberal opposition leader Gordon Campbell in 1996.
"There is a winning coalition for the NDP, but it's a new world. Think about [Vancouver Mayor] Gregor Robertson – he's a free enterpriser, he believes in the profit motive, but he also sees a strong role for government."
He said the NDP needs to throw out its playbook. "What they missed was providing any reason to be excited about the NDP – what is the B.C. they are working toward? The Liberals' core idea was their B.C. was a prosperous B.C., open for business to the benefit of all. The NDP alternative was that they were not going to make the mistakes of the Liberals."
New Democrats need to revisit the 1996 campaign, their last successful one. "The campaign was about who is on your side. It has been [the NDP's] ongoing theme in Manitoba and it has served them well. They have defined the Tories as the handmaids of the elite. In '96 here, that was the focus, framing Gord Campbell as the servant of business. That them-versus-us dynamic is always there for the NDP."
Brad Lavigne was a long-time principal secretary for the late federal NDP leader Jack Layton, campaign director for the federal party's 2011 campaign and served in the B.C. NDP war room in 2013.
The author of Building The Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP says the next New Democrat leader has to connect across all regions – be as comfortable bonding with a "hardhat" in Fort St. John as having a latte on trendy West Fourth Avenue in Vancouver.
"Very few people come with all of the attributes that make a great leader. They have greatness within them and leadership draws it out," Mr. Lavigne said. "Mr. Layton did not do great in his first outings," he said, referring to early gaffes and disappointing election outcomes. "But he got the hang of various regions of the country – we called it, 'Good in all time zones.'"
Mr. Lavigne, who was born and raised in B.C. and was chief of staff to B.C. NDP finance minister Paul Ramsey before heading for Ottawa, says success in B.C may demand the wholesale renovation the federal party went through – figuring out how to become more appealing to voters while holding fast to core values.
"There wasn't one aspect of the party we didn't modernize."
NDP challenges in other provinces
The B.C. New Democrats are not the only provincial wing of the party facing rebuilding challenges, although comparisons may be difficult because some are in three-party splits.
Newfoundland and Labrador: Any provincial caucus that has to call an outside mediator to settle its differences has serious problems. And the differences endure despite the mediator's work. Last month, members of the NDP caucus requested a leadership convention next year over concerns about leader Lorraine Michael, a 70-year-old former nun and social activist. Ms. Michael is calling for a leadership review vote. Two members have quit caucus, whittling the NDP presence to three in the 48-seat legislature where the Liberals have seven seats and the Conservatives 35.
Saskatchewan: These are grim days in this Prairie province for New Democrats, who governed for 47 of the past 69 years. In 2007, Brad Wall, now dubbed Canada's most popular premier according to the polls, led his Saskatchewan Party to power. In 2011, the NDP was reduced to nine of 58 legislature seats. Even its leader, former deputy premier Dwain Lingenfelter, was defeated. Earlier this year, 34-year-old Cam Broten was elected to replace him.
Nova Scotia: The question for Nova Scotia New Democrats is whether the province's first NDP government will be its last. The party fell from majority government to third-party status behind the Liberals and Conservatives in last month's election. It has seven seats – a long way from a 31-seat majority in the 51-seat legislature. Premier Darrell Dexter was defeated in his riding. It took the Liberals 14 years to return from the political wilderness. The question is whether the NDP can make the same trip.