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The NDP’s great divide: Urban café socialists versus small town blue-collar workers

While B.C. NDP MLA John Horgan has taken himself out of the running for his party's leadership, those wanting the New Democrats to form government again one day better hope someone like him goes for the position.

Mr. Horgan said this week that he'd decided not to take a run at the job being vacated by Leader Adrian Dix because he felt it was time for a new generation to take control of the party. And he may be right about that.

There is a whiff of staleness that has enveloped the B.C. NDP and many of its policies. It may take a fresh face to clear the air and give the New Democrats an opportunity to re-establish the party's brand.

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At the same time, however, it is facing an almost existential dilemma: What does it want to be? It's an ideological quandary that has the potential to split the party in two, which would lead to its extinction.

And don't think that couldn't happen.

The biggest issue facing the NDP is jobs and resource development. The party's policies on this front cost them the last election.

As simplistic as it may be, the Liberals positioned themselves as the party of "yes" when it came to creating economic opportunities while painting their opponents as the party of "no."

Premier Christy Clark was so successful in convincing the electorate that a vote for the NDP would be a vote for killing jobs in the province that vast swaths of unionized workers – normally the bedrock of the NDP's base – cast their ballots for the centre-right Liberals. And that support is likely to stay with the governing party as long as the New Democrats feel that all pipelines are bad and that fracking and consequently liquefied natural gas development is evil and that mining isn't great for the environment either.

Mr. Horgan is very much about resource development. Employment and economic growth were going to be the foundation of his campaign, when he was pondering a run and conjuring a platform. He knows the absence of a credible, pro-jobs agenda helped the party blow an election it should have won easily. Now it's in such a mess it's likely eight years away from another realistic shot at forming government.

That's if the party can stay intact until then and the jury is very much out on that.

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It took Mr. Horgan, in announcing his decision, to state the uncomfortable truth: His party has lost its way in resource-dependent communities around the province. These are the small cities and towns filled with blue-collar workers that the NDP has always relied on for support. Instead, the New Democrats have become captive of the café socialists who believe the economy can be fuelled by wind turbines and people drawing cartoon characters for an animation company.

This is the fundamental divide that exists in the NDP and that somehow must be addressed for the party to have any chance of being elected. In many ways it represents the gulf that exists between the professional class that lives in its million-dollar homes in Vancouver, one filled with lawyers and ad agency types who ride to work on their bikes, and those in the suburbs and beyond who rely on the industrial and manufacturing sector for their livelihoods and get around in their half-tonne pickups.

The Liberals took a hit in Vancouver in the May election. The Premier lost her own seat in Vancouver-Point Grey. But outside Vancouver the Liberals did just fine. The party will make that trade-off any day of the week.

Mayor Gregor Robertson and his centre-left Vision Vancouver party do well in the city with a pro-green agenda. But if the NDP believes that is a formula for success provincially it's kidding itself. It is a recipe for political disaster.

The NDP leadership race will be an opportunity for the party to decide in which direction it wants to go. It almost certainly promises to incite an unpleasant and rancorous debate. But it's an important one – the very future of the party is at stake.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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