Why did the NDP lose?


Adrian Dix and the NDP have been defeated in an election that was widely expected to yield a comfortable win for the centre-left party. Over the course of the month-long race, BC politics threw off the political intensity often associated with battles of left and right. Instead of attacking the BC Liberal record, Dix and the NDP chose a strategy of passive precaution, waiting for the other side to falter.

Even if the campaign was marked by few highlights, Dix framed his party’s approach in both lofty and strategic terms, arguing that the new BC NDP had risen above partisan bickering and the petty politics of the BC Liberals. Supporters framed this “21st century” approach as a necessary path for winning government. Beneath the media strategy — the story went — a progressive platform was held waiting to be implemented once in power.

No definite plan

In reality the NDP allowed itself no alternative platform from which to launch a criticism against the BC Liberal record. On each big issue the NDP chose instead to emulate the BC Liberal platform: rock-bottom corporate taxes, privatized affordable housing, health care austerity and ongoing neoliberal reforms. Instead of fighting on the basis of a progressive policy platform, the NDP message was simple: We can govern; we can oversee the status quo because we are as mature as the common-sense Liberals.

NDP’s uninspiring decision to emulate — and indeed flatter — the politics of the ruling party resulted in a record low voter turnout of 48%, down from 58% in 2005. No doubt there will be disagreement in the coming days about the extent to which the NDP, if elected, would have enshrined the historic dismantling of the welfare state, already underway since the 1980s. What is less contested is that fact that neither party in the running was planning to bolster public spending, significantly raise taxes, or reverse the rise of P3s.

The irony is that in the attempt to move away from empty politicking and content-less media wars, the NDP ran one of the most meaningless campaigns in its recent history. Andy Lai, a tenant organizer at Lion’s Manor, dubbed the NDP acronym “No Definite Plan,” and the CBC rightly called it “a lackluster campaign that was basically a series of events with no real substance, flow or vision.” The question in many people’s minds was, “one careful and pragmatic step at a time, yes — but stepping towards what?”

Is it possible that a do-nothing campaign served to entrench rather than reverse the cynicism of BC voters? People of colour, First Nations communities, people with low-incomes were simply not the focus of the NDP machine, whose overriding aim was to allay the fears of urban property-owners and convince the white middle class that the NDP is no longer a socialist outfit.

Liberal candidates steer NDP

Given the candidates, too, there is little surprise that the NDP failed to highlight the failure of the BC Liberals. The NDP’s George Chow, for example, was roundly defeated in Vancouver-Langara. As a former Vision councillor in Vancouver, Chow was part of years-long relentless praise heaped on BC Housing and BC Liberal MLA Rich Coleman. The inability for Chow and Mayor Robertson to raise a criticism of BC Liberal housing policy cannot be overlooked as a cause of the NDP defeat.

Journalists have long commented on the “tight bond” between city hall and Coleman[1] but the larger significance of political Trasolini-ism has been under-acknowledged. The housing crisis in BC is deeper than it has ever been and people are spending more and more money on ever-deteriorating housing. Yet Vision, Chow and the NDP have insisted on a politics of compromise that makes popular politics almost entirely illegible.

Vision’s path adopted by the NDP is today discredited in a manner that was already becoming apparent with Geoff Meggs’ defeat in the Fairview nomination race, where he lost to George Heyman. In contrast to Chow’s provincial defeat in Vancouver-Langara, Heyman has since been able to win the Fairview riding by staying closer to NDP’s labour tradition, combining it with green principles. Heyman’s significant victory of Margaret MacDiarmid yesterday hints that it is a bold environmentalism rather than a discredited vision of centrist compromise that can “bring the NDP into the 21st century.”


[1] Mike Howell, “Mayor, housing minister build tight bond,” The Vancouver Courier, June 10, 2010