Why Carole James Is Too Nice to Business
BC's NDP leader looks in the wrong place for support, blurring her party's real appeal.
Bill Tieleman's 24 hours/The Tyee column
Tuesday September 28, 2010
By Bill Tieleman
"Don't Risk Your Paycheque and Job on the NDP."
- Coalition of B.C. Businesses 2009 pre-election campaign slogan
Carole James wants to make friends with the bullies who keep beating up her New Democratic Party. Again.
On Friday night, B.C. NDP leader James tried once more to extend the hand of friendship to a B.C. business community that has repeatedly replied by giving her the finger, holding a $295 per plate fundraiser titled: "An Evening with Carole James for Business in B.C."
There's no reason to expect a different response this time, even with Premier Gordon Campbell having sunk the BC Liberal Party to new depths of unpopularity with his Harmonized Sales Tax torpedo.
That's because business understands something James and her advisors keep missing -- they aren't looking to help a social democratic, labour-friendly political party whose policies they despise become the government.
Business knows the BC Liberal Party is their party -- they fund it, they run it and they will not leave it for the NDP, ever.
If absolutely necessary, business will throw Campbell over the side for a new leader -- but they won't change sides.
Words that can't be taken back
Oh sure, some smart corporate leaders pay lip service to James -- after all, with the NDP somewhere between 42 per cent and 48 per cent in the current polling compared to the BC Liberals at between 25 per cent and 33 per cent, it's quite possible they could form government in 2013.
But not if business has anything to say about it.
The Coalition of B.C. Businesses made that clear before the May 12, 2009 provincial election, launching a vicious attack on James and the NDP.
"Jobs are at risk on May 12. Higher taxes and higher payroll costs featured in the NDP platform will put at least 110,000 British Columbians out of work and put at risk the viability of B.C.'s small and medium-sized businesses," read the Coalition's breathless May 5 news release.
"In short, the NDP platform will hold B.C. back by working against recovery. A BC Liberal platform will help small businesses keep people employed, and get a jump-start on recovery," the Coalition concluded.
Not a lot of subtlety in that message -- business loves B.C. Liberals!
The Coalition members listed in the release was a who's who of business organizations -- from the BC Chamber of Commerce to the BC Hotel Association to Retail BC -- claiming to represent more than 50,000 B.C. businesses.
And Premier Gordon Campbell was helpfully cued up for their attack.
"I think people do have to ask themselves why is it that no major employer in British Columbia has supported the NDP," Campbell told the media that same day.
Friend of employers, or the employed?
Perhaps because major employers recognize their own best interests don't include a minimum wage increase, labour laws to even the playing field for workers and unions, corporate tax increases, publicly-owned services and more social programs?
You know, the sort of things the NDP is expected to do.
Yes, some progressive small and even larger businesses don't "hate" the NDP and might even agree with some party policies.
But they are a distinct minority that will not speak out.
The overwhelming corporate view is to support the BC Liberals -- that's why business gave that party $8.6 million of its $11.9 million raised in 2009, or 72 per cent of all donations.
Business donations alone to the BC Liberals add up to more than total NDP donations from all sources -- $6.7 million -- while business contributions to the NDP were just $268,000.
James doesn't seem to acknowledge that. Her speech last Friday did deal with questions about her leadership and also her courtship of B.C. business.
James said in her prepared speech notes:
"And so even though I have been criticized for reaching out to, and meeting with, B.C.'s business community...
"'Come on Carole, they'll never vote for you. They campaigned against you! That's not the way politics is done in B.C.'
"I will continue to welcome business to my table, not to earn their vote, but because it's the right thing to do.
"The future we all want for our province is not possible without a strong and dynamic private sector.
"Risk must be rewarded. Innovation encouraged.
"The wealth created by business and entrepreneurs helps pay for the services that make for a just and fair society.
"We can't have one without the other.
"That's why I will work with B.C. business to promote trade and open markets.
"It's why I'll support small business by maintaining a competitive tax environment."
But the results of James's relentless pursuit of business approval, despite their past disdainful response, may be a major reason why she and the NDP face significant challenges ahead.
How much traction for James and NDP?
Despite the BC Liberals' disastrous drop of 21 per cent in voter support since the election -- from 46 per cent to just 25 per cent today -- the NDP has only gained six per cent since 2009 if it is indeed at 48 per cent, or nothing if at 42 per cent.
This in the midst of a complete collapse of government support due to the wildly unpopular HST, a budget deficit that was six times larger than Campbell swore pre-election and the B.C. legislature raid trial.
The Green Party, which has been invisible and actually supports the HST, sits at 12 per cent or 13 per cent, and the once-dead BC Conservatives have risen to between eight per cent and 11 per cent.
And while Campbell is Canada's most unpopular premier, with an approval rating of just 12 per cent according to Angus Reid Public Opinion, James's own approval rating is only 30 per cent -- lagging behind her party's support.
The NDP is also rumored to currently have just 11,000 active members and faces a cash crunch.
The last publicly reported membership tally by the party was 13,500 in July, 2010.
Seven years earlier, in the Nov. 2003 leadership campaign, the party reported that it had "well over 13,000" members.
Either way, the party is not growing, and its membership stands at a fraction of the numbers enjoyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Signs the party is wilting
The James-led NDP ditched directly affiliated union memberships -- claiming at the time it would prove labour does not run the NDP.
No sign of acknowledging that from business to date, but it did cost the NDP hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues.
Add that to the fact that in the 2009 election 40,000 fewer voters cast a ballot for the NDP than in 2005 and it is obvious there is a problem.
While James and NDP president Moe Sihota focus on trying to gain business acceptance and media commentator approval, the party is wilting.
What James has failed to deliver is a clear understanding that in British Columbia politics, lines are drawn and sides are chosen -- like it or not.
B.C. business knows which side it's on, and it ain't the NDP's.
Nothing wrong with that. The BC Liberals are unabashedly giving business what it wants in a way the NDP could never do.
That's why even in the midst of the BC Liberals' worst crisis, business groups are propping up Campbell and launching shameless campaigns to support the hated HST.
But now is when the NDP should be rallying the troops, filling its war chest, exciting a growing membership with new plans to invigorate the province and preparing to put an end to the BC Liberal favoritism shown to its corporate friends by an otherwise mean-spirited government.
Instead the NDP again tries to win over its most intransigent enemies, and the results will be entirely predictable.
Isn't it time for a different strategy?