Friday, March 21, 2008

BC & federal NDP have to move to the left, get populist to avoid electoral disaster, by-elections and polls show

From The Tyee

NDP Needs Some Class!

Drifting party's lesson from byelections, BC polls: Fight for the less well-off.

Bill Tieleman

Published: March 21, 2008

"I'd rather waffle to the left than waffle to the right."

- Ed Broadbent, 1969, when accused of waffling on a question

There was good news for the federal New Democratic Party in Monday's four byelections -- if it gets the message.

And the same message could save the British Columbia New Democrats from the ignominious disaster election that will otherwise occur in May 2009, based on more bad results in an Ipsos poll released Tuesday that showed the BC Liberals at 46 per cent, the NDP with just 34 per cent and the Greens at 16 per cent.

But the big question is whether either federal leader Jack Layton or provincial leader Carole James will listen to that message.

The popular perception about the byelections is that the only real winner was the Green Party, appropriately enough for a St. Patrick Day's vote.

The Greens increased their support considerably, more than doubling their vote in Vancouver Quadra, finishing in second place ahead of the NDP and Conservatives in Willowdale, and a very close third to the NDP in Toronto Centre.

That's all true. But it's not necessarily bad news for the NDP.

Crazy spin? Demented analysis of electoral politics? Not at all.

Because what both the federal byelections and the provincial poll clearly show is that the New Democratic Party can perform dramatically better -- if it does two simple things -- move sharply to the political left and embrace populist positions.

Back to basics

First, the basics that seem to have been either strangely forgotten or embarrassingly ignored by the NDP: the biggest single indicator of voting intention still remains class, or for the politically squeamish, income level.

If you were to go into a large public meeting anywhere in the country outside Quebec and assigned the task of finding out who the NDP voters in the room were but could only ask one question of each person -- other than how they voted in the last election -- it would be an easy assignment.

Just get everyone in the room to form a line in order of their income, with the richest person at the front and the poorest at the back.

Depending on what level of popular support the NDP had in that area, you could figure out within a relatively few percentage points the dividing line between likely NDP voters and non-NDP voters.

If you were in B.C. with the NDP at its current 34 per cent, the one-third of people in the room with the lowest incomes would be highly disproportionately NDP voters. (Quebec is different because the separatist federal Bloc Quebecois and provincial Parti Quebecois are also somewhat social democratic.)

It's that simple -- but try telling that to either the provincial or federal party.

Not that there aren't any rich NDP voters or poor BC Liberal voters, but it's the best single indicator of political support.

And the recent Ipsos poll shows that.

The B.C. Liberals capture a full 54 per cent of all voters who have an income over $80,000 while the BC NDP gets 44 per cent of all voters with incomes less than $80,000

Vancouver Quadra results

Now look at the federal Green Party's support in the Vancouver Quadra byelection and you find rather than the popular perception that it "steals" votes from the NDP, it in fact plunders the Liberal party.

In 2004, Liberal MP Stephen Owen took 52.3 per cent of the Quadra vote, followed by 49.1 per cent in 2006. The Conservatives garnered 26.2 per cent in 2004 and 28.9 per cent in 2006, while the NDP took 15 per cent in 2004 and 16.1 per cent in 2006.

The Greens took 5.6 per cent in 2004 and 5.15 per cent in 2006.

Then came the byelection -- watch what happens with the Green vote.

The Liberals drop to 36.1 per cent and barely win the election by 151 votes, the Conservatives climb to 35.5 per cent, the NDP decline slightly to 14.4 per cent but the Greens almost triple their support to 13.5 per cent.

Where did that Green vote come from? Overwhelmingly just one party -- the Liberal Party, which lost 13 per cent of its previous support. The NDP also lost votes but only 0.6 per cent.

What's the lesson here for the NDP? The Green Party appeals to better-off, higher income voters -- voters who in affluent Quadra had previously been supporting the Liberals.

BC provincial politics

You can see the same clear phenomena in provincial general elections in 2001 and 2005.

In the 2001 BC Liberal landslide, Gordon Campbell eviscerated the disastrous government of then-NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, taking 77 of 79 seats and leaving the NDP with a paltry two MLAs.

But the Green Party, even though it increased its vote, failed to win a single seat again.

What's more, the Greens didn't displace the NDP to finish second in any riding previously held by the NDP, coming in second place only in those ridings already held by Liberals in the 1996 election.

In other words, the Greens do best in the most affluent ridings, where the NDP is already out of the running, not in seats where the NDP is competitive.

That trend got worse in the 2005 election, with the Greens only second place finish coming in West Vancouver-Garibaldi, one of the safest Liberal seats in the province. Even then-leader Adriane Carr came in third in Powell River-Sunshine Coast.

The take-away point: class is a determinant of voting intention for the NDP, Liberals and also with the Greens, who do better with higher-income individuals.

Indeed, a recent study by Simon Fraser University Prof. Cara Camcastle found that one-third of federal Green party members had joined the party after belonging to other parties. While 39 per cent came from the NDP, a surprising 33 per cent came from the Conservatives, 20 per cent from the Liberals and even 8 per cent from the old Reform Party.

"I was amazed. They're attracting members from the left and the right. I think the Greens are commonly misunderstood as being from the left," Camcastle told 24 Hours newspaper last week.

Exactly. And that's why if the NDP wants to improve its standing, it needs to focus on a class-based approach that the Greens simply won't follow.

Middle of road gets hit both ways

Now let's look even further back at past B.C. provincial election results for more analysis.

In 1995, shortly before NDP Premier Mike Harcourt resigned, the B.C. Federation of Labour conducted some internal political polling, worried about an electoral debacle.

The BC NDP's popularity had dropped to a stunningly low 23 per cent, primarily due to the devastating results of the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society scandal.

I was B.C. Fed communications director then and when the results to one question came back, it stunned me.

Asked if Harcourt and the NDP had gone too far to the political middle and away from the NDP's roots, a whopping 58 per cent agreed, most strongly so.

That number was more than double the percentage of voters still willing to actually vote NDP, indicating that even non-NDP voters wanted the NDP to move back to the left.

In February 1996, Glen Clark became the new NDP leader and premier and he moved left with a vengeance. As his communications director at the time, I can say it was a very deliberate electoral strategy.

Clark and the NDP trashed Liberal Party Leader Gordon Campbell as a corporate mouthpiece while freezing tuition fees, BC Hydro and Insurance Corporation of B.C. rates, raising the minimum wage over vociferous business objections and generally emphasizing what later became the election campaign slogan: "On Your Side."

It was as strong a campaign based on class as B.C. had seen in many years and despite the BC Liberals much larger war chest, the debilitating impact of the 1996 "Hydro-gate" scandal over B.C. Hydro's dubious power project in Pakistan, and the fact that not a single newspaper in the province editorially endorsed the NDP, Clark won a narrow majority government with 39 per cent of the vote.

The BC NDP had won back its base, with polling later showing that about 65 per cent of union households -- that is, homes with at least one union member -- had voted NDP.

The bitter BC Liberals railed that the rural, right-wing Reform Party led by Jack Weisgerber had split the vote, causing their narrow loss. Reform took 9 per cent but at the same time,

Gordon Wilson's Progressive Democratic Alliance took 6 per cent and the Greens 2 per cent, votes which arguably might have gone substantially to the NDP.

So what is clear is that while the NDP can't create right-wing parties to siphon off so-called free enterprise votes, it can solidify its centre-left vote by appealing to issues of concern to working people and moderate income voters.

That's why some of the BC NDP strategies are a mystery. NDP leader Carole James has gone out of her way, for example, to speak to chambers of commerce and business organizations, telling them the NDP wants to work with business and is not a threat.

For example, here's what
James told the Surrey Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 22, 2007:

"As leader of the NDP I have worked hard to reach out and build bridges to BC's business community -- small, medium and large -- and to make the case that the traditional political divides in this province should no longer shape our relationship," James said. "As I have said many times, in today's economy New Democrats and business leaders share far more in common than ever before."

Unfortunately, that's the wrong message. NDP voters want to see the party defend them against their bosses and the powerful business community, not work with them.

And overwhelmingly that business community will never vote NDP. That's not to say no business people ever vote for the party or that the NDP should fly a red star flag from its provincial office.

But money talks and it understands class very well indeed.

In the 2005 election year, the BC NDP received donations totaling just $238,000 from businesses compared to $5.2 million from individuals and $2 million from unions.

Meanwhile the BC Liberals collected a stunning $10 million from businesses, $2.6 million from individuals and just $6,795 from unions.

The take-away point: If they want to win the next election, the NDP's campaign theme song should definitely not be "Why can't we be friends?" by War.

Class analysis not enough to win

Now, show me a Canadian party solely based on class for its policies and analysis and I'll show you the Communist Party, hardly an electoral success here or anywhere else free elections are held.

What a social democratic party that understands it appeals disproportionately to lower-income voters must also do to be successful is apply a heavy dose of populism to everything it does.

The B.C. and federal NDP have, to be fair, occasionally taken a populist and class approach to politics. Carole James has made a $10 minimum wage a key plank in her platform, while Jack Layton has strongly opposed corporate tax cuts by the Conservatives and Liberals.

But it's not enough.

James and her NDP caucus have regularly taken positions that are decidedly un-populist and for the most part unpopular.

The NDP voted last year in favour of an expensive MLA pension plan despite enormous public opposition, having previously passed another MLA pay increase that both the NDP and Liberals quickly rescinded in 2005 after a huge uproar.

And while they turned down the substantial pay increase that was also part of the BC Liberal legislation, turning their increases over to local charity, sawing that baby in half did them no good. NOTE: It has been pointed out to me after writing this that the NDP voted against the legislation but then its MLAs accepted the pension. Three NDP MLAs skipped the vote altogether. I believe my point remains the same.

The BC NDP have also come out against twinning the Port Mann Bridge despite the fact that it regularly becomes an airborne parking lot for those who use it, including constituents of their Surrey MLAs.

And the BC NDP supported the Liberals' treaty with the Tsawwassen First Nation despite the fact that it will remove 500 acres of prime farmland from the Agricultural Land Reserve and pave it for Deltaport container shipping expansion.

The only NDP MLA to stand in the legislature and vote against a bill that violated a 35-year-old NDP policy to preserve farmland, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadow's Michael Sather -- was temporarily thrown out of the NDP caucus for causing trouble.

Then there's the new so-called carbon tax introduced by the suddenly green Gordon Campbell. It's green alright, if you are a corporation getting a major tax cut paid for by working stiffs at the pumps.

Between large corporations, small business and banks and financial institutions, the total tax cut tab is a whopping $890 million when fully implemented, half the $1.8 billion the gas tax will raise.

Tailor-made for a populist NDP campaign against the B.C. Liberals, with community hall meetings across the province full of angry voters?

Absolutely. Is it happening? Well, no.

The NDP rightly railed against the corporate tax cuts but was probably afraid to alienate the collection of ever-gullible environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the Suzuki Foundation, who immediately chimed in with their support for the Liberals.

So the biggest political gift the NDP has received in years remained unopened.

After all, why would the NDP want to upset David Suzuki and his pious Prius-driving pals? They might vote Green in the next election, or Liberal. If they haven't already, that is.

Sadly, it was left for the right-wing Canadian Taxpayers Federation, usually a fellow traveller with the BC Liberals and federal Tories, to state the obvious.

"It will create hardship for families, as soccer moms are unlikely to start walking," said B.C. director Maureen Bader. Exactly.

Layton, for his part, has fought harder to transfer to Canadian municipalities a 5 cent per litre gasoline tax collected by the federal government than he has to actually call for lower gas taxes.

Does anybody in NDP headquarters ever consider that their own political base -- the lower-income working people who consistently vote for the party, who volunteer in elections and who donate their hard-earned dollars -- might actually be the ones most seriously hurt by high gasoline taxes?

Apparently not. Class once again dismissed.


RossK said...

Shorter Mr. T?

"You'll never win anything if all you do is worry about not losing."

(great analysis Bill - thanks)


Anonymous said...

In regards to the recent Vancouver Quadra campaign, it is interesting to note that the NDP ran a 20-something political neophyte in Joyce Murray's new riding whilst the Liberals have chosen to run a 20-something political neophyte in in Joyce Murray's old riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam against NDP incumbant Dawn Black. Is this just a coincidence? Or was some deal was made between Joyce Murray and Dawn Black ensuring that each woman would face a young and inexperienced candidate from the other party when they stood for election.

Norm said...

I always wondered why I liked Glen Clark and your column offers me some definition. Clark always called it as it was. Time for the NDP to serve up some fire and brimstone and quit trying to be all things to all people and dance with the people who brought them to the ball.

Anonymous said...

James is trying to create a dynasty rather than represent a party and a people. At EVERY key event where fundamental policy is discussed, James gathers Jenny Kwan and Mike Farnsworth around her. Mike F was even more vocal than the Libs on backing the federal crime bill. And I recall his attacks on a federal MP of his own party, after the member said that he feared RCMP intimidation. Gee, why would anyone question the RCMP's political interference? Maybe, literacy and a supra-Canwest perspective.

James is the wife of an RCMP officer; Kwan is a former Vancouver Police Dept Criminologist. Party positions on Social Programmes gets muted by the Triumvirate's imitation of a Neighbourhood Watch group. The last poll revealed that the people of BC will elect an NDP government, if the party leadership is ready to govern. Frankly, what I see is less a Loyal Opposition than a one-party Caucus posing as democratic politics. James should get a workable programme, or get out of the way before we see some major aisle-jumping in Victoria.

Anonymous said...


The Green vote in Quadra had just as much to do with the (mistaken)belief by those that voted for them that the Greens have a worthwhile platform, as much as it was a place for disaffected Liberals to park their vote.

Joyce Murray is one of the worst candidates I've encountered in this
Province. She is roundly reviled in old Quadra by the stalwart Liberals and Independents, many of whom despise her and her personal political boss, Grit campaign iron-fist Mark Marissen.

Plus, the Green vote was very young. Add the fact that so many Liberals voted for impressive NDPer Rebecca Coad.

Also, the Asian vote split almost evenly between Grit and Tory because Quadrans are more concerned about crime and where their tax dollars will be going.

Joyce the Dim kept talking about the environment.
Fabulous. Guess she didn't see the number of SUVs in the riding. And again, the Jewish vote, some seven thousand strong have turned on the Liberals.

All this bodes well for the Tories in Quadra since I think we can all agree that you will never see an NDPer or Green elected in the riding.

I have to say though, that Rebecca Coad was most impressive, notwithstanding her drivel on the environment and particularly her
misinformed opinions regarding our gallant efforts in Afghanistan.

Blessed Easter to you and your readers.

A. G. (Alex) Tsakumis

Anonymous said...

I guess one of the biggest challenges the provincial NDP faces in the next election is that they really don't stand for anything. They have displayed an appalling lack of strategic leadership in actually spelling out what the party stands for these days. I think it was very strategic to have Carole James brought in to soften the image of the NDP. The backroomers needed a bench warmer and they got one. And if anyone thinks Ms. James is in charge of this party, I've got some lovely swampland for sale in Florida. The NDP has been all over the map and flip flopped and frankly looked like amateurish idiots. Expelling Sather from caucas just made them look like Liberals in sheeps clothing, bully boy tactics in a party that used to revel in their strong personalities and convictions. That is dead now. Look at how Corky Evans has been muzzled/ muzzled himself. How Jenny Kwan is relegated to the back of the bus.

If one were of the conspiracy theorist ilk, it might be worth considering that the NDP has actually been coopted by the neo-conservative agenda, they certainly aren't playing a game that will win the support of the electorate since it is near impossible to tell what they exactly stand for, not just oppose (and even that's confusing these days, eg. ALR). They can send out their little press releases about the Liberals, but what have they actually done? What do they stand up for? Why should the electorate actually chose them to lead the province?

You can fool some of the people...

That's why I say the best hope we all have is quite simple... vote for the best candidate in our riding. Vote for the candidate who has a real record of being an ethical leader who stands for issues in our ridings. Walk away from parties. Remember MLA's voting records and for those sitting MLA's, action speaks louder than words. What has your MLA(or MP), done for your constituency? And if you can't figure that out, sign your X for someone on the ballot who actually has done something in your community. I know it sounds implausably naive & idealistic, but maybe this could become known as the "Commonsense election" strategy. I think we need a little commonsense in politics these days. It might be the only way we can get some real representation that reflects our diversity.

Anonymous said...

1:32 AM Anonymous has it wrong big time.

If anything James is capitulating to the demands of Shane Simpson, Gregor Robertson, David Chudnovsky, et al. They're the gang that loves the carbon tax and the elitist positions of the current NDP. From what I read in the paper and see on the the tv, Farnsworth is one of the few populists in the caucus with Dix, Evans, Horgan and Ralston. Tieleman talks about the NDP needing a healthy dose of populism and he's right and that includes on crime. If you don't like Farnsworth on crime, you probably are one of the Libby Davis types who want the NDP to be even less populist.

Anonymous said...

In regards to Mr. Tsukamis' comments I'd like to ad this. The Quadra Jewish community was very well represented on MP Stephen Owens constituency executive. When Joyce Murray won the Quadra nomination, she didn't bother to bring any of these people, nor anyone else from the Jewish community onto her constituency executive. This was probably a tactical error on her part as prominent Liberals from the Jewish community did not participate in her campaign. Also prominant Liberals from the Chinese community. Raymond Chan, Wendy Yuan, Ken Lo and Mason Loh didn't play much of a role in her campaign. Her campaign team was pretty much a white gentile affair. Small wonder she lost so many votes.

Bill Tieleman said...

NOTE: It has been pointed out to me after writing this that the NDP voted against the legislation but then its MLAs accepted the pension. Three NDP MLAs skipped the vote altogether.

I believe my point remains the same - NDP MLAs are taking the pensions.

Anonymous said...

The weird thing about the pensions is that almost all of the NDP MLA's don't have enough time in to collect it. Qwan, Farnsworth, Krog and Corky Evans. I might have missed someone and if so, sorry . I did remind trhe NDP Leader taht after 35 years of federal service in the military and a crown corporation where I paid in 7 percent, her raise alone was bigger and her percentage contribution to the pension plan and time required to get one is far lower than us peasants.


Budd Campbell said...

An interesting article, Bill, and one I would like to think might help stimulate discussion in the NDP. But it won't. A party whose rank and file membership has an average age of 60+ isn't in a mood to re-think anything that's politically sensitive for any of its influential core constituencies.

I have a question for you, Bill, given your reference to the Tsawwassen Treaty vote and the situation of Michael Sather. Do you think the NDP Caucus, both in Victoria and Ottawa, should be permitted more free votes? On what issues should free votes not be permitted under any circumstances?

And it's nice to see a blast from the past here in the person of Norm. Along with former BC NDP employee "Patricia B.", Norm helped to derail any serious discussion of equitable redistribution in the NDP in the late 1970s at the behest of the Cocke Machine and Dave Barrett.

Anonymous said...

Gosh Budd I hate to disagree with you on the ages of NDP members. I can count seven in our family locally and two more in Vancouver, all support the NDP and at least four of them contribute time and money. Oops almost forgot we have one in Ottawa as well. The old ones are the ones who have the time to do conventions. We can wait for change. If Gordo manages a majority next year I figure , then, the back room group will go for a change. James should be cleaning out the back room right now. DL

Budd Campbell said...

"Gosh Budd I hate to disagree with you on the ages of NDP members. I can count seven in our family locally and two more in Vancouver ... "

All I can say, dl, is that your family is an exception to the rule. It's been remarked upon in political science papers that the NDP membership is much older than that of the Grits/Tories. The NDP's various election setbacks have basically cleaned out the ranks, because people in mid career or with families don't have a whole lot of time for futility and dysfunction.

In BC I saw the activist group fall apart around the time of the 1986 provincial election. Losing the 1983 election had seriously strained the party's credibility with it's activists, but with Restraint and Bennett's falling popularity the party was still getting big crowds out to nomination and other events, up to the time of the Socred Convention in Whistler. When the polls and pundits then all turned on a dime back to Social Credit, the last rush of air came out of the balloon.

By the time of the 1991 election, Mike Harcourt had to run a campaign with a fraction of the workers available to Barrett in 1979 or 1983. He won only because of the advanced decay in SC ranks, and nearly lost to the upstart Wilson Liberals largely because the NDP "machine" was running on little more than fumes.

Needless to say, with the complete disintegration of the Ontario and BC NDP Govts through the 1990s, there hasn't been a powerful reason for young people who are either ambitious, or simply looking for an effective vehicle for representation, to gravitate towards the NDP.

Anonymous said...

Budd, you are wrong. Lots of us have been activists in the NDP and our family most certainly is not unique as to whom they support. The youger set often follws their parents in political thinking. Some sure don't for sure. Some youg people don't bother to vote for anyone.Maybe that's why all paerties have political associations in schools and universities.

Many of our friends do support the NDP even as they grind their teeth seeing how things are going. None are very rich, but hold professions and jobs and feel for the poor, underpaid. un housed, and minorities. I recall the Harourt election very well as we worked for his campaign. Many people there had till that time, no interest in politics.
People of all kinds filled Mike's election campaign office and they sure were not all old farts,

The desire to work for James is low in our view, how she runs things turn people off. She seems not to listen to supporters. The woman has increased the size of the opposition for sure, but part of that was because the citizens realized that an opposition was needed after seeing Gordon run roughshod over social programs causing damage still not repaired.

I find it amazing that you speak like a NDP insider yet a few months ago told us you had no connection to that party. Maybe you are one of those fellows who wakes up, picks a side in any discussion and runs with it? I don't wish to demean you efforts or anyone elses opinion but don't attempt to tell us that our family is an exception to a rule. What rule are you talking about? You might be right but I sort of doubt it.

Anonymous said...

According to Rick Mercer of the Mercer report, 72% of elligible voters did NOT vote in these bi-elections. In Quadra, Joyce Murray got 18,000 fewer votes than Stephen Owen did in 2006, while Deborah Meredith got 6000 fewer votes than Stephen Rodgers and Rebecca Coad got 5000 fewer votes than the 2006 NDP candidate. I doesn't seem like very many voters changed their party allegience , they simply stayed home.