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VIEW: What Horgan must learn from Dix's failure

[Editor's note: The Tyee received this unsolicited op-ed from Ken Carty, UBC professor emeritus of political science. We publish it here for your consideration.]

John Horgan is the latest in a long line of B.C. New Democratic party leaders -- the fourteenth since the mid-1950s, when the modern B.C. party system crystallized into clear two party competition. His challenge is to find a way to lead the party to office. The evidence suggests it is not going to be easy, or perhaps even likely.

Adrian Dix led the New Democrats in the last election and conventional wisdom is that he blew a sure thing when the party's big lead in the pre-­election polls disappeared in the heat of the campaign. But is that fair to Dix? Does it tell the real story? And what lessons ought Horgan to draw from it?

A quick look at the historical record shows that B.C.'s NDP has always represented a minority of the province. In a two party contest, it is destined to regularly finish second. Only twice in the last 60 years has it won a provincial election -- three times if we count Glen Clark's 1996 win, but he managed that with fewer votes than the Liberals thanks to the electoral system. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, it helps to look at a graph that summarizes party vote shares across these six decades.

The NDP won in 1972 under Dave Barrett's leadership, and again in 1991 under Mike Harcourt's. But the figure demonstrates that they didn't win by persuading more British Columbians to support them. Both those victories only happened because there was a collapse in the vote share of the NDP's opponents, Social Credit until 1991 and the Liberals since. In both cases the province's natural governing coalition soon got its act together, quickly returning to power and leaving the New Democrats in opposition.

Over these six decades, the province and its politics were transformed. The balance between rural and urban populations shifted, the drivers of the economy changed, and the relationship between private and public sector unions (central to NDP organization) all were altered. Yet none of that fundamental restructuring of the province appears to have shifted the electoral place of the New Democrats. The party has simply not found a way to represent the values and interests of the majority of British Columbians.

Adrian Dix learned this the hard way. Perhaps he hoped that his lead in the polls signalled another of those infrequent government party meltdowns. Instead he saw Christy Clark and her campaign team reenergize Gordon Campbell's Liberal party, which had been far better built than many realized. So Dix really didn't lose. The election's outcome was just a repeat of the usual divide and another predictable result.

If Horgan thinks that a better campaign, a more vigorous policy platform, or set of dynamic new candidates are what he needs, then he is likely to join a long list of NDP leaders who led the party from the opposition benches in Victoria.

His challenge is to help rethink, remake and reposition his party. Changing leaders won't do it. Unless there is a significant change in the NDP itself, and its relationship to the people of the province it wants to lead, we should expect the lines on the graph to continue much as they have.

Ken Carty is professor emeritus of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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