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The Mysterious Carole James

That’s how nearly half of British Columbians see the NDP leader. Is she doing enough to define herself for voters?

Tom Barrett 29 Nov
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Who is Carole James? That question will become increasingly important as the May election draws closer.

Right now, a year after her election as NDP leader, James remains a mystery to many British Columbians. Who they decide she is will help decide the election.

James’s political friends and foes will be battling to create an image for her and the evidence suggests they will have plenty of blank canvas on which to paint their portrait.

Every month or so the Mustel Group asks 500 or so British Columbians a number of questions, including: “Do you generally approve or disapprove of the performance of Carole James as leader of the NDP?”

In the Mustel Group's latest poll, in October, 42 per cent said they had no opinion, suggesting they don’t know enough about James to make up their minds one way or the other.

The good news for the NDP is that the number of people who didn’t have an opinion dropped by 13 percentage points from the month before. The bad news for the NDP is that two-thirds of that shift went into the “disapprove” column.

‘Paper-thin familiarity’

Pollster Evi Mustel says the voters’ image of James will become more important as we get closer to an election.

“People are looking at possibly making a change and as we get closer to an election they’re going to be looking a little bit harder at what they’re voting for, rather than what they’re voting against,” she said.

Even voters who do have an opinion of James don’t seem to feel very strongly about her one way or the other, says Ipsos-Reid vice-president Kyle Braid.

“Either way you look at it, a lot of British Columbians have only a paper-thin familiarity with her at this point,” said Braid.

He notes that James got off to a good start, with the NDP’s popularity beginning to jump as soon as she took over as leader. But that momentum “seemed to really fizzle out” in the late spring, probably because the federal election stole the spotlight from provincial politics, Braid said.

“I don’t think she’s managed to re-engage it since.”

Premier’s ‘strong approval’ at 8 percent

It’s not uncommon for an opposition leader to be as unknown as James is and it’s not always a bad thing, either. She’s in a better position than Premier Gordon Campbell, about whom everybody has a strong opinion – most of them negative.

In the most recent Ipsos-Reid poll, Campbell scored a 64 per cent “disapprove” rating, with a total of 46 per cent of respondents saying they strongly disapproved of the job he was doing.

Compare that to Campbell’s 35 per cent approval rating, of which only eight per cent strongly approved of his performance.

As several observers noted, it’s a lot easier to make a good impression on people who don’t know you than it is to turn around the opinions of people who really dislike you.

Still, it’s up to James and the NDP to introduce and define the leader to British Columbians over the next few months.

“She says that she’s representing a new NDP,” said Braid. “There’s not going to be enough time between now and the next election for British Columbians to become familiar with the whole new team.

“She’s going to be the one who’s carrying the message out there. It’s going to be her face out there. It’s going to be her taking on the Liberals and Gordon Campbell.”

Two versions of James

That means the NDP will be trying to create a positive, moderate persona for James and the Liberals will be trying to turn her into a left-wing boogie-person.

We saw it in the U.S. election, when the Bush team and their Swift Boat allies launched a massive negative attack on John Kerry just as many Americans were beginning to make up their minds about the Massachusetts senator. And we saw it in our own federal election, when Ontario voters supported the Paul Martin Liberals – despite their disgust with the governing party – because of last-minute fears that Stephen Harper was as scary as the old Alliance and Reformers.

Gary Mauser, an Simon Fraser University business professor with a background in political marketing, says he’s struck by the fact that so far, the B.C. Liberals have not done a good job of defining who James is. Because they haven’t been able to lock her into a negative image in voters’ minds, the NDP still has an opportunity to create a positive image for their leader, he said.

So far the Liberals’ attempts to define James have focused on destroying her moderate image. At the Liberal convention in early November, Finance Minister Gary Collins  invoked the memory of an earlier moderate New Democrat, Mike Harcourt:

“They elected a nice guy, who everybody liked, who everybody thought was moderate, to run this province… What people didn’t understand is that as nice a guy as Mike Harcourt might have been, he couldn’t run the government and he couldn’t run the province because the big unions were running Mike Harcourt. And now his sister wants to be premier… and she’s nice and she’s portraying herself as moderate.”

The problem with that approach is that the spectre Collins raised looked a lot like Casper the Friendly Ghost. Both Vaughn Palmer and Jim Beatty of The Vancouver Sun remarked at the time that Harcourt is one of the most admired people in the province.

‘Big union bosses’

But the Big Labour theme is bound to be a popular one. We’ll be hearing plenty of variations on this recent line from Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon: “Big union bosses are going to be running Carole James. There is no question in my mind.”

Consultant Bill Tieleman has experience with creating negative images around opposition politicians. When he was former premier Glen Clark’s communications chief, Tieleman helped define Gordon Campbell as a guy who was pretty right-wing and definitely not on your side.

Tieleman doesn’t think the Big Labour frame will be enough to beat James.

“For any spin to work you have to have strong elements to it that are demonstrable and clear,” he said. Unless James takes a series of extreme pro-labour positions, the label won’t stick, he said.

NDP provincial secretary Gerry Scott notes that the Big Labour tag was a favourite device of former premier W.A.C. Bennett as far back as the 1960s. Despite Bennett’s repeated successes against the NDP, Scott argues that there’s no evidence that Wacky’s wins came because of his ability to link the NDP to labour in the public’s mind.

Certainly, Scott says, there’s no evidence that people will buy that label now.

‘Pretty down-to-earth’

So who is Carole James?

Scott’s answer to that question suggests the way the NDP will try to define her.

“I think Carole is a very common-sense individual, very firm but also trying to get beyond the arrogance and the closed-door nature of this government. So she’s made a point of saying we have to be accountable, we have to be inclusive, we have to have practical, common-sense approaches.”

The keywords there are common sense, accountable, inclusive. They make a sharp contrast with the way the NDP wants voters to see the Campbell Liberals: right-wing ideologues running a closed-door government.

James’s own description of herself repeats the same themes. She is, she says, “inclusive … my leadership style is to bring people together.”

Second, she said, “I’m a pretty down-to-earth, common sense kind of person.”

Third, “I know what it’s like to make tough decisions.”

For months now, James has been slogging around the province, pushing those messages to unions, school groups and downtown business associations. The reason that she’s relatively unknown may be that all this stumping has, for whatever reason, been ignored by the mainstream media.

No whining

There are plenty of New Democrats who will tell you that James has been shafted by the media, that there’s been a conspiracy to keep her an unknown.

“New Democrats have made a small industry out of complaining about the media and it’s never done them any good,” responds Tieleman.

“Let’s be fair. The party has not put forward a platform. The party has not put out a whole bunch of new policy positions. It has not nominated most of its candidates.

“Those are the times when attention is paid.”

Harcourt and Clark got negative media coverage and still managed to win elections, he noted.

“You have to work beyond that and not just sort of whine about it.”

Veteran political reporter Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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