Opinion

How the BC NDP Blew the Election

A series of unfortunate events, indeed.

By Bill Tieleman 21 May 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant... It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing." -- Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events

The BC New Democrat campaign that led to last week's stunning reversal of fortune by Premier Christy Clark is A Series of Unfortunate Events with politically tragic consequences.

Like the series of books about the "intelligent, charming and resourceful" Baudelaire youngsters, the BC NDP seems cursed with endlessly repeating bad luck -- the evil Count Olaf returns just as things appear brightest.

How the NDP's 17 per cent lead in public polling as the election started, with 61 per cent of voters wanting a change in government and 63 per cent disapproving of Clark's performance, dramatically turned into an increased BC Liberal fourth term is a sad tale for New Democrats.

There were three strategic NDP campaign errors, in retrospect: rejecting negative advertising; reversing position to oppose the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline and failing to conduct appropriate campaign polling.

And with BC Liberals frantically spinning stories designed to make Clark look more like the "people's premier" than the reality -- voters' reluctant choice -- it's important to look at all the facts.

Book the First: The Bad Beginning

BC NDP leader Adrian Dix said a year before the election campaign that his party would not engage in negative attack ads despite the BC Liberals and supporters vicious campaign targeting him.

"In the last seven months, the Liberal party and its allies have spent between $2 and $3 million on running personal attack ads against, well, me," Dix told supporters in Parksville last May.

"A lot of people think the way to respond to negative ads is to run negative ads ourselves," Dix argued. "The reason we are not going to do this is very simple."

"First, 1.7 million people didn't vote in the last provincial election. We are not going to bring anybody back to politics by deciding the winner of an election is the person with the best ad agency to run the nastiest negative ads. We need to bring people back to politics and that means offering some hope that change will happen," Dix said.

Despite my own political experience that negative advertising works even though people say they hate it, I reluctantly accepted that Dix might well be right. I even outlined some political research backing those views -- but we were both dead wrong.

And the campaign managed by veteran Ontario New Democrat Brian Topp, one of the architects of late NDP leader Jack Layton's success, stayed positive until almost the end.

And not only did 1.7 million voters stay home again, but the BC NDP, the BC Liberals and even the Green Party all dropped in both popular vote and actual ballots cast for them.

The BC Liberals dropped to 44.4 per cent from 45.8 per cent in 2009, the NDP to 39.5 per cent from 42.1 per cent and the Greens to 8 per cent from 8.2 per cent. All three parties dropped in votes in initial Elections BC counts, the BC Liberals by 28,000, the NDP by 48,000 and the Greens by 4,100.

Only the BC Conservatives increased their tallies, more than doubling their popular vote to 4.8 per cent from 2.1 per cent -- due to more than doubling their candidates to 56 in 2013 versus 24 in 2009.

That leaves the BC Liberals with 50 seats, up five from dissolution, the NDP at 33, down three and the Greens with their first ever B.C. seat, Andrew Weaver in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, while the BC Conservatives were shut out.

Bad Beginning

The Bad Beginning for the NDP was to conclude that because the BC Liberal and Concerned Citizens for B.C. group led by ex-Clark advisor and corporate CEO Jim Shepard had spent millions unsuccessfully attacking Dix without affecting his good polling in the year before the election that negative advertising wouldn't work for either side in 2013.

Without strongly defining the BC Liberals and Clark as a government that urgently needed to be terminated by voters for an incredibly long list of sins, the NDP couldn't make the winning case for change.

That allowed the BC Liberals to successfully argue that the BC NDP slogan of "change for the better" would actually amount to change for the worse -- and they did that with a vengeance.

Their advertising and Clark's every appearance was a tightly scripted message box focused on the alleged mayhem Dix's NDP would inflict on B.C. jobs and the economy.

The BC Liberals own prescription was patently absurd: a balanced budget that bond rating agencies rejected; elimination of debt in 15 years through revenue from non-existent liquefied natural gas plants; and "controlled spending" from a premier that increased B.C.'s debt by $11 billion in just two years.

But all said with a very pleasant smile and the professional conviction of someone selling soap on television.

At the same time, the NDP were talking about increasing taxes to pay for skills training -- did its pre-campaign polling show that was a winner?

And what happened to health care and education in this campaign -- the two strongest cards in the NDP hand against the BC Liberals?

Book the Tenth: The Slippery Slope

On Earth Day, April 22, Dix made a major announcement: an NDP government would reject the proposed twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to Burnaby to transport crude oil from Alberta to Vancouver for oil tanker shipment overseas.

This after previously stating several times, including on April 11 on the Voice Of B.C. television show, that the NDP would not take a position on the controversial issue despite the party already opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

"They haven't actually made an application," Dix told host Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun. "I think as a matter of principle, you should actually see what the application is before you address it."

Then came the slippery slope.

Dix's decision was the result of an intense lobbying effort by environmentalists, NDP MLAs and candidates convinced it was the morally right thing to do -- and politically advantageous as well to head off the Green Party, which was campaigning hard in Victoria and Vancouver on its own absolute opposition to both pipelines.

There was also concern that massive protests against Kinder Morgan would turn B.C. into another environmental battleground, to the province's detriment.

But in retrospect, the Kinder Morgan "surprise" was likely the pivotal event of the entire campaign, an opinion I unusually share with former federal Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl.

"But the turning point in the election was when Clark crystallized the connection between her party and jobs and the economy. The momentum shifted," Strahl wrote in The Globe and Mail May 16.

First, it appeared to validate for many undecided and soft-NDP voters BC Liberal claims that the NDP was "anti-jobs" and would damage the economy, even though Clark herself never said that Kinder Morgan would proceed either, unless it met all five of her conditions, one of which -- royalty payments -- Alberta had already rejected.

Secondly, it may have confirmed BC Liberal attacks that an NDP government under Dix would "flip-flop" on important issues.

And despite massive evidence that the BC Liberals had repeatedly done the same on the Harmonized Sales Tax, balanced budgets, selling BC Rail and much more, the NDP's rejection of negative advertising on those important issues during the campaign and before left it vulnerable to being the only party seen as "flip-flopping."

Thirdly, it alienated what now seems to be a significant number of blue-collar workers who support the construction of pipelines and the extraction of natural resources. (Disclosure: some of my clients represent or employ construction and resource industry workers.)

It was no accident that Clark continually appeared on television during the campaign wearing a hard hat and safety vest in private sector workplaces. Dix by contrast was almost always in a suit and tie.

The BC Liberals knew those workers and their families are be concentrated in key swing ridings like Kamloops-North Thompson, which Environment Minister Terry Lake had won by just 510 votes in 2009 but increased that to a 2,818 margin in 2013.

Kamloops-North Thompson also has an amazing political record: the party that wins this bellwether seat has formed government since party politics were introduced to B.C.

But the NDP's Kinder Morgan rejection was also likely a factor in other resource-based ridings like Fraser-Nicola, where veteran NDP MLA Harry Lali was surprisingly defeated by 754 votes and even in suburban ridings with blue-collar private sector workers.

The NDP's three-term incumbent Jagrup Brar lost in Surrey-Fleetwood to Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender by just 265 votes, Joe Trasolini lost by 543 votes the Port Moody-Coquitlam NDP seat he had won in the by-election upset of April 2012, as did Gwen O'Mahoney in Chilliwack-Hope.

The NDP also narrowly lost seats it previously held where sitting MLAs retired and were replaced by newcomers: in Delta North, Coquitlam-Maillardville and Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows.

However, the NDP's Kinder Morgan opposition may also have created upset narrow victories over the BC Liberals for the party's David Eby in Vancouver-Point Grey, George Heyman in Vancouver-Fairview, Jane Shin in Burnaby-Lougheed and Gary Holman in Saanich North and the Islands, where pipeline opposition was strong.

But would some or all of them have won anyway without the NDP changing its position on Kinder Morgan?

Certainly picking up several seats in an election where the NDP overall lost ground is unusual.

But ultimately the NDP needed to gain a minimum of seven new seats to form a majority of 43 in the B.C. Legislature and it lost three, likely on a slippery slope coated in oil politics.

And in several ridings like Fraser-Nicola, the Green Party vote easily exceeded the NDP margin of loss; in Lali's case, for example, the Green's took 1,174 votes despite the NDP promising to kill not one but two oil pipelines.

Overall it may be less the case that the Greens split the vote so much as that environmentalists could not deliver Green-leaning supporters to the NDP despite the Kinder Morgan move.

And indeed I received an email after the election complaining that the BC NDP had not taken a strong position on fish farms and saving wild salmon compared to the Greens.

Noted activist Alexandra Morton only called for an NDP vote the day before the election, a message many would not have heard.

Certainly an analysis by The Tyee of the impact of Green voters indicates that it is unlikely more than three seats were arguably "lost" to the NDP in this election.

One of the most troubling issues for both parties will be to re-examine if a significant number of British Columbia voters truly do see election choices as jobs versus the environment.

Book the Twelfth: The Penultimate Peril

The next to final chapter of the Lemony Snicket series brings our heroes to the Hotel Denouement -- an appropriate description of the NDP campaign's final destination.

What is now abundantly clear is that the NDP was not conducting rolling polls throughout the election in key swing ridings to pick up trends and adjust the campaign accordingly, as the BC Liberals were.

In fact, the NDP disconcertingly switched polling firms during the campaign -- and instead relied solely on internal province-wide surveys to guide them.

Even worse, when those internally polls did show a tightening race and potentially serious trouble for the NDP during the campaign, when there was still time to change course, attack hard and salvage an election win, the response was muted and ineffective.

To be fair, the fact that external polling for media outlets did not pick up anything beyond a measurable but not dramatic tightening of the race, added to the NDP's lack of panic.

In the final 10 days the party responded with a tougher message and a new round of TV and other ads criticizing the BC Liberal record.

But the ads were clearly put together at the last minute, featuring only text-based headlines about the HST, B.C. Rail and the "quick wins" scandal -- a reference that only political junkies could decipher.

There were no photos of Christy Clark and Gordon Campbell, no reminder of the 12-year record of BC Liberal government failures, increase in debt, loss of jobs and promise of even more of the same.

With the BC Liberals gaining steam daily towards an election victory, the NDP response was tepid when a full frontal assault was the only chance left to win.

The BC Liberal campaign team's self-aggrandizement effort in recent days claims that only they knew from key riding polls that Clark could succeed.

The reality is that the NDP campaign forfeited its last chance to change the course of the election before it was too late. They had already checked into the Hotel Denouement.

Book the Thirteenth: The End

The BC NDP has a problem even more damning than losing a 17 per cent lead in a 28-day election campaign and facing at least four more years in opposition.

The party is on a downward trend that changing leaders and campaign managers has failed to arrest.

Its actual votes have steadily dropped from an all-time high of 824,544 in 1986, ironically when NDP leader Bob Skelly lost to Social Credit Premier Bill Vander Zalm in what has been seen as the party's worst campaign, to 643,399 in 2013 under Dix.

From NDP leaders Bob Strachan in the 1960s to Tom Berger to Dave Barrett to Mike Harcourt to Glen Clark to Ujjal Dosanjh to Carole James to Adrian Dix, Skelly's vote total amazingly stands as the high water mark.

It is also a testament to the power of attack advertising, as after Skelly's disastrous start to the campaign, the NDP went highly negative on Vander Zalm and brought its popular vote up to 42.6 per cent versus Social Credit's 49.3 per cent.

The NDP looked good after winning the 1991 election under Mike Harcourt and the surprise 1996 election victory under Glen Clark (when I was communications director in the premier's office).

But the NDP was devastated in 2001 after Ujjal Dosanjh took over from interim premier Dan Miller, who filled in after Clark was forced to resign.

Dropping from 39 seats to just two after Gordon Campbell won an astonishing 77 was earth shattering for the NDP.

Under new leader Carole James, the NDP rebounded in 2005 to 33 seats and 41.5 per cent of the vote, a return to its traditional strength. But Campbell won 46 seats and 45.8 per cent to hold power.

The 2009 election saw little change, with Campbell winning 49 seats and James 35 and the NDP trailing just before and throughout the entire campaign.

Internal NDP caucus dissent led to James' resignation and Dix became leader in 2011, following similar discontent in the BC Liberals over the HST that led to Campbell's resignation and Clark's ascent.

Dix built a significant lead over Clark in consistent polling starting in March 2011 and was 17 per cent ahead to start the 2013 election.

But then A Serious of Unfortunate Incidents destroyed that hard-won advantage.

There are many other lessons to be learned or relearned for New Democrats in the years ahead.

A few points are already clear.

Negative advertising is here to stay, in B.C. and across Canada. There will be no more attempts to run positive campaigns by any party, anywhere.

Declining voter turnout hurts democracy overall but it damages the NDP more than its right-wing opponents.

Scandals rarely defeat governments and don't motivate voters, their own circumstances do. If not, Campbell would have lost in 2005 and 2009 and Clark in 2013.

When voters are pushed to a forced choice between honesty and exceedingly unrealistic optimism, they will take the latter even if not convinced.

And if voters have to pick between a positive change of government and a threat of a negative change in the economy and jobs, they will fearfully avoid perceived risk.

There's one thing that even flawed polling makes clear: voters chose the BC Liberals in spite of -- not because of -- Premier Christy Clark.

Even if publicly released horse race numbers were wrong just a day before the election, that does not mean Clark's 58 per cent disapproval rating or the 58 per cent of those polled who wanted a different government dramatically reversed themselves.

No, the truth that the BC Liberal party hierarchy wants to hide is that voters picked Clark despite their disapproval of her performance, not because they changed their minds about her attributes.

That fact may make for an exceptional short honeymoon for B.C.'s first elected woman premier. But Clark's 28-day campaign has given her four years to try and convince voters they made the right choice.

Adrian Dix faces a much tougher test after losing an election nearly everyone expected him to win.

But those who are angry and resentful now have to recognize that no one complained when Dix made endless tours of the province to rally support for the last two years, mending a divisive party.

No one faulted Dix as he raised record amounts of money and surprising support from the corporate sector for the NDP.

And nary a word of internal criticism was heard when he outlined modest but achievable plans for a future NDP government and led an exceedingly effective opposition in the B.C. Legislature.

Indeed, everyone I spoke with in the party and beyond was incredibly impressed with his intelligence, work ethic and ability to speak powerfully, at length and without notes everywhere he went.

I also didn't see a series of columns saying Dix was doing it all wrong -- just the opposite. And I wasn't hearing private concerns in those two years, in fact not until a few NDP veterans uninvolved in the central campaign contacted me toward the end of the election, worried correctly then as it turned out.

If Dix did something truly wrong, sadly it was in appealing to us to believe in people's better nature.

That was based on his polling numbers surviving right through some of the most vicious personal attacks Canada has ever seen, frustrating BC Liberal strategists and convincing some in Clark's party that she had to go as leader. And it was also based on Dix's own personal beliefs.

But the BC Liberals' faith in fear was ultimately rewarded during the campaign.

The NDP did, however, do something that proved a huge mistake: it left enormous, election-changing strategy decisions up to a small group of people: Dix, Topp and some senior caucus and party staff.

Those decisions have left Dix a disheartened opposition leader instead of B.C's new premier.

But the NDP must also face tough facts that go well beyond its leader and its disastrous campaign if it truly wants to compete for power in 2017.

There will be no easy answers and no quick solutions to a series of unfortunate events.  [Tyee]

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