Progressives and economic uncertainty go hand in hand. That is among the most enduring myths in electoral politics, exemplified by the blunt absurdity of a recent Conservative TV spot which growled "the NDP would wreck our economy."
My numerous laissez-faire friends even bristle at the term 'progressive' being used at all to describe the intentions of the political left. One once said to me, "The left is great at stealing language: coercive becomes progressive, spend becomes invest."
But progressive really is an apt description. To progress is to move forward towards a destination. That destination is a more just, humane and sustainable society. By virtue of my role in the finance sector, interacting with various entrepreneurs and professionals, I have come to believe there are many muted voices who harbour intellectual and moral sympathies with the left.
To win and govern effectively, progressives must embrace those voices and be creative, bold and specific on economic issues.
Further, without the confidence of the electorate on economic matters, victory will be elusive, if not impossible.
Speaking to insecurity
During this election it is essential to understand that we live in an era of persistent financial insecurity among the majority of the population. Household balance sheets are in a tenuous state throughout the industrialized world, particularly in Canada. This inevitably affects how citizens choose to vote. Healthcare, education, ethics, and the environment -- they all matter a great deal and undoubtedly influence voter behaviour. But the party that secures economic confidence wins elections in this country. Recent precedents tell the story:
- In April 2014, the "the economy, jobs and growth" handily polled as the most important issue among voters on the eve of the Quebec provincial election according to EKOS Politics. Fifty-three per cent of those who held that issue dearest voted Liberal, the eventual victor.
- In June 2014, Abacus Data polled Ontarians immediately before the provincial election. "Jobs and the economy" was far and away the most important single issue selected, and one on which the winning Liberals led the Conservatives by five points.
- In May 2015, the NDP rocked the Alberta political establishment. It would be an overstatement to suggest that the economy was the sole driver of that success, but could Rachel Notley have succeeded without showing strength on this top and most pressing issue? A final Ipsos poll prior to the election showed the NDP strongly leading on issues "create jobs for Albertans," "diversify the economy" and "act in the best interest of taxpayers."
- In the U.K., David Cameron's Conservatives scored a surprise majority just days after the Alberta election, as the economy suddenly returned as the primary voter issue, according to YouGov. The Conservatives held an 18 point lead over Labour on the question of "which political party would handle the economy best?"
- And last but not least, the improbable exit polls from our own May 2013 BC provincial election. EKOS Politics measured a distressing 80 per cent of those who voted "to stay on a sound economic trajectory" (the top issue provincially) voted BC Liberal.
Which brings us back to the powerful myth that progressives are inherently weak on issues of economics, investment and job creation. The myth is so powerful that in B.C. voters cling to it even though the NDP has not been in power since 2001. That was a long time ago. China's economy has grown by over 700 per cent since then. Apple's market capitalization has increased by more than 7,000 per cent. Historical perspective is warranted, especially since NDP governments have actually produced a higher share of budget surpluses than those of Conservatives or Liberals since 1980.
In short, it's time this throw-back perception be thrown out as a political anachronism.
Bringing the economy home
The reality is that the parties of the left actually focus heavily on the well-being of the most vital driver in the economy: you. The household. And by that, I do not mean nuclear families alone. I mean any household, including single people, single parents, childless couples and widowers. I mean everyone who orbits around the average or the median, and certainly those who survive on less. The household is the engine to which the rest of the economy responds. It is a strong foundation of employment, consumption and tax revenue that propels everything else in the system.
Corporations and investors simply respond to demand, and aggregate demand is not powered by the top one per cent or even the top 10 per cent. Disposable income flows when we create the conditions for the household to adequately feed, clothe and shelter itself, supported by the opportunity to be healthy and educated.
Case in point: assuming Pacific Northwest LNG actually gets built in this commodity down-cycle, 330 new operational positions will be created, plus another 300 local spin-off jobs. That's fine, but liquefied natural gas has taken centre political stage for three straight years in this province. Meanwhile, the food and beverage industry, which employs 145,000 in B.C., received exactly nothing out of the new BC liquor laws. So remind me which party has their finger on the economic pulse? Remind me how the multiplier effect is supposed to work?
Finally, there is an urgency to this call because as crucial as a more balanced economy is, it is only a first step before the big challenges begin: bolder action around climate change; labour displacement through technology; housing affordability; and whatever else lies in wait.
A Leger poll last week placed "stimulating the Canadian economy" as the top issue for the October election, sequentially followed by the related subjects of "helping middle-class families" and "job creation." The NDP leads on the latter two items and is nipping at Harper's heels on the first. If recent history is any guide, victory will come to the party that evokes the greatest confidence on such issues.
Progressives can, and must, earn that confidence.