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Poll: BC's Rush to the Centre

Tyee survey finds nearly half would have voted for 'middle' party had it existed.

David Beers 23 May 2005TheTyee.ca

David Beers is the founding editor of The Tyee and serves as current editor-in-chief.

He started the publication in 2003 as an experiment in new ways of doing online journalism in the public interest, including solutions-focused reporting, crowd-funded support and a humane work culture. He loves what The Tyee has become thanks to amazing colleagues and readers.

He has lived in Vancouver since 1991. Before The Tyee he was a senior editor at Mother Jones Magazine and the Vancouver Sun, and his writing has appeared in many U.S. and Canadian outlets. He is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's graduate school of journalism.

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Suddenly everyone seems to agree it’s wonderful to be “moderate” in British Columbia politics. Gordon Campbell, Carole James and Adriane Carr all built their election game plans around appealing to undecided voters assumed to be turned off to “polarized” politics and wanting more tempered leadership.

Now, when the BC Liberals and NDP face off in the Legislature, prepare to watch their members oh so politely beat each other up in order to claim the middle ground. That strategy – call it the rush to the centre – would seem to be bolstered by results to a poll question commissioned by The Tyee midway through the provincial election campaign.

As part of an omnibus survey, the polling firm Strategic Communications asked: “If there was a party in this provincial election that represented the position in between those of the BC Liberals and the BC New Democratic Party, I would be more likely to vote for them . . . Agree or disagree?” The question was changed slightly to accommodate whether the respondents identified themselves as decided or undecided voters.

Result: Almost half of BC voters (47.5 percent) agreed that they would be more likely to vote for a new party with a position between that of the Liberals and the NDP, rather than vote their own first choice, or remain undecided about their vote.

A similar number said they would be less likely to vote for such a party but this result indicates that such a ‘middle’ party could, with all other factors being equal, have a significant opportunity to challenge the Liberals and the NDP in British Columbia.

Of course Adriane Carr tried to position her Greens as that party, as did Tom Morino of Democratic Reform BC, but voters by and large didn’t buy it.

So there is no such ‘middle party’ on the horizon now, especially without the passing of Single Transferrable Voting or some other reform of the voting process. Which leaves it to the BC Liberals and the NDP to slug it out for those voters within and outside their own ranks who yearn for a kinder, gentler politics.

Muddled about ‘middle’

We saw clear attempts to hog the middle lane during the election. In a late attempt to moderate his party’s image, Gordon Campbell pulled in the CBC cosmopolitan Carole Taylor and the seasoned judge Wally Oppal to shore up a small ‘l’ liberal wing that had atrophied during the reign of the BC Liberals.

New Democrat Carole James, meanwhile, made a virtue of campaigning against her own party’s previous governments, saying they’d lacked “balance.” She promised balanced budgets, loosened ties with labour, and a place for business at the decision-makers’ table.

Now James faces an interesting debate within her own ranks. Did the NDP’s close finish confirm her strategy of hewing towards moderation? Or is the message that with a more aggressive and risk-taking approach, the NDP could have eked out a victory and formed government?

The Tyee’s poll results might seem to be ammunition for the James wing. Especially given this breakdown between decided voters: Among those who planned to vote BC Liberal, 41.4 percent said they would be inclined to vote for a more moderate party. Among the NDP voters, the percentage rose to 45.5 percent. Crosstabulation of this question shows that the possibility of such a party is most popular among women as compared to men, young voters as compared to middle aged or older voters, and people with lower incomes as compared to higher.

But consider a few caveats.

One: Just about everyone believes they are moderate.

And two: No one can define for sure what is moderate.

When Canadians have been polled on where they place themselves on the ideological spectrum, well more than half place themselves dead centre, and most of the rest just a hair in either direction left or right. In famously polarized BC, according to Bob Penner of Strategic Communications, most people identify themselves as centrist or a tad to the left.

And when people use the word moderate to describe themselves or a politician, they aren’t necessarily speaking in ideological terms. By moderate they may mean reasonable, well balanced intellectually or emotionally, or open to arguments on all sides before making up their own independent minds. An example might be Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, a guy who seems easy in his own skin and whose experience as a cop and coroner helped give him credibility on drug issues. He ran and won big after taking the radical position that addicts should be given a safe, officially sanctioned place to inject drugs.

Sometimes, in other words, a moderate persona can allow politicians to push forward bold agendas.

And sometimes, when a party steers too firmly towards the mushy middle, the steam goes out of the committed base that got it there in the first place.

No time to get boring

It would be a shame if the BC Liberals and New Democrats mistake the moderation mantra for an excuse to play it safe with ideas and initiatives, just at the moment when British Columbia needs creative thinking to propel us beyond an outdated resource-dependent economy and an old-fashioned dichotomy between Big Business and Big Labour.

And to dull down BC’s political discussion right now would be a true waste, given the exciting opportunity offered by the interesting mix of viewpoints – from Mary Polak to Carole Taylor and from Gregor Robertson to David Chudnovsky -- swept into office on both sides of the aisle.

Memo to Campbell and James: Moderate yourselves, fine. But don’t dare be boring.

[A note on the poll: The results are compiled from a Strategic Communications telephone poll conducted April 25 to May 1, 2005. Interviews were conducted with 600 adult British Columbia residents, selected by the random-household sampling method. The overall results are considered accurate to within ±4.0%, 19-times-in-20, of what they would have been had the entire BC adult population been polled. The margin of error will be larger for sub-groups of the survey population. This data was statistically weighted to ensure that the sample's composition reflects that of the actual BC population according to the 2001 Census.]

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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