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NDP Needs Some Class!

Drifting party's lesson from byelections, BC polls: Fight for the less well-off.

Bill Tieleman 21 Mar

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. Tieleman can be heard Mondays at 10 a.m. on the Bill Good Show on CKNW AM 980 or at E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog at

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BC NDP Leader Carole James.

"I'd rather waffle to the left than waffle to the right."

- Ed Broadbent, 1969, when accused of waffling on a question

There was good news for the federal New Democratic Party in Monday's four byelections -- if it gets the message.

And the same message could save the British Columbia New Democrats from the ignominious disaster election that will otherwise occur in May 2009, based on more bad results in an Ipsos poll released Tuesday that showed the BC Liberals at 46 per cent, the NDP with just 34 per cent and the Greens at 16 per cent.

But the big question is whether either federal leader Jack Layton or provincial leader Carole James will listen to that message.

The popular perception about the byelections is that the only real winner was the Green Party, appropriately enough for a St. Patrick Day's vote. The Greens increased their support considerably, more than doubling their vote in Vancouver Quadra, finishing in second place ahead of the NDP and Conservatives in Willowdale, and a very close third to the NDP in Toronto Centre.

That's all true. But it's not necessarily bad news for the NDP.

Crazy spin? Demented analysis of electoral politics? Not at all.

Because what both the federal byelections and the provincial poll clearly show is that the New Democratic Party can perform dramatically better -- if it does two simple things -- move sharply to the political left and embrace populist positions.

Back to basics

First, the basics that seem to have been either strangely forgotten or embarrassingly ignored by the NDP: the biggest single indicator of voting intention still remains class, or for the politically squeamish, income level.

If you were to go into a large public meeting anywhere in the country outside Quebec and assigned the task of finding out who the NDP voters in the room were but could only ask one question of each person -- other than how they voted in the last election -- it would be an easy assignment.

Just get everyone in the room to form a line in order of their income, with the richest person at the front and the poorest at the back.

Depending on what level of popular support the NDP had in that area, you could figure out within a relatively few percentage points the dividing line between likely NDP voters and non-NDP voters. If you were in B.C. with the NDP at its current 34 per cent, the one-third of people in the room with the lowest incomes would be highly disproportionately NDP voters. (Quebec is different because the separatist federal Bloc Quebecois and provincial Parti Quebecois are also somewhat social democratic.)

It's that simple -- but try telling that to either the provincial or federal party.

Not that there aren't any rich NDP voters or poor BC Liberal voters, but it's the best single indicator of political support.

And the recent Ipsos poll shows that. The B.C. Liberals capture a full 54 per cent of all voters who have an income over $80,000 while the BC NDP gets 44 per cent of all voters with incomes less than $80,000

Vancouver Quadra results

Now look at the federal Green Party's support in the Vancouver Quadra byelection and you find rather than the popular perception that it "steals" votes from the NDP, it in fact plunders the Liberal party.

In 2004, Liberal MP Stephen Owen took 52.3 per cent of the Quadra vote, followed by 49.1 per cent in 2006. The Conservatives garnered 26.2 per cent in 2004 and 28.9 per cent in 2006, while the NDP took 15 per cent in 2004 and 16.1 per cent in 2006. The Greens took 5.6 per cent in 2004 and 5.15 per cent in 2006.

Then came the byelection -- watch what happens with the Green vote.

The Liberals drop to 36.1 per cent and barely win the election by 151 votes, the Conservatives climb to 35.5 per cent, the NDP decline slightly to 14.4 per cent but the Greens almost triple their support to 13.5 per cent.

Where did that Green vote come from? Overwhelmingly just one party -- the Liberal Party, which lost 13 per cent of its previous support. The NDP also lost votes but only 0.6 per cent.

What's the lesson here for the NDP? The Green Party appeals to better-off, higher-income voters -- voters who in affluent Quadra had previously been supporting the Liberals.

BC provincial politics

You can see the same clear phenomena in provincial general elections in 2001 and 2005.

In the 2001 BC Liberal landslide, Gordon Campbell eviscerated the disastrous government of then-NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, taking 77 of 79 seats and leaving the NDP with a paltry two MLAs.

But the Green Party, even though it increased its vote, failed to win a single seat again.

What's more, the Greens didn't displace the NDP to finish second in any riding previously held by the NDP, coming in second place only in those ridings already held by Liberals in the 1996 election. In other words, the Greens do best in the most affluent ridings, where the NDP is already out of the running, not in seats where the NDP is competitive.

That trend got worse in the 2005 election, with the Greens only second place finish coming in West Vancouver-Garibaldi, one of the safest Liberal seats in the province. Even then-leader Adriane Carr came in third in Powell River-Sunshine Coast.

The take-away point: class is a determinant of voting intention for the NDP, Liberals and also with the Greens, who do better with higher-income individuals.

Indeed, a recent study by Simon Fraser University Prof. Cara Camcastle found that one-third of federal Green party members had joined the party after belonging to other parties. While 39 per cent came from the NDP, a surprising 33 per cent came from the Conservatives, 20 per cent from the Liberals and even 8 per cent from the old Reform Party.

"I was amazed. They're attracting members from the left and the right. I think the Greens are commonly misunderstood as being from the left," Camcastle told 24 Hours newspaper last week.

Exactly. And that's why if the NDP wants to improve its standing, it needs to focus on a class-based approach that the Greens simply won't follow.

Middle of road gets hit both ways

Now let's look even further back at past B.C. provincial election results for more analysis.

In 1995, shortly before NDP Premier Mike Harcourt resigned, the B.C. Federation of Labour conducted some internal political polling, worried about an electoral debacle. The BC NDP's popularity had dropped to a stunningly low 23 per cent, primarily due to the devastating results of the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society scandal.

I was B.C. Fed communications director then and when the results to one question came back, it stunned me.

Asked if Harcourt and the NDP had gone too far to the political middle and away from the NDP's roots, a whopping 58 per cent agreed, most strongly so. That number was more than double the percentage of voters still willing to actually vote NDP, indicating that even non-NDP voters wanted the NDP to move back to the left.

In February 1996, Glen Clark became the new NDP leader and premier and he moved left with a vengeance. As his communications director at the time, I can say it was a very deliberate electoral strategy.

Clark and the NDP trashed Liberal Party Leader Gordon Campbell as a corporate mouthpiece while freezing tuition fees, BC Hydro and Insurance Corporation of B.C. rates, raising the minimum wage over vociferous business objections and generally emphasizing what later became the election campaign slogan: "On Your Side."

It was as strong a campaign based on class as B.C. had seen in many years and despite the BC Liberals much larger war chest, the debilitating impact of the 1996 "Hydro-gate" scandal over B.C. Hydro's dubious power project in Pakistan, and the fact that not a single newspaper in the province editorially endorsed the NDP, Clark won a narrow majority government with 39 per cent of the vote.

The BC NDP had won back its base, with polling later showing that about 65 per cent of union households -- that is, homes with at least one union member -- had voted NDP.

The bitter BC Liberals railed that the rural, right-wing Reform Party led by Jack Weisgerber had split the vote, causing their narrow loss. Reform took 9 per cent but at the same time, Gordon Wilson's Progressive Democratic Alliance took 6 per cent and the Greens 2 per cent, votes which arguably might have gone substantially to the NDP.

So what is clear is that while the NDP can't create right-wing parties to siphon off so-called free enterprise votes, it can solidify its centre-left vote by appealing to issues of concern to working people and moderate income voters.

That's why some of the BC NDP strategies are a mystery. NDP leader Carole James has gone out of her way, for example, to speak to chambers of commerce and business organizations, telling them the NDP wants to work with business and is not a threat.

For example, here's what James told the Surrey Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 22, 2007:

"As leader of the NDP I have worked hard to reach out and build bridges to BC's business community -- small, medium and large -- and to make the case that the traditional political divides in this province should no longer shape our relationship," James said. "As I have said many times, in today's economy New Democrats and business leaders share far more in common than ever before."

Unfortunately, that's the wrong message. NDP voters want to see the party defend them against their bosses and the powerful business community, not work with them.

And overwhelmingly that business community will never vote NDP. That's not to say no business people ever vote for the party or that the NDP should fly a red star flag from its provincial office.

But money talks and it understands class very well indeed.

In the 2005 election year, the BC NDP received donations totalling just $238,000 from businesses compared to $5.2 million from individuals and $2 million from unions. Meanwhile the BC Liberals collected a stunning $10 million from businesses, $2.6 million from individuals and just $6,795 from unions.

The take-away point: If they want to win the next election, the NDP's campaign theme song should definitely not be "Why can't we be friends?" by War.

Class analysis not enough to win

Now, show me a Canadian party solely based on class for its policies and analysis and I'll show you the Communist Party, hardly an electoral success here or anywhere else free elections are held.

What a social democratic party that understands it appeals disproportionately to lower-income voters must also do to be successful is apply a heavy dose of populism to everything it does.

The B.C. and federal NDP have, to be fair, occasionally taken a populist and class approach to politics. Carole James has made a $10 minimum wage a key plank in her platform, while Jack Layton has strongly opposed corporate tax cuts by the Conservatives and Liberals.

But it's not enough.

James and her NDP caucus have regularly taken positions that are decidedly un-populist and for the most part unpopular.

The NDP voted last year in favour of an expensive MLA pension plan despite enormous public opposition, having previously passed another MLA pay increase that both the NDP and Liberals quickly rescinded in 2005 after a huge uproar. And while they turned down the substantial pay increase that was also part of the BC Liberal legislation, turning their increases over to local charity, sawing that baby in half did them no good.

The BC NDP have also come out against twinning the Port Mann Bridge despite the fact that it regularly becomes an airborne parking lot for those who use it, including constituents of their Surrey MLAs.

And the BC NDP supported the Liberals' treaty with the Tsawwassen First Nation despite the fact that it will remove 500 acres of prime farmland from the Agricultural Land Reserve and pave it for Deltaport container shipping expansion. The only NDP MLA to stand in the legislature and vote against a bill that violated a 35-year-old NDP policy to preserve farmland, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadow's Michael Sather -- was temporarily thrown out of the NDP caucus for causing trouble.

Then there's the new so-called carbon tax introduced by the suddenly green Gordon Campbell. It's green alright, if you are a corporation getting a major tax cut paid for by working stiffs at the pumps. Between large corporations, small business and banks and financial institutions, the total tax cut tab is a whopping $890 million when fully implemented, half the $1.8 billion the gas tax will raise.

Tailor-made for a populist NDP campaign against the B.C. Liberals, with community hall meetings across the province full of angry voters? Absolutely. Is it happening? Well, no.

The NDP rightly railed against the corporate tax cuts but was probably afraid to alienate the collection of ever-gullible environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the Suzuki Foundation, who immediately chimed in with their support for the Liberals. So the biggest political gift the NDP has received in years remained unopened.

After all, why would the NDP want to upset David Suzuki and his pious Prius-driving pals? They might vote Green in the next election, or Liberal. If they haven't already, that is.

Sadly, it was left for the right-wing Canadian Taxpayers Federation, usually a fellow traveller with the BC Liberals and federal Tories, to state the obvious.

"It will create hardship for families, as soccer moms are unlikely to start walking," said B.C. director Maureen Bader. Exactly.

Layton, for his part, has fought harder to transfer to Canadian municipalities a 5 cent per litre gasoline tax collected by the federal government than he has to actually call for lower gas taxes.

Does anybody in NDP headquarters ever consider that their own political base -- the lower-income working people who consistently vote for the party, who volunteer in elections and who donate their hard-earned dollars -- might actually be the ones most seriously hurt by high gasoline taxes?

Apparently not. Class once again dismissed.

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