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Five Lessons for the Left


The NDP’s stunning loss (going from a 17% lead to a 5% deficit) in B.C. is being deconstructed, dissected, analyzed and mourned over not only here but across the country. Every pundit and political junkie, including me, thought the NDP would win, even after their lead suddenly dropped. But unfortunately, most of the analysis won’t be very helpful for those individuals and organizations hoping and fighting for a better country.

Just as we are trapped in an arcane excuse for democracy (it was never meant to be democratic, it is designed to manage capitalism), we are also trapped in the same paradigm when it comes to figuring out why elections are won or lost. We sit down, list off a half dozen reasons, we agree and disagree, refine the answers and gradually move on to some other disconnected political element of the universe.

It’s not that the reasons aren’t important. So long as politics is done this way the players (98 per cent of citizens are just observers) have to learn how they screwed up the game. For those not already immersed in the tortuous autopsy of the NDP loss here are a few factors.

Vote split. In B.C., if the left vote is split at all, the NDP loses. This time around the Greens were competing vigorously (it is B.C. after all) with the NDP in many progressive ridings and in 13 seats the combined Green and NDP votes would have defeated the Liberal candidate. (The final tally: Libs 50, NDP 33, Greens 1.) But it’s never that simple — not all Green voters have the NDP as their second choice and some wouldn’t vote at all if there was no Green candidate.

Reversal on pipeline process. Another issue related to the Green/NDP contest was possibly the single most damaging to the party. In the final two weeks of the campaign Dix reversed himself on the Kinder Morgan pipeline which would bring more tar sands goop to the port of Vancouver. He came out against it after saying he would wait for a review to be completed. It was meant to take the wind out of the sails of the Greens but instead it put wind in the Liberals’. It played perfectly into Liberal leader Christy Clark’s singular focus: the economy and who would manage it best. It seemed to confirm that Dix could not be trusted and wasn’t concerned about jobs or the economy.

Outcampaigned. But in general, the NDP just ran a lack-lustre campaign with no real vision — just a shopping list of things they would do (some of them very good). “Change for the better” was a deliberately cautious slogan but seemed designed for insomniacs. In this case the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Liberals, despite being saddled with an unpopular premier, ran a brilliant campaign — if winning at any cost was the name of the game, which it is. Relentlessly negative messaging and fear mongering ground people down — those who didn’t buy into the fear were equally likely to be disgusted with the process and simply tune out and stay away from the polls. Turnout was a record low. Dix, who I think would have made an excellent premier, was vulnerable on the trust and character issue for the memo back-dating and failure to pay a Skytrain fare. Small stuff in the larger scheme of things, but turned into defining charcteristics by tens of thousands of repetitions on radio and TV.

Combining the trust issue with the decades old right-wing attack on the NDP’s economic “credibility” was enough to make some people doubt that change would be for the better after all. The economy is always the NDP’s Achilles heel. The party tends to stay away from the broad issue out of fear the media will eviscerate it. But ignoring the economy just makes the Liberal attacks a self-fulfilling prophecy: it takes the NDP out of the game and makes people wonder why they don’t talk about it. The facts, of course, suggest the Liberals were criminally irresponsible on the economy — from the BC Rail scandal to the obscene giveaway of hydro resources, to the gutting of government revenue with tax cuts to their friends.

Positively ill-advised. But the NDP barely mentioned those facts and chose instead to turn the other cheek — and become a punching bag for Liberal assaults. The party decided to run a positive campaign and this is really the lesson of the election loss. A friend wrote to me saying running a positive campaign is like “bringing flowers to a gun fight.”

Don’t get me wrong. You can design a campaign that projects a positive vision of the future but two things about the NDP’s approach doomed it failure. First, you can’t run a positive campaign in a month. It takes time to engage people in a vision of the future, even one they agree with. Secondly, the NDP tied one hand behind its back by failing to hold the Liberals to account for the horrible, destructive policies they implemented over twelve long years.

Presumably, the election brain trust, led by Brian Topp the quintessential back-room boy, (now teamed up in a consulting firm with the repugnant Ken Boessenkool, a former Harper confidante) decided that this would be “negative.” Nonsense. It was in fact grossly irresponsible not to put the Liberal record front and centre. If you want to contrast yourself with your opponent how do you do that without talking about what their record is? The Liberals’ vicious attacks on Dix cannot be likened to exposing the Liberals for what they actually did to the province. People have notoriously short memories — and the Liberals rode them to victory.

Party system. Perhaps the real dilemma facing the left is the nature of party politics itself. A tiny percentage of people belong to the NDP and Green parties and even within these parties there is little in the way of continuous engagement, political education, and social activity that is so critical to building community. This is where the failure of the month long, list-of-promises, positive campaign is rooted.

In Saskatchewan where I come from, Tommy Douglas and the left-wing CCF (the precursor of the NDP) won power in 1944 in a province totally dominated for decades by a Liberal, pro-business party machine. It won a landslide victory in a media atmosphere of absolute hysteria (headline: “CCF will seize farms”), fear-mongering and blatant lies. The CCF held power for 20 uninterrupted years. How? It started out as a movement and retained that character for many years afterward. It was deeply rooted in community. People felt ownership of it and its policies and out of that came government programs that met the expressed needs of the people. And that, in turn, brought enormous trust in government.

People’s distrust of government now runs so deep that it will take years of trust-building to regain some democratic equilibrium. That means a totally different kind of politics and a totally different kind of political party. Progressive parties run by brain trusts, engaging in politics as a game, will ultimately lose. For them progressive policies are simply pieces on a chess board, not part of a larger vision. And the longer this style of politics goes on, the more institutionalized and inward looking such parties, including the NDP, become.

When Preston Manning founded the Reform Party in 1989 he said that if it hadn’t achieved power in 20 years he would dissolve it and make room for something else. It actually happened sooner than that, of course. Manning wasn’t married to any political party, even his own. He was committed to changing the world.

Just a thought.

MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and He can be reached at

MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and He can be reached at

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