On Sunday, April 17, Adrian Dix won the NDP leadership race, edging out Mike Farnworth by around 700 votes: 9,772 votes to Farnworth’s 9,095. His win prompted excitement from some and groans from many other. The Province newspaper labelled it a “a hard turn to the Left” for the provincial NDP. The photo featured Dix wooping it up in a less-than-flattering pose. The headline contrasted with the paper’s earlier cover of Christy Clark decked out in Canucks gear and a hockey stick, smiling broadly cheek to luminous cheek. The contrast couldn’t be more telling.
Some NDP insiders are already blaming a skewed media for fawning over Clark’s style while ignoring Dix’s substance. While almost everyone I’ve talked to lauds Dix for his work ethic, intelligence and scrappiness, that may not be enough. Unfortunately, often what matters most in politics it seems is a strong blend of both style and substance. Often (like it or lump it) the mix is 2 parts style for 1 part substance.
Since policy so often takes the back seat to politics and perceptions, it will be interesting to see if Dix can avoid the “left wing radical”-branding, though recent actions in the past week do not bode well. During his convention speech, he talked at length about 1.5 million mystery voters he intends to reach out to. The plan of attack? Introduce more aggressive government redistribution programs. Roll back corporate tax cuts. Ruthlessly attack the HST. Focus more money on childcare programs and advocacy.
This strategy is not focussed on the moderate “progressives” that vote federal Liberal and could be swayed to support a centrist NDP. Rather, it targets British Columbians who are politically disengaged because the major political parties haven’t been aggressive enough with instituting big changes in provincial economics. This presumption ignores another explanation for low voter turnout. That people who don’t vote are apathetic cynical and generally disinterested in who rules the province as long as grocery prices stay reasonable, jobs remain (relatively) plentiful and gas doesn’t get too expensive. I suppose we’ll soon see if Dix is right on this front.
Regardless, it seems likely his agenda will appeal the union movement which strongly supported Dix in his leadership race. It will also ring true to many community activists and more “left-wing” organizers who’ve long been frustrated with Carole James’ perceived outreach to big business and the “powers-that-be” in Vancouver. It may not have the same resonance among the progressive business and green-oriented supporters drawn to the Farnworth camp. Meanwhile, outside the party sphere, it’s unlikely we will see Dix making any forays to the BC Chamber of Commerce, UDI luncheons or Board of Trade Meetings. While such outreach may be painful (and perhaps useless) it does represent a first step to making an NDP government more palatable to the progressive business community and young professionals whom the party must attract for both funding and support. Ultimately, the province’s political sphere has progressed beyond the polarized workers on one side and bosses on the other.
Clark also has some significant hurdles to clear in the coming months. The Premier’s first challenge will be to first sell and then survive the upcoming HST-vote. Added to that is the (possibly) resurgent right wing BC Conservative party led by former MP John Cummins. With a realistic alternative, word among many BC Liberals in the lead up to the leadership race was that a Clark victory would lead to a split of the party’s right wing. Apparently, people have already started to walk and while power is a strong magnet for people to stick around, it only works if the leader can win and is willing to placate the defeated with political/policy nuggets they can call their own. Expect some right-wing appetizers to compliment the Premier’s more liberal “Families First” main course in the coming year. Despite these challenges, Clark will remain in the eyes of many voters (and thanks chiefly to the leadership race coverage) firmly ensconced in the centre of the BC political spectrum.
With a provincial election predicted Spring of next year, it’s likely we won’t have to wait long to see how these new leaders will reshape the political landscape. If Clark is dragged to the right of the “free-market coalition” to keep the BC Liberals together and if Dix does end up taking his party more to the left of the political spectrum though, there could be room for a new force. In such a case, a provincial version of Vision Vancouver, a progressive party that has made itself sufficiently palatable to the Vancouver business community and the unions could fill the void. Or even more likely, it might be a perfect environment for Gregor Robertson – Vancouver’s popular Mayor – to jump back into the NDP fray. In any case, it could be a new era of BC politics and would certainly be exciting times.