It’s the economy, stupid

Probably the only positive outcome after the stunning BC election of May 14 was a petty sense of “I told you so”. Though I had predicted (like most people) a victory for the NDP, I had become disenchanted with the New Democrats’ performance because it was hard to distinguish the 2013 election from the failed election campaigns of 2001, 2005 and 2009. The central problem persisted: almost complete silence on economic policy.

I have argued for years that silence on this core issue concedes the topic to the Liberals, and makes the latter the de facto “party of the economy” (and thus the party of “prosperity”, “growth” and “jobs”). And without this issue, the NDP will probably never win. For example, in one of my first ever blog posts back in April 2009, I discussed the paucity of policy on economic issues by the provincial NDP, and how Carole James’s stubborn refusal to discuss the economy and the NDP’s economic record in the 1990’s  would lead to failure in the upcoming 2009 election.

And now we come to another electoral failure, albeit one where the outcome was supposed to be different. There is no doubt that the NDP’s failure resulted from a constellation of forces. On an electoral level, it’s difficult to say with certainty if the Green vote prevented an NDP victory, but it was pretty clear that both NDP and Green voters viewed the other party as their second choice in the election.  Tactically, the NDP realized only at the end that negative campaigning works. In the last few days, NDP advertising finally began to accentuate many of the Liberals’ failings, but by then it was too late.


Adrian Dix and his campaign team also tried to run a “light” campaign – a campaign long on optimism and short on commitments to difficult issues. And one of Dix’s rare policy pronouncements, his flip-flop on the southern Kinder Morgan pipeline, certainly didn’t help.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, all of this is prologue. The heart of NDP electoral failure, as I’ve stated above, is their relative silence on economic policy. All other issues are secondary or derive from the NDP economic vacuum. As James Carville insisted back in the early 90’s, it’s “the economy, stupid”.1 For decades, most British Columbians made the economy their number one concern. Despite the failure of pollsters to accurately predict the May election, the preoccupation with the economy remained clear and consistent. And according to Angus Reid, the economy was the number one issue heading into election night.

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Yet the NDP said little about the dismal Liberal record on the economy. They could have railed against Christy Clark’s BC Jobs Plan that failed to ignite private sector employment, and continues to saddle us with the worst unemployment record in western Canada. The Liberals also gave us an enormous debt load. As noted by Damien Gillis,

the Liberals have raised our real provincial debt from $34 Billion to $171 Billion since they came to power. The NDP, by contrast, raised it by $17 Billion over a similar period.

Much of this debt is in the form of “contractual obligations” to private power producers who will enjoy generous power contracts with the province for decades to come. Again, on this issue, the NDP was largely silent.

BC debt and contractual obligations

Where was the sustained attack on the tragic effects of the Liberals’ tax-cutting, trickle-down agenda? Inequality in this province remains a blight on our society and economy, but it was merely a tag line in a few advertisements near the end of the campaign:

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And tax cuts have not led to an increase in productivity as its proponents have promised. As the Institute of Chartered Accountants of BC noted in 2010, despite

the infusion of investment and human capital in the past five years, BC’s labour force productivity stagnated. All of Canada suffers from a labour productivity gap with the US, but BC’s productivity has remained below the national average for many years. To a large degree, poor productivity explains the lower real wage in BC…

Arguments regarding productivity and competitiveness would have damaged the Liberals on their “home turf”, but not a word was heard from their opponents.

Furthermore, the NDP could have hammered the Liberals over their appalling record on child poverty, but the NDP only referred to it briefly in a few advertisements:

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Finally, how about the Liberals’ poor record on investing in education in BC? Aside from “skills training”, the NDP ignored the issue of education underfunding and the serious consequences it has engendered.

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Without a critique of BC Liberal economic policy, the NDP concedes the issue to the BC Liberals. Yet the NDP simply can’t afford to surrender this territory. It is the only real place to grow their support beyond the traditional base.  Put another way, without a split in the right-wing vote, they need to appeal to new voters who (as we’ve seen above) care deeply about economic performance. As I’ve noted before, the right-wing coalition normally polls about 5-10% above the NDP, so if anyone needs to blaze new paths, it’s the NDP, not the Liberals. [To put things in perspective, the 2013 NDP earned just 1.2% less of the popular vote than in their big win of 1991.] This means tackling the economy and taking away, or at least minimizing, the major perceived strength of the “party of the economy”. As Gillis has argued, echoing Karl Rove, “You don’t attack your opponent’s weakness; you attack their greatest strength, because if you take that leg out from under them, they have nothing left to stand on.”

The NDP has also failed to articulate any coherent alternative vision for a growing, prosperous economy. A critique may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. In the absence of pipelines, for example, what is the NDP approach to developing the economy? Let’s return to Damien Gillis; he talks about a positive and sustainable way of growing the economy:

By contrast, [the NDP] could have offered a bold vision of a stronger, greener economic future for BC – one built on innovation, clean technology, public transit, rebuilding local, value-added manufacturing, supporting our vital film industry and creative sectors, harnessing the true potential of “Super, Natural BC”… Alas, they did some of these things, but in piecemeal fashion – detached from any central narrative. And they failed to distinguish clearly their own record and vision from those of their opponents.

I would add to this a need to re-purpose the economy and address the central issue of inequality. Robert Reich and others have warned that inequality is not only morally offensive, but it’s devastating for the economy, too. Given the role of consumer spending in the economies of Canada and the United States, squeezing the poor and middle classes can only damage the economic system – rich included. With this in mind, I have argued in an earlier post that a progressive economic agenda should include  a commitment co-operative capitalism. In brief, supporting an economic system of economic competition within a framework of broader ownership reduces inequality and labour strife and, from that, stabilizes and sustains the economy.

In the end, what I want is a New Democratic Party that offers something to look forward to. It’s not enough to conserve social programs and the environment; those alone strike an ironically conservative tone. What people want is to know is that they and their families will be economically secure and better off in the future. The NDP has the tools to do this, but it will need to find the courage to capture ground it has all too easily yielded.

1 Stephanopoulos, George. All too human: a political education. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999. Print. (p. 88)

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2 Comments to "It’s the economy, stupid"

  1. Rod Smelser's Gravatar Rod Smelser
    May 26, 2013 - 4:10 pm | Permalink

    The poll showing “economy” as the top issue doesn’t necessarily mean that economic issues are top of mind. It may well be that “economy” is simply code for keeping public sector employees in line, restraining their wages, and harassing their organizations.

    Given that the Liberal economic pitches were pure fantasy, debt free through LNG and David Black’s imaginary refinery, I think it’s clear that “economy” is simply code talk in BC politics.

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