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BC NDP to pick new leader after a demanding campaign

Close contest means winner could be any one of Farnworth, Dix or Horgan


Special for TheCommentary.ca

One of the major impressions to emerge from the B.C. NDP’s leadership contest that concludes Sunday (April 17) is that there are supposedly very few if any policy differences between the four remaining contenders and not many differences in their styles and personalities either.

So yawn, yeah, it doesn’t really matter who the B.C. New Democrats choose to be their next leader, the mainstream media seem to be saying. Like, who cares? What does it matter anyway? Why bother covering it, eh?

The reality of course is that there ARE some significant differences in policies, style, talent and electability between the three main NDP contenders, Mike Farnworth, Adrian Dix and John Horgan, and between them and the fourth contender Dana Larsen and the two other contenders (Nicholas Simons and Harry Lali) who dropped out along the way, and those differences can be seen by anyone who wants to watch webcasts on the party’s website or go to the individual candidates’ websites where their platforms are posted – or for a shortcut of that process to read through to the bottom of this analysis.

Members and other interested people can either attend the NDP’s traditional-style leadership convention in the Vancouver Convention Centre beginning around 3 p.m. or they can watch the party’s webcast of it and/or the broadcasts in whole or in part by several mainstream media outlets, with live voting possible in person at the event or by phone or online, and the outcome expected around 6:10 p.m.

Though a lot is at stake and the machinations have often been intriguing, only a few pundits in the mainstream media, such as Les Leyne, Vaughn Palmer and a few others, have tried to deal with those policy and personality differences in any detail even though the NDP now has a pretty good chance of winning the next provincial election due mainly to widespread backlashes against the Liberals’ excesses but also aided by other emerging factors such as potential vote-splitting.

One would think the major and secondary and other media would have paid more attention over the last four months because if an NDP regime was elected it could (and should) quickly implement a lot of major turnabouts in B.C. politics and public affairs and especially so depending on who wins the leadership and becomes potentially the next Premier, but it’s now a fact that the media largely ignored it all.

Furthermore, the mainstream media reports about who is supposedly leading the contest and why (Farnworth because he’s an experienced moderate with the most name recognition) may also have badly skewed the story because the few opinion polls done on the NDP’s leadership contest have focussed only on Farnworth’s higher name recognition in the general public, they have ignored the other candidates’ abilities to grow, they have only rarely isolated responses from people who have voted NDP in the past and they have not done any surveys at all on the 28,500 current members of the NDP who are actually eligible to vote and whose special interests could be quite different from the general public’s interests in various ways.

(There’s a practical reason for not doing such polling: active NDP members now comprise less than one per cent of the population so a private-sector pollster wanting to get even a minimalist sample of say 30 voting NDP members would need to make at least 3,000 pollster calls and probably twice that number to get enough willing respondents in today’s call-blocking climate, though Angus Reid Public Opinion’s structured online surveys would be able to do some small samples.)

Ballot results could surprise some observers

Anyway let it be said here first that there thus could be some surprises on Sunday when the NDP announces its first ballot results because there are several large blocks of voters inside the NDP who have largely kept their opinions to themselves and who could sway the outcome if they were to vote en mass and yet most pollsters and pundits have generally said little about that feature.

Those blocks of potentially focussed voters include especially the labour movement votes, the feminist votes, the gay-lesbian-bi-trans and other equity-seeking group votes, the sustainable green caucus votes, the youth votes and other schisms’ votes such as ethnic, regional, agriculture and especially the very numerous older white folks’ votes and the underground backers of the baker’s-dozen rebels – with most of those groups probably fracturing equally but some maybe going en mass to one candidate or another, with Dix probably drawing more youth votes, for example, and Farnworth getting most of the Interior farming votes.

Plus there are two other notable blocks – the Indo-Canadians signed up early by the Adrian Dix campaign, and the medical and recreational users of marijuana signed up early and en mass by the Dana Larsen campaign, each of which could comprise several thousand people and the sizes of which could help determine the final outcome when it is announced around 6:10 p.m.

There could be more surprises on the likely second and possible third ballots too, with an uncertain mix of predetermined preferential ballots and maybe enough live in-person or on-line and phone-in potential swing voting still possibly enabling the second-place finisher to win, as Palmer noted on April 1, or even a third-place finisher to “come up the middle” and win by being the preferred compromise of all the other sides if second and third are still close.

To be specific, the moderate Farnworth campaign would probably prefer to see the pro-commerce Horgan finish ahead of militant tax-the-rich Dix, and the Dix campaign would probably prefer the aggressive and friendly Horgan ahead of the mild aloof Farnworth, and the other three candidates, Lali, Simons and Larsen, have already declared for Horgan mainly because of his superior debating talents but also because of his friendly and inclusive nature.

“I’m the middle candidate,” Horgan told Global TV. “I can go left and I can go right – that’s what makes me different,” he said, claiming he’ll win on the third ballot.

Patterns in late endorsements suggest a shift in momentum

Making that potential scenario more plausible are some interesting signs of momentum shifts and other changes in such matters in recent days, such as the slew of new endorsements, notably veterans such as former premier Mike Harcourt and long-time MLA Jenny Kwan stepping forward to endorse Farnworth in what seemed to some to be a sort of last-ditch ploy since both had reasons to stay neutral but meanwhile several prominent union leaders, several caucus stalwarts and even the rival leadership candidates emerged to declare they would be supporting Horgan as a better choice.

(Former leadership candidate Harry Lali dropped out early and pledged his Indo-Canadian signups to Horgan, then Nicholas Simons withdrew on the last day of the debate tour and endorsed Horgan in a Vancouver news conference, and the next day Dana Larsen announced during the debate on CKNW hosted by Bill Good that he would be supporting Horgan on the second ballot and urging his supporters to do the same.)

In other words Dix took an early lead in early signups and raising money, Farnworth seemed to take over once the pollsters and mainstream media became involved (it helped when he noted he’s the only one with experience as a cabinet minister though all of the candidates except Larsen are long-sitting MLAs) and then Horgan surged once the tours and debates began (in which he usually excelled), the endorsements came out (he got most of the ex-ministers who were the most talented and untainted, such as Dan Miller, Paul Ramsey, Elizabeth Cull and Anne Edwards, among others) and eventually the mainstream media finally did take notice of him, such as a very favourable profile of Horgan that appeared on Global TV News on Thursday night and another that night on CBC-TV.

Two of the most telling events during the campaign were the two very large labour-oriented debates in Burnaby, one early in the campaign hosted by the venerable New Westminster and District Labour Council and the other on the day after the end of the party’s tour which was hosted by the B.C. Federation of Labour at the Hilton Vancouver in Metrotown, which was by invitation only and thus didn’t get much media coverage. Horgan was the candidate who did best at both of those events, according to several sources, but even more important was that the turnouts were high and the participants appeared to be strongly motivated towards making some political changes really happen, namely to get rid of the Campbell Liberals once and for all, so it could well be that Big Labour will decide this time to be a kingmaker.

(Note that the role of Labour inside the NDP has been changing in recent years, with the previous quotas of delegates for affiliated unions now replaced by individuals who choose to join as individuals and whose organizations continue to support the party materially, which has reduced the perception that Labour controls the party’s politics but has not removed the fact that Labour’s financial support is still essential to the party’s survival.)

Other leadership events were similarly focussed on other interest groups with significant blocs of support inside the party, such as an environment and sustainability debate held in Vancouver’s enviro-friendly Olympic Village that featured questions from selected interest groups, an education debate at SFU’s Surrey campus and a jobs and economy debate in Terrace where numerous mines are awaiting a power line being held up by First Nation interests – and Horgan did arguably the best at all of those events and at many others too.

So in that light it is fair to say that the outcome of the leadership contest could still be anyone’s guess and could still turn on how well or how poorly the candidates do in their final speeches. Farnworth may or may not have the lead, and Dix could still have the lead too, but in any case Horgan is probably still close enough to win.

Will the Labour voters split or focus? Where will the enviro-first voters go? Will the embittered Carole James backers scatter, split, focus or abstain? Will the equity-seeking groups support Farnworth as the one remaining gay candidate or go to the gay-friendly lefty Dix or even to Horgan where the openly-gay Simons went? Will the oldsters vote in large volumes or small, and who will they go to? Many older campaigners like Farnworth’s stability but there are others who hear echoes of Douglas and Barrett populism in Horgan’s rhetoric.

Those are the kinds of questions that make predicting an election outcome for this version of the B.C. New Democrats rather different than for say a Liberal or Social Credit leadership contest of the past, which should make the event all the more interesting.

The context has been challenging too, with the B.C. Liberals having just gone through a wrenching and media-coverage-grabbing leadership change, and then the feds having called a national election on May 2, and with the B.C. New Democrats still recovering from their own fractious leadership coup, and now a provincial byelection has been called in Vancouver – Point Grey for May 11, so there have been and still are a lot of distractions around (like Go Canucks! too eh), but generally now the focus of the NDP leadership candidates is on forward goals rather than on slamming the atrocious record of the corrupted Campbell Liberals.

So all that said, what ARE those subtle policy and style differences between the camps?

That focus on the future was reflected in the policy platforms of all of the candidates, and there were a great many overlaps between them, and many many moments in debates where one candidate would say he agreed with everything his opponent had just said, which gave rise to the widely-held notion that the debates had become merely “NDP love-ins”. Plus there were instances of line-stealing, in which some phrasing introduced one night by one candidate would be used again the next night by a rival candidate, which was possible because the orders of speaking and seating were changed at every event.

There also was an unusual air of unity, partly because they all understood that the party needs to avoid any repeats of the bitter divides that emerged when the “baker’s dozen” of 13 dissident MLAs vowed to leave the caucus unless James resigned as leader, which James eventually did under great duress and with as much grace as could be mustered given that the revolt was mainly against her style of leadership, especially her alleged insularity behind a group of her loyal staffers, but also over some caucus and party management issues such as secret payments from the labour movement to the party to help pay for president Moe Sihota that eventually leaked to the public.

However the unity was also genuine insofar as Farnworth, Dix and Horgan have been close personal friends for about 25 years, such as Dix managing Farnworth’s first campaign and Horgan emceeing at Dix’s wedding and Dix and Horgan having been senior staffers together in the Harcourt, Clark and Miller NDP regimes of 1991-98 in which Farnworth was a young MLA and then a pivotal cabinet minister (he had the gaming file that helped trigger Glen Clark’s demise). And the outsider Larsen became part of the team too during the tour, in which he earned respect for developing a viable four-plank platform (e.g. “smart on crime”) and delivering some sharp critiques of the Campbell record (e.g. that Campbell was deliberately deconstructing public assets).

As a journalist who has known most of them to varying degrees for much of those 25 years and as a party member who attended five of their debates from early to late in the schedule and who attended or monitored numerous other related events, I can report with confidence that there ARE some significant policy differences between them, though their differences are often subtle, such as the intended pace and process of proposed reforms, or they are things of secondary importance, such as Farnworth having been in a long-term but heretofore undisclosed gay relationship, or Horgan being a cancer survivor, Dix being diabetic and Larsen being pro pot, all of which apparently have not and would not interfere in their performances as a politician or Premier.

Going left on policy seen as solution or disaster for NDP

One of the most notable potential policy shifts is Dix’s desire to “go left” and develop a platform aimed at helping the poor which he says will encourage more of the 1.4-million non-voters to next time turn out to vote, and meanwhile to finance increased spending on health, social and education programs by rolling back corporate tax cuts and hiking taxes on upper-income groups. That of course is all music to the ears of urban east-siders where party support and membership is highest but it frightens west-siders and maybe even trade unionists who fear such moves might scare away investment and kill jobs, or at least galvanize the anti-NDP coalition into delivering its own higher turnout, as Palmer speculated.

“If you go left you get left out,” Harcourt told the TV news, as if he was coming out of retirement to try to warn the lemmings away from a cliff. But on the other hand audiences seemed to agree with Dix’s related assertion that the party must learn to include its more radical policy ideas in its election platforms or else it won’t have a mandate to make major changes once they’re in power.

Farnworth’s main theme seemed to be party unity, and that he is the only candidate who can bring all sides together and lead the party to a provincial election win, which was somewhat illustrated when baker’s-dozen leader Jenny Kwan emerged late in the contest to endorse Farnworth, but on the other hand Horgan also had several baker’s-dozen members declare support for him, and anyway all of the candidates have already indicated that they will happily support whoever wins.

One of the most important issues is job creation, which first Farnworth and eventually all candidates agreed had to be a top priority alongside maintaining stability in the economy and finances, but few if any of their platforms contained specific stand-alone lists of ways job creation could be done, which led me to produce a short essay on how the NDP should reposition itself as the New Prosperity Party including developing a “massive self-financing job-creation strategy”, which I circulated at the debate in Qualicum Beach, and then I did up a list of “Top 25 Ideas for B.C. Job Creation” which I circulated at the Vancouver and Burnaby debates. They were received with interest by lots of people but were not adopted by any of the candidates, probably partly because they contain some radical ideas such as commercializing and regulating industrial hemp and cannabis, exporting surplus water through a Crown corporation and relaunching a Bank of B.C. with its own paper, metal and electronic currencies.

Horgan’s official platform meanwhile contains job-creation features in its forestry and environment policies, and Farnworth’s speeches often note that the question is not jobs versus the environment but jobs and the environment, meaning that economic development can still be done without harming the environment if proper precautions are taken, but really there is a great deal more that could and should be done to stimulate sustainable development and which the NDP may or may not move to embrace.

Anyway the key gist is that all of the NDP leadership candidates now want to develop a pragmatic platform that embraces the province’s financial and economic challenges rather than running and hiding from those issues as James fatefully did in 2009; where they differ is on pace and focus and style to get there. They all favour Crown corporations and public ownership of public assets, but they have varying perspectives on the roles of the public and private sectors in doing so.

Larsen won applause for clever marijuana lines

One of the more interesting examples of how the candidates differ came during the Vancouver environment debate when the Dogwood Initiative asked them to say which breed of salmon they would be most like. The first response was from Simons who said “Well I wouldn’t be farmed!” which drew a big laugh.

The next was Dix, who said he’d be a pink salmon, implying he’s the most left-wing, which drew modest applause, then Horgan said he wouldn’t be a chinook because he has lost so much weight and would leave that for the pudgy Farnworth and instead go with coho because it’s feisty.

Farnworth followed saying he’s proud to be a chinook because it’s the biggest and strongest of the salmon, which drew good applause, and then finally Larsen – after praising the energy potential of industrial hemp and the merits of cannabis – said he’d be a smoked salmon, which drew the best applause of all.

Larsen also was involved in another one of the best audience responses of the whole campaign, which occurred near the end of the B.C. Federation of Labour event at the posh Hilton Metrotown, in which jobs emerged as really and clearly the Number One issue. Asked what is the main policy difference between themselves and others, Larsen began the responses by noting for him it’s the cannabis and hemp issues, which drew a laugh but sparked him to note it’s not a laughing matter when thousands of people are rotting in Canadian jails for using medical marijuana. He noted that B.C. would benefit greatly from 250,000 jobs and billions of dollars of revenues if the industry was brought above board like California has done, to the point where medical marijuana dealers in California are now unionizing – which drew loud cheers from the several hundred union activists in the room.

There of course were many other moments worthy of mention, but for me the key is that Horgan emerged as the candidate with the best gift of the gab, the best debating style, the best overall grasp and balance in business, economic and environment issues, the most approachable for people in general, and with good grasps of other issues such as education, health, social services, governance, finances and more – which would position him well against Liberal Premier Christy Clark in head-to-head debates.

Both Farnworth and Dix also have displayed relatively good grasps on a wide variety of issues, and certainly Dix would be well able to confront Clark and the Liberals in policy debates too, and Farnworth might be able to sell a moderate team-based reform effort to voters at large if they are of a mind to finally turf the Liberals, and especially if there are vote-splits on the right, but Farnworth may lack some pizzazz and Dix may need a bit more seasoning.

Larsen meanwhile deserves kudos and a nomination in a winnable seat because he really did prove in the debates that he is much more than a single-issue candidate, but he is still perceived as a single-issue candidate focussed on what for many voters is still a fringe issue.

Kudos too to Nicholas Simons for advancing the importance of social policy reforms in general and anti-poverty measures in particular, and to Lali for challenging the party establishment when it needed to be challenged.

And finally kudos to the many party staffers and volunteers who organized what turned out to be an excellent contest.

One of the historic knocks against the B.C. NDP has been that they supposedly can’t run even a peanut stand but so far it looks like they certainly CAN run a pretty decent election contest, which has so far gone without a hitch despite a host of potential complications, and which furthermore has provided an open and fairly fair process to showcase the leadership contestants in a demanding four-month tour of debates that went pretty well all around the province – and which was in stark contrast to the B.C. Liberals’ quick-fix contest.

A large number of intelligent and relatively well-informed New Democrats will now be making their own leadership choices according to their own personal priorities combined with their individual levels of community interests – what matters is not just what a specific candidate’s platform would do for them personally but also what that candidate could do for the public interest if he could win the next election.

As J.S. Woodsworth said, and many others have quoted: “What we desire for ourselves we wish for all.”

John Twigg (www.johntwigg.com [1]) is an independent journalist, former press secretary to premier Dave Barrett and former interim leader of the BC Refederation Party. He frequently provides analysis for TheCommentary.ca.