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The NDP's Problem Is Bigger Than Adrian Dix

05/23/2013 11:28 EDT | Updated 07/23/2013 05:12 EDT
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The great thing about political punditry is the ability to be right and wrong at the same time and get away with it, which is why the pundits who were no better at predicting the outcome of the B.C. election shouldn't be expected to be any better at interpreting the results.

It's quite simple: the B.C. Liberal party set out to win at all costs and did. They ran the better campaign, got their vote out and won. They were even willing to throw a candidate or two under the bus to do it, as witnessed by two full page ads in Victoria's Times Colonist extolling the virtues of Green party leader Jane Sterk paid for by none other than the B.C. Liberal party.

Fault them for their tactics, but not even the huffing and puffing of political observers over those tactics seems to resonate long with the voters who ultimately decide elections.

What should be of concern though is the emergence of an almost constant pool of voters in B.C. and an equivalent block of non-voters.

In 2009, 1.65 million voters cast a ballot. In the 2011 HST referendum, 1.61 million mailed-in their vote. And last week, 1.63 million made the trek to the polls, although that number will rise slightly when absentee ballots are tallied.

Looked at another way: close to half of the province's eligible voters continue to turn their back on the ballot box. That's not a good thing.

And what lurks beneath these numbers should worry NDP operatives.

In 1979 at the crest of its support, Dave Barrett and the NDP won 46 per cent of the popular vote or 646,188 votes out of 1.4 million cast. They still lost the election. Last week, Adrian Dix and the NDP won 39.5 per cent of the vote or 643,399 votes out of 1.63 million cast.

Over 35 years, the NDP has seen its share of the popular vote decline and its actual vote stall, despite an electorate that has nearly doubled in size over the same period.

Parties that don't grow their base lose and risk withering away.

While the Liberals grew their vote marginally over their 1979 Socred brethren, they don't have too much to boast about either. In 1979, the Social Credit party won 677,607 votes. The B.C. Liberals pulled in 723,618 votes.

B.C. voters are opting for "anything but"

So who was the real winner in the voter sweepstakes last Tuesday? "Anything but". In 1979, 81,282 voters opted for anything but the Socreds or the NDP. Last week that number more than tripled to 262,405.

As a share of the popular vote, the percentage choosing "anything but" grew from 5.6 per cent of the popular vote to 16.1 per cent.

But it's not just the province-wide numbers that are telling. As the Liberals showed on election night: "it's the ridings that count stupid."

Twenty-five of B.C.'s 85 ridings had a turnout of less than 50 per cent and 19 of those were in the Lower Mainland. The award for most apathetic riding: Richmond-Centre at 38.9 per cent.

Only seven ridings saw a turnout of over 60 per cent and of those the top three had one thing in common: races that engaged voters.

In Oak Bay-Gordon Head, the Green party won its first ever seat in the legislature; in Delta South, Vicki Huntington was re-elected -- the first independent to be so in B.C.'s history; and in Saanich North and the Islands, the NDP may very well have eked out a victory in the province's tightest three-way race.

Of course, there were the Wednesday morning quarterbacks who tried to bend the votes of other parties so far out of shape as to claim that such-and-such a party cost such-and-such a party the election.

It may provide comfort to the defeated, but it's an argument based more on wishful thinking than political acumen. Vote tallies can easily be moved from column-to-column after the fact, voters aren't so easily moved before the fact.

But the message for the NDP in all these numbers is ominous and it's not just about Adrian Dix.

The NDP has been nothing if not short of leaders. In the last 9 elections, no less than seven have been put to the electoral test.

It may have more to do with the brand. Something isn't connecting with the voters that the NDP needs in order to win. And that soul-searching is going to be far harder on the party faithful than a leadership race ever will be.