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Media Bites: Why the Hippie Radicals - er, NDP - Lost in BC

05/15/2013 08:12 EDT | Updated 07/15/2013 05:12 EDT

I don't know why the pollsters were so spectacularly, utterly wrong in predicting an NDP landslide in last night's B.C. election. I can only suspect the same reason they were wrong about the recent Quebec and Albertan elections, too --  crappy sample sizes, outdated technology, stagnant polling firms that empathize data analysis over gathering, and so on.

As a resident of the province in question, what I do know, however, is that at least some of the NDP's inflated expectations were the result of B.C. voters who simply lied to pollsters that they weren't considering re-electing Premier Clark's Liberals when they secretly were. The public's perfectly justified shame in professing loyalty to a tired, scandal-tainted, three-term government with only the most lacklustre of achievements to its name may have been the B.C. Grits' secret weapon -- at least in the sense that embarrassed, hidden support for an unimpressive party everyone knows they're not supposed to like is still, well, support.

The media interprets B.C. politics through a false ideological narrative (right-versus-left) when the reality is far less glamorous. The NDP, though it possesses many perfectly intelligent people in its upper echelons, has a persistent image problem as -- and there's no way of putting this delicately -- the stupid people party. The party that can't manage an economy, can't keep its kooks in line, and can't be trusted to run a province. The Liberals are no saints, but on none of these issues does their party "read" as poorly.

The B.C. Liberal fringe, which is to say, the few genuinely conservative firebreathers the party fields in rural or interior communities in order to pander to federal Tory voters and suppress the emergence of a legitimate right-wing party to split the anti-NDP vote, is just that -- marginal and ostracized. Christy Clark's 2011 election as successor to Premier Campbell seemed to confirm that; of all the available choices, the party selected the woman who was the most (according to conventional wisdom, at least) moderate, pragmatic, and centrist. Her  ascension rattled a few conservative cages at the time, but it certainly seems vindicated in retrospect.

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BC Election Night Photos

The B.C. NDP's far-left fringe, by contrast, always appears to be a lot closer to the party's -- and therefore the province's -- levers of power. When, in 2011, I asked NDP party boss Adrian Dix to name the U.S. politicians he most admired, he happily cited figures from furthest left of the American spectrum -- obscure characters like the ultra-liberal congressman Peter Defazio and the openly socialist senator Bernard Sanders. Only when pressed did he express some grudging respect for the current president of the United States, an admitted moderate by NDP standards, by also one who has, you know, been elected twice.

When seeking his party's leadership, Dix proposed to the faithful that "you can't score a goal from centre ice," and the base evidently agreed, installing the man once infamously described as a "dour Stalinist" over his more moderate opponent. When a leading Lib characterized a recently-leaked NDP memo full of lefty zaniness as a decree from the "NDP politburo" he was engaging in some ugly red-baiting, but not entirely without reason. Unlike the OntarioManitobaSaskatchewan and now federal NDP, the B.C. branch still professes an explicit loyalty to "democratic socialism" in its constitution. There's a reason, presumably, for that.

And in a province that went 45 per cent Conservative in the last federal election, there's an obvious limit to how much electoral gain can be achieved by clinging to this sort of showy radicalism.

Not to say the party itself necessarily believes any of its own decorative rhetoric, mind you. The actual lefty flavour of Dix's campaign promises was mostly limited to a call for slightly higher taxes on the wealthy and vague promises of union sympathy, countered by a carefully calculated call to privatize the B.C. Place stadium and some high-profile pre-campaign genuflections to the business community. "We are running on a deeply capitalist platform," a staffer once told me, though that qualification was itself revealing.

No one hates the idea of well-funded public schools or fair wages for workers. No one even necessarily opposes a large, debt-crippled provincial government running everything from car insurance to liquor stores through oppressive, state-managed monopolies. The B.C. Liberals certainly don't.

What does make many squeamish, however, is the idea of a party run by hippies and radicals who dogmatically cling to the 20th century's most discredited economic theory simply for reasons of pride or denial. It comes off as a little pathetic.

The Liberal Party of B.C. is not a brilliant outfit by any means. Much of its agenda is faddish and unscientific, and, if past performance is any indication, simply doesn't work. Yet it's also the party associated with business, capitalism, status, success, and wealth -- and now a four-term majority government to boot. Voters might sympathize with an underdog from time to time, but in general, they like backing winners. For better or worse, that's undeniably what the B.C. Liberals are.

The NDP doesn't necessarily have to moderate and it doesn't necessarily have to purge, but it does need to figure out a way to project an image of considerably more competence, modernity, and maturity than it's presently offering.

If not, then their greatest victories will only ever come through polling errors.