Anyone who’s been paying attention to politics in the western world can see that the winds are changing.
In most though by not all recent elections, more progressive parties have triumphed over their conservative rivals.
The highest profile case came in France, where Socialist candidate Francois Hollande defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy.
That election, more than any other, signalled that neoliberalism is in decline in the western industrialized world. Part of the reason is that nonwhite voters, as a group, tend to be less likely to vote for hard-right candidates than prosperous, middle-age white males.
And the nonwhite voters, many of whom are more economically marginalized, are increasing in numbers in most countries.
South of the border, President Barack Obama won a convincing victory over his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Obama was helped enormously by Hispanic and African-American voters.
Meanwhile, a centrist, Enrico Letta, is the new prime minister in Italy. And in the U.K., Conservative prime minister David Cameron is on the defensive against a reinvigorated Labour Party.
Exceptions to the trend have occurred in financially troubled Spain and Greece, where more conservative parties succeeded.
The recent death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was mourned by neoliberals in Canada and abroad. But her departure may well have coincided with the death of the free-market, antiunion, antigovernment ideology she so heartily advanced.
So it should come as no surprise that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have also seen their popularity fall significantly in Canada. Two years ago after Harper won a majority, nobody predicted that the federal Liberals would catch up to the Conservatives in the polls by the end of April 2013. But that’s exactly what happened.
Meanwhile, the most right-wing party lost four closely watched provincial elections last year in Canada. The neoliberals' more progressive rivals won in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.
This is the backdrop to this year’s B.C. election campaign.
Christy Clark campaigns from the right
Since becoming premier in 2011, B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark has introduced some progressive measures. She raised the minimum wage, granted earnings exemptions to welfare recipients, boosted taxes on high-income earners, and raised the corporate tax.
But rather than talk about these moves, Clark has chosen instead to market herself like a 21st-century Thatcher, promising to eliminate the debt.
It appears as though Clark doesn’t want to talk about anything progressive for fear of alienating right-wing businessmen who are financing her campaign.
(That’s aside from the fact that Clark’s claims about the provincial debt are not credible in light of the B.C. Liberals’ record.)
The Vancouver NPA made the same mistake when Suzanne Anton was running for mayor against Vision Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson in 2011. Anton could have laid claim to being an environmental candidate based on some of the things she had done in the past. But the NPA campaign was surprisingly right wing in a city full of centre-left voters. No wonder Robertson won by nearly 20,000 votes.
Dix sends a finely tuned ideological signal
At the provincial level, the NDP’s Adrian Dix has carefully calibrated his message to appeal to the prevailing centre-left ideology in the western industrialized world.
He hasn’t gotten wild-eyed. Far from it. There are no promises of a higher minimum wage, a restored B.C. Human Rights Commission, or massive spending increases on health care, education, childcare, or social housing. Welfare recipients can only look forward to a $20 per month raise, which will be phased in over two years, though they will also receive cost-of-living increases in the future.
The tepid tone of the party platform has no doubt rankled some of the B.C. NDP’s strongest supporters.
But there are enough moderately progressive promises to create some distance between the B.C. NDP and the neoliberal free-market ideologues in the B.C. Liberal party.
For instance, Dix will increase the minimum part-time employee shift length to three hours, up from two hours. This will impose a bit of pain on business but improve the lives of those who work for a living.
Dix also plans more public spending on home support. And because some home-support workers’ shifts will be longer, the health authorities are going to need more funding to pay for this.
Hospitals will likely be required to buy more locally grown food, according to the NDP platform. This, too, may impose some higher costs on health authorities.
But many of the B.C. NDP’s more dramatic moves may not cost the public treasury very much at all. That includes replacing Foundation Skills Assessment testing, creating provincewide code-of-conduct standards to thwart bullying, containing prescription-drug spending, and allowing welfare recipients to keep child-maintenance payments without having their benefits clawed back.
Even the NDP’s position on pipelines is designed to retain as much provincial revenue as possible. Rather than promise to curtail natural-gas extraction by curbing the use of hydraulic-fracturing drilling techniques—otherwise known as fracking—the NDP has trained its sights on oil pipelines.
The benefit is that the party can win environmentalists’ votes while not seriously undermining provincial resource revenues.
That’s because oil revenue royalties go to the Alberta government, which will face the greatest losses if the proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines to the West Coast are never built.
If Dix had taken a harder line on natural gas—for instance, by opposing the plan to liquefy fracked gas for export to Asia—that would have forced a re-evaluation of future royalties that might flow into the B.C. treasury.
Dix likes talking about change for the better, one practical step at a time. It sounds moderately progressive, which is in line with the prevailing voter ideology.
Clark, on the other hand, is riffing on a tune that was far more popular in the 1980s during the heyday of Thatcher. And her strongest supporters and allies in the media are jumping all over Dix’s recent announcement on Kinder Morgan—as if it was a major campaign error—when all it did was reinforce to voters that he’s not some sort of neoliberal stooge.
Message to the premier: this is not 1983 and you're no Bill Bennett. He pulled off a surprise come-from-behind victory for the Socreds by being in tune with the times.
The failure of Clark to recognize that neoliberalism is dead—as much as anything else—will explain why her party’s candidates are likely in for a rude awakening when B.C. voters go to the polls on May 14.
Only after the upcoming electoral slaughter will the B.C. Liberals finally realize that maybe, just maybe, they should have been a bit more vociferous about that big jump in the minimum wage.