It’s sad, but negative politics rule.
Stunned New Democrats of various stripes grudgingly offered this explanation as they watched in horror as a highly anticipated cakewalk went bad for the B.C. NDP in the May 14 election.
George Chow, who was defeated in Vancouver-Langara, used the word naive twice to describe the decision to run a mostly positive campaign in the face of unrelenting attacks by the B.C. Liberal Party and its allies.
“I think we were a bit naive thinking that we want to change how politics is played,” Chow told the Georgia Straight at the Vancouver Convention Centre East, where New Democrats gathered Tuesday night for a celebration that didn’t materialize.
“But I guess politics is politics,” Chow said. “Negativity works.”
From 45 seats, B.C. Liberals increased their share in the legislative assembly to 50. Leading in the polls at one point by as much as 20 percentage points, the B.C. NDP is down three seats, to 33. Vicki Huntington of Delta South made history as the first independent MLA in B.C. to be reelected. The Green Party of B.C. also made history with climate-change scientist Andrew Weaver’s victory in Oak Bay–Gordon Head.
As the results turned ugly, federal NDP MP Don Davies of Vancouver Kingsway observed that “this shows the power of negative politics”.
“I also think that maybe we should have brought up more of the Liberal record,” Davies told the Straight. “I think maybe being positive had its downside.”
The election results also indicated one thing for Davies: “It shows the inaccuracy of the polls.”
Environmental activist Ben West, a New Democrat convert who was previously a B.C. Green, shared this view.
“The polls were clearly pretty inaccurate,” West told the Straight. “I think most people here are pretty shocked.”
Shane Simpson, who won a third term as B.C. NDP MLA for Vancouver-Hastings, expressed disappointment with the surveys that consistently placed his party ahead. Simpson told the Straight: “Clearly the pollsters who picked the bigger percentage, you know, the pollsters will have to talk about that tomorrow.”
In his concession speech, B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix urged the saddened faithful to remain “generous” and continue to be “forward looking” in their quest for government.
But as the party re-examines its failed campaign, it may want to revisit the page written by Dix’s own mentor and friend Glen Clark. Then premier, Clark was trailing then–B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell in the 1996 election surveys. New Democrats ran negative ads, and Clark won.
Ellen Woodsworth, an ex–Vancouver councillor and a committed New Democrat, noted that B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark’s take-no-prisoners stance “beat the message of Adrian Dix, who was playing nice”.
“Her aggressive approach is still the kind of approach that the people who vote in this province want,” Woodsworth told the Straight, “and it won the day.”
According to Barry O’Neill, former president of the B.C. division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, New Democrats purposely avoided the electoral approach that “so often is taken in the United States”.
“Obviously it seems to me that that kind of hard-knock, very personal kind of advertising made a difference here,” O’Neill told the Straight.
B.C. NDP president Moe Sihota said in a brief interview that he wants to first “reflect on things”.
Paul Faoro, current secretary-treasurer of CUPE B.C., doesn’t believe that it was negative advertising that won the day. For Faoro, the key may lie in voter turnout.
Based on figures from Elections B.C. as of 1:02 a.m. on Wednesday (May 15), a total of 1.6 million valid votes were cast.
With 3.1 million registered voters as of April 15, that represents a 52 percent turnout, a slight improvement on the 51 percent rate in the 2009 election.
According to George Heyman, who unseated B.C. Liberal Margaret MacDiarmid in Vancouver-Fairview, negative campaigns are directly related to low voter turnouts.
“When you have a negative campaign, even if it’s only one party running the negative campaign, it turns people off the process,” Heyman told the Straight.
The B.C. NDP garnered 39 percent of the popular vote, falling behind the B.C. Liberals’ share of 44 percent. In the last 50 years, New Democrats have managed to win only three elections. Spencer Chandra Herbert, who won another term as New Democrat MLA in Vancouver–West End, said he’s keenly aware of this.
“I know that the NDP always has to run uphill to win elections in B.C.,” Chandra Herbert told the Straight. “That’s just been the history.”
Jenny Kwan, the longest serving member of the B.C. NDP caucus, won her fifth term as Vancouver–Mount Pleasant representative. As dejected New Democrats began leaving the convention centre, Kwan maintained that she’s proud of the positive campaign run by Dix.
“The Liberals ran a fact-free campaign and a very negative campaign. And did that make a difference in terms of the results?” Kwan asked in an interview with the Straight. “I don’t know. We’re going to have to take a look at every aspect of the campaign, do that analysis, and make an evaluation.”