Liberal cling to big lie that labour funds NDP

A labour movement that is without interest in political matters is a labour movement that is evading one of the most fundamental responsibilities.

-- Claude Jodoin, first president of the Canadian Labour Congress, at the 1961 New Democratic Party founding convention

One of the biggest challenges facing the B.C. New Democratic Party in the upcoming provincial election is its relationship with unions.

The B.C. Liberal party has all but declared its own campaign theme: that the NDP is too closely aligned with so-called "big labour" to govern fairly for all British Columbians.

And many in the media act as a Greek chorus, continually telling NDP leader Carole James to distance herself from unions. Some influential New Democrats make similar suggestions.

So, is it sound advice and good strategy? Not if you want to win the election.

For Carole James to become premier, she needs to get 65 percent of union households to vote NDP on May 17. That's what it took in 1991 for Mike Harcourt and in 1996 for Glen Clark to get about 40 percent of the overall vote and win.

And to secure the labour vote, the NDP has to appeal to union voters and their families, not ignore or alienate them.

In 1991, the party made an explicit appeal to union households, promising to review labour and employment-standards legislation and repeal some of the anti-worker measures taken by Social Credit. In 1996, the NDP campaigned with the slogan "On Your Side" and a populist platform of freezing tuition and BC Hydro and ICBC auto-insurance rates while protecting jobs, a combination that appealed to working families. After each election, they implemented the platform.

The NDP also successfully painted Gordon Campbell as a leader who would slash public services to pay for tax cuts for big business and the wealthy.

For James to be successful, the party again needs to craft a platform that appeals to both traditional labour voters and other British Columbians who see the Liberals as acting on behalf of a narrow segment of society.

Secondly, a close look at the financing of political parties shows why the NDP needs to maintain a strong link with labour: to remain even remotely competitive with the corporate funding of the B.C. Liberal party.

The B.C. Liberals raised an astounding total of $23.8 million between 2000 and 2003, and a full 68 percent of that money came from corporations, unincorporated businesses, and commercial organizations: more than $16.1 million.

Party financing also shows that the biggest untold story in B.C. politics is the enormous dependence of the Liberals on the business community to fund them.

And although many claims are made that "big labour" bankrolls the NDP, the facts show a different picture.

Labour provides only a small fraction of NDP funding. During the same four years between 2000 and 2003, the NDP raised $11.6 million, less than half the Liberals' total. Union contributions amounted to only $1.15 million, or about 10 percent, with more than half of that total coming in the election year of 2001. The remainder came mostly from individuals, plus business and other sources.

Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of NDP donations come, in fact, from individuals, Premier Gordon Campbell continues to push the idea that union money challenges his party.

After the Liberals lost the Surreyí‚ ­Panorama Ridge by-election in October 2004 by a significant 20-percent margin, did Campbell blame his controversial candidate Mary Polak, or his government's unpopular policies? No, he said unions were responsible.

"There were a lot of dollars that came into this riding from big labour, and they worked very hard at it," Campbell told the media. "It's important for us to understand that the election in May is going to be a tough-fought election."

Campbell is right in predicting labour will fight hard to defeat his government. That's no surprise, after he imposed contracts on nurses, teachers, hospital workers, and others, changed labour laws to benefit employers at the expense of workers, and cut and privatized public services.

And labour has made it clear that aside from donating money to the NDP, it will be running its own campaign to mobilize workers to vote out the Liberals.

But the idea that unions could even remotely make up the $12-million funding advantage the Liberals have over the NDP is ludicrous. And with business backers concerned the NDP could actually win the election, expect a record year for corporate donations to the Liberals, exceeding 2001's $5.7-million tally.

Would the NDP benefit if election-financing laws were changed to ban major contributions from both labour and business? Absolutely. The huge gap in the funding of the two major parties would narrow considerably and the NDP could more easily do without union contributions than the Liberals could give up corporate donations.

But until that reform, unlikely to come from a business fundingí‚ ­addicted Liberal government, the NDP urgently needs to encourage union donations to attempt to be politically competitive.

How then should the NDP deal with polling results like those from Ipsos Reid late last year, which found that 61 percent of those questioned agreed that "Carole James and the NDP are too closely tied to organized labour unions"?

First, the NDP should be straightforward about its relationship with labour. Explain to voters why the NDP needs labour's support to counterbalance the huge big-business influence on the Liberals.

Second, be clear about how the interests of labour and business will be balanced through public consultation. The 1992 labour-code review was conducted with one labour representative, one from business, and a third neutral, all of whom agreed on 97 percent of the changes.

Third, never be embarrassed about having labour support. It's how the NDP wins elections.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at