Class and politics: Christy Clark's ideological contortions made life tougher for the NDP

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      Premier Christy Clark's looming departure from provincial politics will be welcomed by many British Columbians.

      It’s pretty clear by now that a significant segment of the public will never vote for a party led by her. And in the end, that's what spelled her demise.

      While it's easy to point to small things that could have made a difference—such as a weaker showing by the Conservative candidate in Comox-Courtenay—Clark was ultimately doomed by her inability to connect with residents in the fastest-growing parts of the province.

      Her party failed miserably on Vancouver Island and in much of the Lower Mainland.

      With continued migration of people from rural to urban and suburban areas, Clark likely never would have won another election as B.C. Liberal leader.

      With her at the helm, the B.C. Liberals were on their way to becoming a rump party of Fraser Valley and B.C. Interior MLAs, with the odd sprinkling of seats in wealthy constituencies such as Vancouver-Langara, Vancouver-Quilchena, the rich area of Delta, and parts of the North Shore.

      They held Richmond constituencies this time, but with diminished margins of victory.

      Unlike her predecessor, Clark's appeal wasn't overly ideological.

      She adjusted government policies before the 2013 election when the NDP called for a higher minimum wage, higher corporate taxes, and a surtax on high-income earners (subsequently revoked). 

      And in response to NDP complaints about medical services premiums, she announced a 50 percent cut to take effect after the 2017 election.

      These moves made her a tough opponent. 

      New Democrats knew that they had to keep most their policy proposals secret before the recent campaign because otherwise, Clark was apt to steal them before the election.

      She even ripped off the NDP platform in her government's last throne speech.

      That was never problem in the Gordon Campbell era.

      So what accounts for this?

      Christy Clark always enjoyed mixing with the crowds at Vaisakhi in Vancouver.
      Charlie Smith

      Looking at politics through a class lens

      In B.C., there's not a lot of talk about social classes, but in this instance, I think there is a class dimension to the story.

      Clark wasn't raised in posh Point Grey or the upper-class areas of the North Shore. She grew up in South Burnaby, where young people had to be tough, resilient, and wily to succeed in what was once one of the region's toughest neighbourhoods.

      In those days, people from South Burnaby weren't expected to grow up and become premier. Clark’s political success demonstrates how far she came in life.

      She didn’t attend a prestigious West Side secondary school, unlike the NDP’s Adrian Dix, whom she made mincemeat of in the 2013 election.

      One byproduct of her upbringing was her lack of enthusiasm for postsecondary education, even when she was the MLA for a constituency that included UBC's Point Grey campus. Her government repeatedly refused to provide more funding for this sector.

      Another byproduct was Clark's sheer delight in mixing with regular folks, notwithstanding the NDP's attempt to paint her as a premier only for the wealthy. Clark loved wading into crowds. And when interviewed by Nardwuar, she could rattle off the names of virtually every Vancouver punk rock band of the early to mid 1980s.

      Her down-to-earth style made her popular with many blue-collar voters. But she sometimes seemed out of touch with the concerns of urban and suburban white-collar types in tech, the professions, and the creative sector, particularly on environmental issues.

      There was perhaps a bit of classism at play in her failure to connect. That was reinforced by her repeatedly donning a hard hat for photo ops.

      Now B.C. Liberals may be tempted to swing in the opposite direction in electing a new leader who will appeal to white-collar types and urban and suburban professionals.

      They might think that someone like Andrew Wilkinson—who's been a doctor, a lawyer, and a Rhodes scholar—has all the qualities lacking in Clark.

      While it's true that Wilkinson comes across as a cerebral politician, he hasn't demonstrated the common touch in his four years in provincial politics.

      And it remains to be seen if he would be as malleable in adjusting policies as Clark was, which so often confounded her political opponents.

      Andrew Wilkinson is well educated and polished, but does he have the right stuff to appeal to voters in the 250 area code?

      B.C. Liberals appeal to rich and blue-collar voters

      During her tenure as premier, Clark defined the B.C. Liberals as a party mostly serving people in the province's wealthiest enclaves and in the 250 area code on the mainland of the province.

      She had a remarkable ability to appeal to the guys in hard hats as she allowed larger amounts of provincial funds to flow into private schools.

      However, Green-minded voters on Vancouver Island abandoned the B.C. Liberals in droves. They preferred the more upper-class Andrew Weaver.

      We're left with an increasingly polarized province with some deep class divisions.

      And it appears that no matter which way the B.C. Liberals go in their leadership contest, they'll likely alienate a part of their base.

      If they pick Wilkinson, they risk losing blue-collar voters who delivered seats in places like Cariboo North, Skeena, and Fraser-Nicola.

      But if the B.C. Liberals decide to stay the course and choose a leader with more working-class street cred, they may continue seeing white-collar support slip away in the Tri-Cities, Vancouver, and Richmond.

      Premier John Horgan has managed to convey both blue-collar and white-collar appeal, at least so far.

      His background as a millworker and poverty-stricken youth helps with people in the resource industries and those on low incomes. Yet his crisp speaking style and his master’s degree give him credibility with knowledge workers.

      To a certain extent, Horgan bridges the class divide in B.C. politics.

      And there aren’t many on the B.C. Liberal side of the legislature who can make this claim with the same level of credibility.