As widely predicted, British Columbia’s NDP government has renewed its mandate with a thumping majority, making John Horgan the province’s first sitting New Democratic premier to win re-election.
At the time of writing, the BC NDP has won or is leading in 55 of the province’s 87 seats. Although there are still around half a million mailed in ballots to count before the results are finalized, polling suggests that the votes yet to be counted are likely to favour the New Democrats, meaning their majority could grow even more over the coming weeks.
However, some pundits have been quick to suggest that this huge win is largely down to the BC NDP’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has less to do with a significant ideological realignment of the province’s electorate.
During this election, the NDP’s platform mostly offered more of the same from its past three-and-a-half years in office. For example, it recommitted to introducing a $400 renter’s rebate, and promised to introduce universal $10-a-day childcare. In addition, Horgan has committed to a rent freeze until 2022, free transit for youth aged 12 and under, and a pandemic recovery benefit of up to $1,000 for families earning less than $125,000.
On the issue of long-term care, where some of Canada’s worst COVID outbreaks began, Horgan promised to make permanent recent pay increases for care aides, and will hire 7,000 new healthcare workers. However, despite acknowledging that the existing private-public care system “is not meeting our needs,” Horgan has unfortunately provided no firm commitment or timeline for replacing for-profit care with a fully public system.
Even if voters were less motivated by an ideological shift, one could argue that the public understood that because social-democratic parties (at least in theory) support socialized medicine and public healthcare spending, they are far better placed to manage health emergencies than their right-wing opponents. This was at least partly borne out this election by polling, which showed 57 percent of voters felt the NDP were the best party to manage healthcare issues.
Still, there is work to be done to convince the majority of the BC public that social-democratic governments are worth having long-term, even when there isn’t a pandemic.
A Research.co poll earlier this month indicated that the top issues concerning BC voters this election were housing, poverty and homelessness, the economy, and healthcare. To make the most of its historic mandate while addressing these top-of-mind concerns, the BC NDP needs to ensure that its program over the next four years is focused on implementing lasting changes that make a clean break from the disastrous neoliberal dogmatisms of yesteryear. This will require more ambitious measures than the party offered in its election platform.
BC Liberals implode
The NDP owed at least some of their success last night to the fact that BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson ran what is likely to be remembered as one of the most shambolic political campaigns in BC’s recent history.
After unexpectedly winning his party’s leadership in 2018 in a ranked ballot race, Wilkinson faced an uphill battle from the get-go. His ties to the corruptions, scandals and disastrous policies of the Christy Clark and Gordon Campbell years made it difficult for him to convince anyone he was interested in changing the party in any meaningful way. His cartoonishly out-of-touch comments about renters and students highlighted the party’s ongoing commitment to the interests of wealthy elites, and even earned Wilkinson comparisons to The Simpsons character, Mr. Burns.
The BC Liberals ran their election campaign on a series of ridiculous proposals, such as a one-year cut in the provincial sales tax that would have blown an $8 billion hole in government revenues. Wilkinson also promised to privatize basic auto insurance, after it was his party that lit what has become infamously known as a financial “dumpster fire” in the province’s public auto insurer during the BC Liberals’ time in office.
Wilkinson’s party also disgracefully centred some of its campaign messaging on poor-bashing and attacks against overdose prevention sites. Some candidates who amplified such attacks—including former Vancouver mayor, Sam Sullivan—lost their seats, and deservedly so.
Meanwhile, the party also had to grapple with a string of gaffes and controversies on the campaign trail. Socially conservative candidate Laurie Throness resigned after comparing birth control to eugenics during a Zoom town hall, though he had long expressed anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ views while sitting in the BC Liberal Caucus for seven years. Jane Thornthwaite, who lost her seat in North Vancouver-Seymour, came under fire after a leaked video showed her making sexist comments about the NDP’s Bowinn Ma, while Wilkinson and other BC Liberals laughed along.
It’s only a matter of time until Wilkinson resigns. However, although at least one of the outgoing leader’s obvious successors, Jas Johal, lost his seat to the NDP, no one should assume that the BC Liberals are a spent force. Over the next four years, it is quite likely they will regroup with a competent leader, and be capable of winning the next election.
In practical terms for Horgan, this means ensuring that the goodwill lent by some voters to the NDP on the basis of his handling of the pandemic is repaid with far-reaching measures that protect poor and working people during this second wave of COVID and beyond.
Greens show they’re here stay
Another key takeaway from last night’s results is the impressive showing of the BC Green Party. Under recently elected leader Sonia Furstenau, the party defied many expectations and managed to not only hold on to its two seats on Vancouver Island, but are projected (at the time of writing) to break new ground in West Vancouver-Sea to Sky.
This shows that, despite some positive measures in the province’s CleanBC plan (formed in partnership with the Greens), the NDP’s commitment to projects such as the Site C dam and the liquefied-natural gas facility in northern BC may have permanently turned off some environmentalists (as recently detailed by Robert Hackett). To address this widening rift, the NDP needs to fully dispense with the myopic belief that governments can extract and pollute their way to social democracy. If it doesn’t, the BC Greens will continue to grow at the New Democrats’ expense.
Although it’s not clear whether Furstenau will reverse the party’s anti-labour biases that existed under previous leader Andrew Weaver, her party does seem to have recognized the necessity of doing more to couple radical climate action with fights against social and economic injustice. This is an encouraging development, but it is still early days in her leadership.
Another significant issue the BC Greens need to address is their dismal lack of diversity. While they deserve credit for fielding some young, brilliant climate activists, there was really no excuse for running a slate of candidates that was so overwhelmingly white.
Still, on the whole, Furstenau’s presence in the legislature is a good thing for the province and planet, and will keep needed pressure on the NDP to alter its course on fossil-fuel mega-projects and other environmental failings. Instead of focusing on trying to eliminate the Greens, the NDP would be wise to work with them as much as possible.
And perhaps more grassroots members of both parties should redouble their efforts to encourage the NDP to go green, and the Greens to move left. While the animosity between some BC Green and BC NDP members is legendary (sometimes for good reason), it is in nobody’s interest for one party to preoccupy themselves with trying to wipe out the other.
When faced with a revitalized BC Liberal Party or new “free enterprise” coalition in four years time, the need for a strong and progressive environmental movement will be more important than ever.