Friday, April 20, 2007

Liberals sitting pretty, and not much the NDP can do

Heading toward the halfway point in the Liberal government’s second term and a new poll has some New Democrats in a lather.
The Ipsos-Reid survey is remarkably encouraging for Gordon Campbell and company. Both the premier and party have the highest approval ratings since 2001.
And the poll suggests the Liberals would win re-election with a bigger majority if the election were held today. They have the support of 49 per cent of decided voters, up three points from their actual support in the 2005 election; the NDP, at 32 per cent, is down from 42 per cent in the actual vote. (The Greens are at 15 per cent despite being invisible these days.)
The predictable result is that some New Democrats are grumbling about leader Carole James and the party’s direction.
Partly, some New Democrats just like to fight, even if it’s with each other. Others think that a tougher opposition, maybe a more traditional left-wing approach, would pay off.
The reality is that the Liberals are just doing a good job of staying popular. The conventional wisdom - that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them - is true, even in grumpy B.C.
It took the Liberals a while to learn that lesson. They spent most of their first term driving voters away.
That’s changed.
Just look at the difference in labour relations. The first-term Liberals made no secret of their contempt for public sector workers.They were so low it was even OK to break their contracts, clearing the way for mass firings so they could be replaced with cheaper labour.
The kinder, gentler Liberals came up with $1 billion in signing bonuses and a conciliatory approach to get labour peace. And it worked.
The first-term Liberals could never admit a mistake. The new Liberals can walk away from unpopular legislation with a shrug and a smile.
The old Liberals didn’t really believe in treaties with First Nations. The new Liberals are keen on a new relationship and champions of a national effort to improve life for natives.
And, in a blink, Campbell has discovered climate change — long after the public did — and gone from doubter to champion faster than you can say Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It hardly seems like a revolutionary political strategy - listen to the public and try to do things they think make sense.
The strategy is working particularly well because for most British Columbians things are looking good. The economy is strong and - except for people in traditional resource communities - jobs are secure.
Frustrating for the New Democrats, for sure. Oppositions thrive when governments ignore public concerns that they can then champion.
So the concern about the growing gap between rich and poor in B.C. and the number of people left behind is a good issue for the New Democrats, even if the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 in one jump is too radical.
But if the NDP gains much ground, then the new Liberals are likely to introduce their own minimum wage hike. Issue defused.
It make for trying times for an opposition. But lurching toward the party’s traditional base - left or right - makes no sense. Two-party elections are won in the middle.
There is value in patience, waiting to see if the government can actually deliver on its promises. For all the enthusiastic talk, the government hasn’t actually done anything meaningful on climate change, for example. It’s risky to argue that an issue is critically important and then be found wanting.
And there is the reality that things can go bad for government at any time — a health care crisis, a few scandals, another series of stumbles in children and families. It’s hard governing.
But if people do it competently, there isn’t much enthusiasm for booting them out, no matter who is in opposition or what they promise.
And the polls suggest Campbell and the Liberals have learned a lot about keeping the public onside since 2005.
Footnote: The grumbling about James isn’t likely to amount too much. Voters are still, overall, slightly more positive about her performance than they are about Campbell’s. (Both are at slightly over 50-per-cent approval; James has fewer detractors.) There are no apparent heirs in sight. And thoughtful New Democrats recognize that James approach worked very well in the 2005 election.


Anonymous said...

The NDP is still grappling with their failure to understand economics. Most Canadians are socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Until the NDP can demonstrate that they can govern in a fiscally-responsible fashion, they're only going to be elected in a backlash against a mainstream party that's alienated the middle. The key to fiscal responsibility is conceding (and actually believing) that free market economics are a better description of how economies work than centrally-planned, interventionist practices.

Stephen K said...

Not as simple as that, anon. The ideal economy is a mixed economy, one that recognizes that both that both the market at state intervention have their places, rather than one based on the presumption that one is the panacea.

I would say that most Canadians are fiscally responsible, but fiscally responsible is not necessarily synonomous with fiscally conservative. Tommy Douglas was fiscally responsible; he always balanced his budgets.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, I think you missed my point. Government intervention certainly helps smooth out the wild swings that accompany a pure laissez-faire approach, but that intervention MUST be informed by economic principles. This is where the NDP fails: they know the outcome they want, but don't understand how their chosen approach distorts other aspects of the economy and leads to other unintended and undesired consequences.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the Liberals are much better businessmen then the NDP.
Liberals: Doug Walls ran his granpappy's car dealership into the ground. Gary Collins helped destroy an airline.

NDP: Gregor Robertson co-owns a hugely profitable juice company.