Wednesday, August 31, 2011

HST result shows a new class-based voter division

The HST referendum result might signal a greater political shift, something beyond a tax revolt or anger over an arrogant, untrusted government.
The idea of class-based politics, for want of a better term, after being considered largely irrelevant for the last 60 years, could matter once again.
The HST went down to a significant defeat, with 55 per cent of those who voted rejecting the tax and 45 per cent backing it. A majority of voters in 60 ridings voted to dump the tax; in 25, they supported the HST.
The new tax won the strongest support in three ritzy Vancouver ridings. West Vancouver-Capilano, average household income more than $140,000, topped the list.
The vote to reject was strongest in three lower-income Mainland ridings. Voters in Surrey-Green Timbers, where the average household income is about $70,000, were keenest on dumping the HST.
Broadly, the higher the income in the riding, the more people supported the HST. The lower, the more likely they were to oppose the tax. The trend was consistent across the province.
No matter how you analyze those results, there is a significant division between the way people perceive their interests, based on their income levels.
Canadian elections haven’t reflected that divide for a long time, perhaps since the Second World War. Certainly lower-income voters, particularly with union jobs, have been more likely to support the NDP. But voters from all income levels have found homes in different parties at different times.
Voters, broadly, have considered themselves middle class and voted accordingly. Even if they were, objectively, earning much less than others, people expected their lot in life to improve, and their children’s lives to be better still.
They voted to advance the interests of the people they expected to be. Aspirational voting, you might say.
Until the referendum. People now seem, once again, to be picking sides — by class or income, or simply based on the divide between those who are doing well and those who are being left behind.
Which suggests that more people are losing hope that they, or their children, will cross over into the solidly middle class.
That’s not surprising. My grandparents, British immigrants with limited skills and education, bought a house in Toronto for $500 after they had been in the country for a few years and he was working for General Electric. When I was five, my parents bought a house in the new Toronto suburbs, sprawling out to accommodate the post-war baby boom. I bought a house in Alberta for $67,500 after a relatively short stint in the workforce. We all expected home ownership, opportunity and a better life for our children.
Now the average price of a detached home in Vancouver is more than $1 million. The jobs that once provided steady, good incomes for people in mills and manufacturing are gone.
And with them, the expectations of a better life have vanished for many British Columbians. They can no longer see themselves as middle class.
It’s a significant shift. Canadians have shared the expectation that they would do well. Vote Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Socred — they offered different approaches to a common, better future. Now, many have lost the hope that underpinned those votes.
An Ipsos Reid poll released Tuesday supports that view. It found that 49 per cent of those surveyed thought scrapping the HST would have a negative impact on the B.C. economy, while only 17 per cent thought it would be positive.
But 43 per cent thought axing the tax would be good for their families, while only 25 per cent thought it would be bad for them.
Voters have rated the economy highly as an issue for the last few decades. Parties judged to be good at improving the economy won support across all income groups, because people believed they and their families would benefit.
But not this time.
That’s a significant development, especially for the provincial Liberals. Their message in the next election campaign, whenever it comes, will be that an NDP government would be bad for business.
The HST result suggests voters might be less convinced about putting the economy first, and more concerned with whether the next government would be good for them.