The BC NDP at 50: Looking back, looking forward

Speaking at the BC NDP 50th Anniversary Convention, BC Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair described his election campaign war chest as over 500,000 strong, the members of the BC Fed affiliated unions.

Sinclair gave the figures for the margin of victory by the provincial Liberals in the last two elections: an increase in NDP votes cast of 2,500 in 2005 and of 3,800 votes in 2009 would have produced a different outcome. The obvious conclusion is that the role of labour in getting out the vote is likely to prove decisive in the next B.C. election, expected in May 2013.

In his first address as leader, Adrian Dix began by taking delegates and observers back through the history of the party and its leaders, beginning with Harold Winch who led then BC CCF party from 1938 until 1953, when he became the Federal MP for Vancouver East (a seat he held until 1972).

Harold Winch became leader of the B.C. official opposition in 1941. His father Ernest Winch was also a CCF MLA from 1933 until the he died in 1957. The Winches were British born, and no strangers to class politics or Marxist analysis. They believed that politics was about mobilizing the working class, exploiting the electoral system to block capitalist control of government, and using political power to emancipate workers. Harold Winch and his CCF party faced a Liberal-Conservative coalition during the war years, and were subjected to red scare propaganda tactics emanating from the provincial Social Credit after the war. To the "better dead than red" slogan, the CCF responded with a button: "Better Dead than Socred."

As the CCF, the B.C. party came close to winning the 1952 election. The Alternative vote, a preferential ballot electoral system (in use only for that one election) produced a first Social Credit government (to the surprise of the Liberal-Conservatives which were wiped out) and prevented the CCF from savouring victory. It would be another 20 years until Dave Barrett led the NDP to its first win.

Under Premier Dave, in three years in office the party passed one piece of legislation for every three days it held power (a record Dix noted he had no intention of challenging). Like Harold Winch, Dave Barrett was from East Vancouver. A social worker by profession, he shared the class politics perspective of Winch, but preferred to take a populist approach with the electorate. As a down-to-earth champion of the common people, Barrett beat the Socreds at their own game.

Mike Harcourt brought an urban activist approach to provincial politics. Accused of being too close to unions, even today he has his response ready. "Thanks for the compliment." Unions raise the standard of living for their members and pull up wages for everybody, while fighting for social legislation.

Glen Clark succeeded Harcourt as leader. Inspired by Barrett, Clark brought class politics up-to-date, with his campaign message: "On your side." Running an activist government (with Adrian Dix as chief-of-staff) Premier Glen Clark faced economic turbulence wrought by the very economic system he wanted to transform. His main political foes were the anti-NDP business coalition that included the media, and at least one RCMP officer.

Ambushed on his doorstep by a television reporter, who just happened to be there when a Mountie falsely accused the premier of criminal wrong-doing, Clark's career in office was cut short by the ensuing bogus media controversy. The losers were the party, and the province of British Columbia.

Adrian Dix has a plan for forming the first NDP government since Clark led the party to victory in 1996. On the weekend he said the party would have a positive message and put its program for government on display for all to see. His one campaign promise: no surprises.

To win, Dix will have to continue to face down the anti-NDP coalition centred on the BC Board of Trade, supported by the corporate media, and helped out by various front organizations such as the Fraser Institute.

His main challenge in preparing for the next election is one his predecessors would recognize: deliver a vision and program that inspires BC Fed members, and other supporters, to mobilize for a change of government. Dix is confident. In his closing remarks he told the convention the best time ever to be a New Democrat was now.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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