B.C. NDP could learn lessons from Vision Vancouver’s broad coalition

By Carlito Pablo, November 24, 2011

Many people might be wondering what lessons the B.C. NDP can learn from its farm team, Vision Vancouver.

While New Democrats struggle to shake off their image of being antibusiness, Vision has cozied up to corporate interests and, at the same time, maintained its organized-labour and environmental connections.

With Vision’s decisive win in the November 19 civic election, the question now is whether or not the B.C. NDP can use the former’s formula for success. Political-science professor Maxwell Cameron doesn’t provide a simple answer. Instead, the UBC academic starts by claiming that the NDP is not what it was.

“The NDP now is, like any other party, essentially an electoral machine,” Cameron told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “It no longer represents a mass movement. It has ties to labour that are increasingly frayed. The labour movement itself is no longer confident that it represents an alternative. In fact, many labour movements can be very conservative. And far from representing an alternative society, the perception is that labour represents the status quo. The NDP is stuck with a kind of a mismatch between a conception of itself, its vision for itself, and what it really is.”

Turning to Vision, the director of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions noted that it provides “a shining example of what a smart, progressive-minded political party can do to win the support of environmentalists who want—whether it’s densification or bike lanes or backyard chickens—those sorts of policies, which cost very little to the business community”.

“Meanwhile, business is also happy with what the party represents in terms of its management of the economy and its position on development,” Cameron continued. “The ability of [Vision mayor] Gregor Robertson to get the backing of major business people just simply reminds everyone that there’s absolutely no reason in principle why a party that reinvents itself along those lines can’t be very successful. The caution is these issues will not always align in the same way. What works at the municipal level I don’t think is necessarily going to work at the provincial or federal level.”

He recalled attending a recent meeting of New Democrats. At that gathering, one participant made the case for eliminating government subsidies for Alberta’s tar sands. A labour person stood up to oppose it, saying there are 15,000 jobs in that sector.

“That’s the kind of discussions you have within the NDP,” Cameron said. “There are areas where there are going to be choices to make between a business approach and an environmental approach.”

According to the professor, those choices are going to be awkward with the NDP. “One, because the NDP wants to persuade business that it is fiscally responsible and pro-growth but also because labour is as conservative as business on these issues—in fact, more conservative,” Cameron said. “So, in other words, one can’t assume that just because Gregor Robertson has been very successful in finding that kind of middle ground that it will always be there.”

Former NDP cabinet minister Bob Williams argued that asking what the B.C. NDP can learn from Vision’s relationship with the business sector is like talking apples and oranges.

“In the city, the corporate interest is mainly in land development,” Williams told the Straight by phone. “And they [the city] are able to create the conditions or the rules or the zoning or the development permits that the corporate folks are looking for, so clearly there’s an interest in getting along with the councillors. That’s a very different ball game than the provincial level.”

The Vancity director also noted that on many issues New Democrats have taken positions other than what corporations are looking for. That includes serious questions about the Alberta-to-B.C. oil pipeline by Enbridge.

“A really cozy relationship between all elements of the corporate sector and the NDP may not be what most people want,” Williams said. “Certainly not me.”

Former NDP cabinet minister Tim Stevenson has been elected three times as a council candidate for Vision. In an interview two days after his reelection, Stevenson noted by phone that although many say B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix is “too ideological”, people are now “finding he’s very pragmatic”.

“You’ve got to be pragmatic nowadays,” Stevenson told the Straight. “People want vision, but they want pragmatism at the same time.”

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