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Derrick O'Keefe's blog

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former rabble.ca Editor Derrick O'Keefe is a writer and social justice activist in Vancouver, BC. He is the author of the new Verso book, Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? and the co-writer of Afghan MP Malalai Joya's political memoir, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. Derrick also served as rabble.ca's editor from 2007 to 2009. Topics covered on this blog will include the war in Afghanistan and foreign policy, Canadian politics, media analysis, climate justice and ecology. You can follow him at http://twitter.com/derrickokeefe

After B.C. election stunner: No silver bullet for changing balance of political forces

| May 28, 2013
Photo: gak / flickr

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It's been two weeks since the stunning election in B.C. There have been a slew of critiques of the B.C. NDP campaign that failed spectacularily to win a vote that almost everybody thought they had in the bag. A couple have smacked of internal party score-settling, and of course there have been a few that are mere rote sectarian sloganeering, but in general there have been a lot of really thoughtful and useful reflections.

I wrote this nearly a week ago, for my regular column in the local Vancouver newspaper The Source. A week later the disillusionment and indignation hasn't really let up. It's not just the inherently uphill battle against our well-heeled opponents that rankles; it's also the realization of the depth of atomization and depoliticization we're up against.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. Register and leave a comment, or join the discussion on Babble. The struggle continues -- together we'll figure this out. 

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“I am hurt, but I am not slain. I shall lay me down and bleed a while, then rise and fight again.”

These are words legendary NDP leader Tommy Douglas borrowed from Andrew Barton and used to repeat in order to soothe supporters after a tough election loss. And there's a lot of soothing needed for progressive-minded people in B.C. right now. (Thanks to Victoria activist and City Councillor Ben Isitt for sharing these words of wisdom on social media in the days following the election.)

There have already been scores of post-mortem analyses written about the shocking failure of the NDP on May 14. But frankly a lot of them read like Monday morning quarterbacking. Almost no one, certainly none of the pundits on our television screens last Tuesday night, saw this coming. So, while there is much to criticize and debrief about the NDP’s campaign, to me the more useful thing to do is to look at some of the reasons the BC Liberals won.

In retrospect, my certainty that Clark would be done in by the mounting scandals, outright lies and plenty of evidence of outright incompetence, seems naive and somewhat detached from hard political reality. So we have to look closely at why Christy Clark won the election. It's frankly depressing and terrifying, but we must face a few facts about the balance of political forces.

In British Columbia, a sufficiently united right-wing vote will hardly ever be defeated. Indeed, the NDP has only won three general elections in the history of this province. One of those, in 1996, they won on seats despite losing the popular vote. Everyone underestimated the degree of the collapse of John Cummins’ Conservative Party of B.C. No doubt federal Conservatives from Harperland worked the backrooms hard to push the right to unite behind Christy Clark.

In a number of regions of B.C., voters will never elect the NDP. Barring a major shift in the political landscape, a progressive majority will simply never come together in places like Richmond, most of the Fraser Valley, and the Okanagan. The right-wing could run pylons and win those ridings.

The mainstream media still has a disproportionate influence on politics in this province. Those of us who work in alternative media, surrounded by our social media networks, can tend to exaggerate the decline of corporate media influence. The major print media in B.C. always oppose the NDP forming government. The Province and Globe and Mail came out with shameless editorials endorsing Clark in the campaign’s final days, echoing the crude 'Risky Dix' negative ads run by the Liberals earlier this year.

The Liberals had and will always have more money and more influential people supporting them. In the days after Tuesday's election, two core constituencies -- Big Oil companies in Alberta, and big condo developers in Vancouver -- openly boasted of their support for the Liberals. The mainstream media reported this after the fact, but made little of these vested interests behind Christy Clark before or during the campaign.

These are just a few of the stark realities we’re up against. There is no silver bullet with which they can be overcome.

As a person of the political left, I criticized the NDP before and during the campaign for the very limited nature of their political program, and for their failure to clearly explain and attack the BC Liberals disastrous record in office.

For all that, the election result is stunning and disheartening. It will have a very real negative impact for many working and poor people. As noted by many analysts, Christy Clark's revenue projections and “debt free B.C.” promises are a fraud, based on wildly optimistic projections about revenues from LNG projects coming online in the coming years. When the LNG fantasy unravels, what will Premier Clark cut? Teachers, public sector union members, and anyone who works in or benefits from public services has good reason to be fearful.

A tiny minority of people on the radical left advocate not voting, and sometimes see the trend toward lower and lower voter turnouts as some kind of radical rejection of "the system." This would be comical if the condition of our society and democracy were not so tragic.

"The system" wants you not to vote and not to participate. Back when Emma Goldman said "if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal," it was illegal for almost everyone in the Western "democracies."

The celebration of not voting represents an anachronistic and self-defeating assessment of the role of the state and of electoral politics and political power, generally. It renders redundant the Right's efforts at voter suppression and does nothing to challenge the increasingly pervasive consumerism and nihilism of our times. Latin America is one of the few places where neoliberalism has been rolled back in the past decade; they also have among the highest voter turnouts in the world. Let’s figure this out, and aim for a revolution of participation -- a citizens' peaceful insurrection against concentrated economic power.

Elections are one terrain of a long political battle. We have to soberly assess all the factors involved, even when the political realities are not favourable to progressive let alone radical change.

And then we must rise and fight again.

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Comments

“I am hurt, but I am not slain. I shall lay me down and bleed a while, then rise and fight again.”

These words were not exactly "borrowed from Andrew Barton", who was no poet, but rather a Scottish privateer of the late 15th century. They are the words of the author of The Ballad of Sir Andrew Barton, who put them into Barton's mouth. The correct quote from the ballad lyric, BTW, is:

"I am hurt, but I am not slain;
I'll lay me down and bleed a while,
And then I'll rise and fight again."

No doubt, no doubt. 

But lower voter turnout absolutely constitutes a rejection of "the system." People vote with their hearts and their party gets creamed. They vote strategically and get exactly what they were strategizing to avoid. The elect the NDP and get austerity. For most nonvoters, not voting isn't a statement, it's a response.  

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