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Lessons from the 2013 B.C. Election: What's a progressive research institute to do?

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Photo: Gary A. K./flickr

As I write, it has been just a few days since the provincial election. As was the case for most of you, the result was unexpected. We are still processing what it means for our work and rethinking some of our research plans.

For those of us who engage in deep thinking about policy ideas, this election felt very shallow. It makes us question the value of careful and thoughtful policy development. Does the work of a research institute like ours even matter when so many political debates seem to unfold "fact-free"?

Many of you are no doubt disappointed about a host of lost opportunities -- you hoped for more action on poverty reduction, the restoration of some funding for key public services, the first steps towards a child care plan, a clear "no" to tar sands pipelines, etc. Nevertheless, it's time to re-group, re-focus, and turn our attention back to the longer-term struggles ahead.

Here are a few of the initial lessons I draw from the election, and what it means for a progressive research institute like the CCPA -- because I do think our work matters, more than ever:

-  Progressives need to do a better job of presenting a compelling and convincing alternative vision for jobs and the economy.

People understandably feel anxious about their economic security and future employment. This is particularly true in communities where jobs are currently heavily reliant on the resource sectors. And thus the election turned on the issues of jobs and the economy. If we don't believe the jobs of the future should be based on the extraction and export of fossil fuels, then we must do better at laying out what a clean -- and moral ­­-- economy looks like, linked to concrete job targets. 

-  We need to be bold and hopeful.

A key lesson from this election: as people consider the future, big ideas and ambitious goals are more attractive and inspiring than modest and cautious ones.  People are looking forward, and want to sign on to a vision that offers economic and employment security, and speaks to the core societal challenges we face -- climate change, growing income inequality, persistent poverty, and the affordability squeeze felt by so many families. (I made a similar argument back in January as the election was ramping up, which you can find here.) I believe our organization has a vital role to play in articulating such a hopeful alternative vision. And we need to translate that vision into a compelling narrative.

-  Our policy solutions and alternative vision need to speak to people in all regions.

The B.C. political map is starting to look disturbingly like the "Blue States" and "Red States" we see emerging from U.S. elections. That's not healthy. It's not just an urban/rural divide, but also a city/suburb divide. The dominant issues and concerns that people wrestle with play out differently across the province. So as we develop a compelling alternative economic vision, we need to ensure it is not rooted in an "urban bubble" divorced from the realities that many communities face.

-  We need to better connect with and excite young people.

The desire for a bold and hopeful vision of the future is particularly acute among young people. And in its absence, they remain disengaged from electoral politics. Young people need to feel inspired if they are to engage. I'm convinced the CCPA–BC's work on climate justice and poverty reduction has the potential to connect in this way.

-  The issues of resource development, fossil fuel exports and pipelines figured very centrally in the election, and will be defining issues in the years ahead.

We are at a crossroads. Importantly, a majority of B.C. voters chose parties that were unequivocally opposed to the building of tar sands pipelines, and even the BC Liberals were compelled to lay out five conditions such developments must meet. Those fights will now continue in various realms. At their root will be the question of whether B.C. wants to build more and more infrastructure that locks us onto a dying economy, or whether we want to choose a different path towards a zero-carbon economy.  The CCPA–BC's work on climate justice, fracking and LNG, and fossil fuel exports, contrasted with our ongoing work on green jobs, will figure prominently in those debates.

-  The B.C. government is going to be facing some serious fiscal challenges in the coming years (the legacy of 12 years of tax cuts).

If major cuts to services are to be avoided, we need to raise new revenues. The CCPA–BC is committed to identifying and advancing options for how to do that in a fair and effective manner. Our new Tax Project has a vital role to play in making the case for equitable tax reform.

-  There is a stark disconnect between people's values and how these issues play out in the context of an election.

On balance, the values and desires of most British Columbians remain relatively progressive. You see this reflected in polls that explore attitudes and policy preferences in a meaningful way (as opposed to the horse-race polls about party preferences). But too often, these values fail to find electoral expression, either because they are trumped by other factors, or more likely, because none of the main parties articulate a compelling plan of action.  And far too many feel alienated from the political process and don't vote. Importantly, the results of the election should not be taken as a majority support for a neo-liberal agenda.

-  We need to better understand why so many people feel disengaged from politics and key policy debates.

To me, the most depressing figure to emerge from the provincial election was the fact that barely over half of eligible voters chose to exercise their franchise. Who are these people, and why do they feel so disconnected and uninspired? The CCPA–BC is working on a new initiative that tackles the problem of democratic malaise and disengagement. We believe the problem of growing inequality, and the impacts of neoliberal political culture on the public's relationship with politics and government, are central and need to be better understood. This new project will also seek to expand what we mean by democracy -- it's not just about voting once every few years; it's about participating in key decisions as they arise, and we want to develop models for how to enable meaningful participation on a large scale.

That's just for starters. We have more thinking, processing and planning to do.

Overall though, I'm convinced to work of research institutes like ours will continue to serve an important function in a democracy. Ideas matter. Facts matter. Hope matters. The work the CCPA does holding governments to account, and documenting the impact of their policy choices, remains essential. Most importantly, the thoughtful development of an alternative policy agenda remains vital -- if we are to present the public with a different path forward, one based on more equality, economic security, and a planet that is livable for our children and grandchildren, institutes like the CCPA have a key role to play.

Photo: Gary A. K./flickr

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