Two observations about the 2020 BC election

To hear the CBC coverage, you’d think the NDP victory in the recent BC election means a ringing mandate for a social justice agenda and a refutation of the law and order, safe streets, anti-drug user revanchism of the BC Liberals and Andrew Wilkinson.

Political scientist Max Cameron, in an election post-mortem in The Tyee, says the NDP victory is due first of all to the global trend, that “the world is going through a social democratic moment.” He says the NDP has benefited from this moment because they are a social democratic party. 

Similarly, Derrick O’Keefe’s Jacobin report on the election results celebrates the NDP election victory as a win for “social democracy.” O’Keefe overstates the difference between the NDP government’s supportive housing and shelter programs and the opposition Liberal Party’s rhetoric. His article does not substantiate his claim that the NDP is a social democratic party, except to bemoan its “unfortunate” sponsorship of the police invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory in February 2020 and increased subsidy packages for private gas extraction corporations, and to blame the Green Party for the NDP-Green coalition government’s austerity policies.

But while it is certainly an overstatement to call the BC NDP a social democratic party, the outcome of the 2020 election does have some meaning. I think there are two significant takeaways from this election.

First, the BC Liberal appeal to open anti-drug user and anti-poor hatred didn’t work.

The fact that the NDP’s Lisa Beare (who was incumbent) beat out the Liberals’ Cheryl Ashlie in Maple Ridge by a strong 61% can be interpreted to say that Ridgeilante, kill-the-poor politics are not as popular as the swagger of these bigots might suggest. Ashlie was a Maple Ridge city councilor, firmly in Mayor Mike Morden’s hate-driven camp and her candidacy for Legislative office symbolized a run for higher power for a “localist” anti-social housing movement. Her loss should take the wind out of the sails of the hateful Ridgeilante scum and should also embolden the Provincial government to push through social housing and harm reduction resources against the resistance of these local property and moral panic interests.

The NDP also won in other vigilante, anti-poor ridings, like Nanaimo. There the Liberals ran lame duck candidates (one of them literally named Duck Paterson) and the NDP government was not so heavily associated with forcing-in social housing against the cries of the “our city our choice” crowd. In Nanaimo, Mayor Leonard Krog was formerly a provincial NDP politician and more successfully bridges the local bigots to the Legislature.

But while the election can be interpreted, in some areas, as a referendum on Andrew Wilkinson’s brand of seething anti-poor hatred, that does not mean the struggle against the institutionalization, containment, and punishment of the impoverished masses has been resolved in our favour. It certainly does not mean that there has been a triumph for a resurgent social democratic politics. The NDP does not stand for a reversal of decades of neoliberalism and austerity, for a tax-the-rich-to-house-the-poor social democracy.

At every turn the NDP has upheld and institutionalized innovations introduced by the BC Liberals to manage the disobedient, dangerous poor. It was the BC Liberals who introduced harm reduction policies and wrapped public health measures around low-income communities to supplement and deepen the reach of police powers into communities. It was Rich Coleman’s BC Housing that endorsed the Federal “housing first” model and brought in “supportive housing” as the exclusive mandate of the Provincial Housing Authority, saying, in 2011, “we don’t build social housing anymore.” The Liberals ramped up rental subsidies, which pour public funds into the pockets of private landlords. The NDP embraced and entrenched all these initiatives, rebranding them NDP-orange.

The effect of the NDP normalization of these right-wing, neoliberal programs has been that the BC Liberals, in this campaign, denounced as socialist those very programs they introduced – campaigning to the right of the trench they dug during the 16 years they held Provincial power. 

The good news is that many communities rejected that far right, openly hateful politics. The bad news is that Andrew Wilkinson presented those politics very badly (and has now resigned for his failures) and it’s likely that the next leader will have the time needed to rebuild and restrategize. The only space for the BC Liberals is to the right of the NDP, so that’s the space they’ll take.

Electoral politics, as an ideological field, has never been so far right as it is now. This rightward drift is characteristic even of the lobbyist groups. For example, Vancouver’s mainstream housing justice group, the Vancouver Tenants Union, did not even include in its election wish list a call for the Provincial government to build non-market social housing. Five or ten years ago, that demand would have been front and centre. Now their emphasis is for improved conditions for renters within dominant market relations with landlords.

Secondly, pipelines and land theft sells to rural workers

Pipeline politics certainly played a role in safeguarding what seats the Liberals did manage to hold. The electoral map looks like a chart of the Trans Mountain pipeline route, with the BC Liberals taking every seat in every region that the pipeline passes through. In the imagination of the rural electorate, BC NDP opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline apparently cancels out their support for the Site C dam and the Coastal Gaslink project invading Wet’suwet’en territory – because the central north also stayed Liberal.

Colonialism, even in the language of reconciliation was not something addressed by any party. A fight over “land back” was not on the ballot in any riding. Silence on Indigenous sovereignty, even in yesteryear’s language of “reconciliation,” should be surprising because of the powerful Wet’suwet’en led #ShutDownCanada movement in January and February of 2020. It was an NDP government that oversaw the police invasion that Wet’suwet’en matriarchs resisted. 

Invasion amnesia seems to have struck the NDP base, who, judging by social media anecdotes, seemed to feel no disjuncture between supporting #ShutDownCanada in February and voting NDP in October. This particular form of double consciousness makes sense in the double worlds of politics where the theatre of struggle for Wet’suwet’en sovereignty against Canada is the land itself, including the streets, and legislative elections are about appointing a new ruler over that governing apparatus of colonial power. Our communities live the consequences of both these struggles whether we like it or not.

This election shows that we cannot fight the existence and supremacy of Canada’s colonial-capitalist sovereign power through the theatre of parliament. So, like the fight against expanding capitalist power, fighting the settler colonial consciousness of non-Indigenous working class communities in rural BC is a field of struggle that our extra (and anti-) electoral movements must embrace.

Now, more than ever, our politics are centred outside the tiny room of electoral possibility.

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