Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On business relations

Will McMartin highlights the self-delusion of Jim Shepard and other corporatists who are determined to shriek about the supposed dangers of NDP "socialism" even when the provincial economy - the corporate sector included - has performed better with the NDP in power. But I can't entirely agree with his conclusion as to what that means for the NDP itself as it looks to assemble a winning coalition.

Here's McMartin's brilliant takedown of Shepard's spin about the effect of NDP government:
Asked what he lost sleep over, Shepard replied: "As long as I'm running, I can sleep soundly. But my major concern isn't just the lumber business -- it's the global economy. I'm just hopeful we are going to have sensible leadership of all economies out there.

"It worries me about leadership in the U.S. right now and the direction it is going. You know, we lived through socialism in B.C. for 10 years. I know what it looks like and it is not pretty."
Among the myriad questions raised by Shepard's observations is this one: what, exactly, did "socialism" in B.C. look like in the 1990s? Let's do a quick review of the empirical evidence.
Under B.C.'s New Democratic Party government in the 1990s, corporate profits, the province's population and GDP all soared heavenward, while the size of the public sector and government expenditures grew ever-smaller. Can't those socialists get anything right?
For B.C.'s captains of industry, then, the province's economic and fiscal record in the 1990s simply is irrelevant. A 251.6 per cent increase in corporate profits over the decade? Meaningless, so long as a New Democratic Party government reigned in Victoria.

Job creation up by 21.8 per cent under the NDP in the 1990s? Capital investment up 34.8 per cent? Product exports more than doubling, up by 107.7 per cent?

None of it mattered. British Columbia had a government that espoused "socialism" and "it was not pretty." End of story.
But while it's fair enough to flag the complete disconnect between Shepard's spin and reality as evidence that the NDP shouldn't waste its time trying to cater to him, I'd argue McMartin goes a bit too far in suggesting the NDP treat all branches of B.C.'s corporate community similarly:
It seems unbelievable, but it's true. The New Democrats this year are actively courting B.C.'s corporate sector and chambers of commerce, promising in the future to deliver balanced budgets, and -- incredibly -- seeking input from business representatives on policy development.

One might have thought that NDP strategists would target, say, new Canadians and young British Columbians leading up to the next general election -- on top of the 784,000 people added to the provincial population in the 1990s, we've grown by about another 450,000 in the last decade -- but apparently that's not the case.

Instead, it's the business community the New Democrats seek to woo. Perhaps their efforts will be rewarded with success; but that seems highly doubtful. Indeed, while recent polls suggest that Gordon Campbell and his B.C. Liberals are mortally wounded, it's far from certain that the NDP can or will win the 2013 general election. They'll have to overcome the business community's hatred of "socialism" to do so.

Here's the thing: Jim Shepard's views are not unusual among B.C. business leaders; they're the norm. Never -- ever -- should New Democrats underestimate the business community's enmity for their party and the "left." Yet, somehow, today's NDP seems to believe, as Rafe says, that it can tiptoe to victory.
Now, off the top I'd think there's no reason for a political party to go out of its way to ignore the policy suggestions of any group, even if there's no realistic prospect of them fitting into the party's platform. But that general point aside, let's consider how the NDP can and should handle the business sector in particular.

McMartin is right to note that the NDP is going a step further than merely recognizing that businesses are ultimately stakeholders on the B.C. political scene, and is actively engaging with them. But is it unrealistic to think that some of them might come around to support the NDP?

Particularly in light of the imposition of an HST which had dramatically different effects on varying industries, I'd think the answer has to be a resounding "no". And indeed there's a direct precedent for the HST serving to enlarge the NDP's tent, as part of the Saskatchewan NDP's romp in 1991 was based on the fact that restaurants and other small businesses joined forces on that exact issue. Which means that not only is there a general advantage to adding at least some business groups to the NDP's tent, there's also a specific opportunity to do so.

So why not deal solely with those specific actors rather than umbrella groups such as chambers of commerce who have generally lined up on the Libs' side? Even there, I'd think there's reason for the NDP to look to at least work with those who are willing to come to the table both to get their ideas and to defuse potential opposition.

After all, less-ideological businesspeople will almost certainly come into contact with the like of Shepard - and figure to evaluate the plausibility of shrieking fits like Shepard's based on their own personal experiences. So better to offer some positive interaction to undermine the most extreme rhetoric while taking the opportunity to set the record straight about the NDP's actual performance in office, rather than allowing Shepard's false impressions to stand unrefuted.

None of which is to say that the NDP shouldn't be looking to other groups as well, and particularly making a concerted effort to increase political participation among the marginalized citizens which the Libs are happy to drive away. But while there's a need to counterbalance the disproportionate influence wielded by the business sector, the NDP can best do that by making it clear that it sees corporate interests as only one of the forces whose needs should be taken into account - not mirroring the closed-minded attitude of Shepard and his ilk.

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