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May 29, 2013

Political Images

There are lessons to be learned from how Christy Clark's Liberals achieved an election victory few thought possible.

In an article about "Dog Whistle Politics" Bill Tieleman explained how the Liberal's focus on jobs and the economy sent a message to straying Liberal voters that was not fully audible to others. His article strikes a chord similar to a question asked me by Ian Jessop on CFAX 1070 last Sunday when he said the Liberals are identified with the economy, the Greens with the environment, what identifies the NDP? In my answer I spoke about health, education, social justice and representing the rights of workers, organized and not. In his next segment with a marketing expert, Jessop correctly said that my list wasn't a satisfactory answer. I agree.

The Liberals and the Greens both have one-word-identifications that can easily be represented with simple graphics. How many times during the election campaign did you see Premier Clark in a hard hat? It doesn't matter that BC trails other provinces in job creation and has lost over 30,000 private sector jobs since she announced her jobs plan. Statistics are boring and donít generate trust. The daily photos of the Premier in a hard hat were worth more than volumes of dry statistics. The Greens couldn't afford TV ads, but if they could have, it doesn't take much imagination to visualize stunning environmental photos. Try capturing social justice in a photo-op!

In lieu of compelling visuals, voters were exposed to Adrian Dix at podiums bearing the banner "time for a change". The NDP's ads were effective in repeating that slogan but not in reminding voters why they once wanted change. Until the last week of the campaign the assumption was most voters agreed that it was time for a change and they were just waiting for the opportunity to make it happen by voting NDP. When they closed their eyes they saw Premier Clark in a hard hat and Adrian Dix at a podium with a slogan.

I stand in awe of political cartoonists who appear to think in graphics and express themselves more powerfully than most skilled orators. I miss Dan Murphy and Bob Krieger on the editorial pages of The Province. I enjoy Adrian Raeside in the North Shore News and elsewhere and I look forward most Monday mornings to David Parkins' illustrations which frequently accompany Justine Hunter's articles. Much of their work adorned my fridge door for the last month. I contend that the NDP needs the advice of creative minds like those in order to craft its next election campaign. It is essential to capture persuasive images that make the NDP's argument.

Some people, many of whom never have and never would support the NDP, are arguing that after four election defeats (2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013) it is time for the NDP to pack its bags. How little such folks understand BC history. Documents on the Elections BC website provide the electoral history of the province from 1871 through 2013. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) first ran as a party in BC in 1933, receiving 31.5% of the vote and electing seven MLAs at a time when BC only had 47 in total. The New Democratic Party (NDP) succeeded the CCF and first ran in 1963, receiving 27.8% of the vote and electing fourteen MLAs out of 52. In 80 years the worst the NDP/CCF ever did was in 2001 when it received 21.6% of the vote and only elected two MLAs. The graph below shows what percentage of the vote the NDP/CCF received in every election from 1933 through 2013. Despite only forming a government in 1972, 1991 and 1996, the NDP/CCF frequently came close and occasionally lost with higher percentages than when it won. I interpret that history as indicting the province is fundamentally split in its politics and what is needed for an NDP win is smarter campaigns, not abandonment of its principles.

The components of a smart campaign include a leader who looks like a potential Premier, a platform that reflects what many voters desire, an organization that can identify and pull its vote and images that stick in voters' minds and help to reinforce the ballot box question. None of the components work by themselves, but all are essential. The 2013 NDP campaign had more than one weakness. One of the glaring differences compared to the Liberal campaign was the absence of consistent persuasive images.