Opinion

New NDP leader John Horgan has his work cut out for him

John Horgan is the new leader of the NDP.

Unlike the situation in 2011, when there was a hard-fought battle for the NDP leadership, he won it by acclamation, and took over his new role on May 1.

The lack of competition for the job isn’t surprising. In 2011, it looked like quite a prize. The BC Liberals were in disarray, Gordon Campbell had resigned, and winning the premiership after 12 years in opposition looked like a cakewalk.

Even a year ago, during the election campaign, the polls said the NDP was far ahead. But on election day, the party lost — and quite decisively. Leader Adrian Dix pondered the situation for a short time, then announced he was stepping aside.

Horgan was one of the four contenders for the NDP leadership in 2011, and made a number of visits here in that campaign. I had the chance to speak with him several times, and was impressed by his breadth of knowledge and his generally upbeat personality.

He worked in senior positions in the NDP government of the 1990s, and he knows B.C. intimately. This is one of his big strengths. Unlike Dix, who is a Vancouver guy, Horgan knows the province and the differences between regions and communities very well. The very fact that he represents a Vancouver Island riding (not a downtown Victoria one) is a plus.

His understanding of what makes the B.C. economy work is much better than that of many NDPers. He has been the energy and mines critic in the past, and both those issues are key to parts of B.C. outside the urban cores.

The fact that he is keeping an open mind on Kinder Morgan’s application to twin its pipeline is a significant shift from Dix’s decision to oppose the project midway through the election campaign. That move likely cost the NDP the election. It certainly had a demonstrable effect in handing seats to the BC Liberals, including Surrey-Fleetwood, won by former Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender by 200 votes.

I would also be surprised if Horgan would let an easterner run the NDP provincial campaign. Dix picked Brian Topp, who had run Jack Layton’s national campaign in 2011. However, Topp had already proved he knew little about B.C. when he ran for the leadership after Layton’s death, and he made a number of crucial mistakes during last year’s provincial campaign.

I felt sorry for the many young people who were working on the two local campaigns last May. They put their hearts and souls into the campaign, only to be sandbagged by provincial campaign decisions  that were all over the map.

Dix is a very decent man and has fought hard for many people who have few speaking up for them. But he was not the best choice in the 2011 leadership race. Horgan likely was — and now he can prove to voters that the NDP is a possible alternative.

He will have to show working people that he isn’t anti-jobs, he isn’t anti-resources and he isn’t in the pocket of big public sector unions.

The NDP’s biggest handicap is that many voters do not believe it understands how the economy works. Certainly Dix’s comments on Kinder Morgan, which came after he had said he would wait until there was an actual application in place, showed his willingness to court environmentalists at the expense of workers.

Its other big challenge is a deep divide between private sector workers and the diehard environmentalists who oppose logging, mining, power development, oil and gas and virtually anything that involves B.C. resources.

Horgan has his work cut out for him.

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