BALDREY: Provincial NDP’s new boss John Horgan (who’s that?) faces huge challenges

BALDREY: Provincial NDP's new boss John Horgan (who's that?) faces huge challenges

"John who?" That question frames one of the more immediate challenges facing newly-installed NDP leader John Horgan.

Quite simply, most potential voters likely don’t even know who he is. Few politicians are household names, and the ones at the bottom of the name-recognition list are invariably members of the Opposition, not the government.

He may be well known among the 20,000-odd members of his own party and among the relatively small group of folks who religiously follow politics, but the fact is more than 1.5 million people vote in provincial elections in this province, and the vast majority of them likely don’t know him or anything about him.

Of course, now that he has assumed the leadership helm from Adrian Dix, Horgan’s profile will begin to build. The job brings with it an automatic increase in media coverage (and scrutiny, so it can be a double-edged sword), which means he’ll get more television face-time.

However, I detect a continuing disconnect out there with the public when it comes to politics and much of the "insider baseball" issues that consume its culture. There remains a hangover created after what was essentially a marathon, non-stop campaign waged by Christy Clark and Dix since they won their party leadership jobs in 2011.

That will make it harder for Horgan to penetrate the public consciousness, at least for a while yet. But there are three years yet before the next provincial election, so time is on his side.

So how will Horgan proceed? Look for him to stress economic issues more than social ones, as he tries to establish some credibility in that area for the NDP.

A new Angus Reid poll – I know, I know, what use are polls these days? But this wasn’t a "horserace" poll – found that 62 per cent of people would more likely vote for the NDP if it strengthened its focus on economic issues, compared to just 48 per cent who said stronger environmental policies were more attractive.

But here’s where things may get sticky for Horgan.

The same Angus Reid poll found NDP voters (as opposed to all voters) were much more in favour of stronger environmental policies than having more support for natural resource industries (71 per cent versus 48 per cent). Further, about 20 per cent of those who vote NDP say they would be less likely to vote for the party if it was a stronger backer of those industries.

Horgan’s political DNA, when it comes to support for natural resource industries, is well-established (he worked for former NDP premier Dan Miller, arguably the strongest backer of industry in the NDP government of the 1990s).

He is not opposed to fracking, for example, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to nudge his party into being more supportive of mining and even the Site C dam.

But if he moves his party more to the political centre, and toward a stronger backing of industry, he runs the risk of alienating, and possibly even losing, the support of NDP voters who value stronger environmental policies over pretty well anything else.

Of course, if Horgan can attract enough "soft" B.C. Liberal voters, or votes from folks who don’t vote, he can afford to shed that green wing of his party. Either way, it’s going to be a tough balancing act for the new NDP leader.

Premier Clark is fond of saying British Columbians want to find a way to say "yes" to all kinds of industrial projects, but the NDP’s own backers are much more ready to continue to say "no" more often than not.

The B.C. Liberals have found the "sweet spot" on this issue and show no sign of losing ground. Horgan now has three years to find that sweet spot for his party, and it seems like a Herculean task right now.

But with the leadership monkey now off the party’s back, the NDP can finally begin to sort itself out. Horgan will likely bring a focus, passion and energy to a party that lacks all three attributes at the moment.

And in doing so, he’ll gradually get most people stop asking "John who?" when they hear his name. The next and more difficult trick will be getting folks to say "yes" when he asks for their vote.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC