The BC Liberals are set to choose a new leader this weekend whose job will be to put their disastrous 2020 election campaign behind them and figure out how to become a viable alternative to the governing New Democratic Party.
The BC Liberal Party is at a crossroads: It can seek to hold together its uneasy alliance of the centre-right or it can tilt to the centre to win back the progressive urban voters who relegated them to the opposition benches.
Among the seven leadership candidates, a theme in the race has been the need to modernize the party in order to widen its appeal. There has been talk about the need for diversity, action on climate change, affordable housing and child care, support for mental-health services and the opioid crisis – a string of issues that would be comfortably embraced at an NDP convention.
“When we’re talking about rebuilding the party,” candidate and Liberal MLA Ellis Ross said, “I think the public is actually willing to give us a chance, but they want to see us to be more inclusive, they want to see more diversity in terms of the reflection of British Columbia.”
The front-runner in the race, former Liberal cabinet minister Kevin Falcon, opened his campaign with a promise of renewal. “Our party needs a ‘root-to-branch’ rebuild to ensure we reflect the diversity of our communities.”
And candidate Val Litwin, a former CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce, put it this way: “If we don’t modernize and renew, we’ll gift another election to the NDP.”
As the party’s membership started the online voting process Thursday, however, they were reminded that repositioning can be risky: The federal Conservative caucus dumped Erin O’Toole as leader this week after he worked to move his party closer to the political centre.
In the aftermath of the 2020 provincial election, the BC Liberals conducted an internal review to figure out how it all went so wrong. The party had its worst results in three decades, and leader Andrew Wilkinson shouldered much of the blame.
But the party’s challenges were broader than just the leader.
This was, the review noted, a party that had grown comfortable in government but had not figured out its role as the official opposition.
The BC Liberals ruled the province for 16 years before the NDP eked out a minority government in 2017. But the Liberals did not treat the results as a rebuke from voters; they put off the soul-searching that typically follows electoral defeat.
“The party had become accustomed to governing, held together by the discipline and trappings conferred upon a governing party,” the Liberal post mortem concluded. “In opposition, it has struggled to reorganize itself as a vehicle for holding the government to account while rebuilding trust with the voting public, with the goal of rebuilding a coalition to form government.”
The snap election in the fall of 2020 confirmed that B.C. voters – particularly in urban ridings – were not prepared to return the Liberals to power. Mr. Wilkinson’s caucus was reduced to just 28 of the 87 seats in the legislature, with party strongholds from North Vancouver to the Fraser Valley falling to the New Democrats.
There are three members of caucus in the leadership race: Mr. Ross, Michael Lee and Renee Merrifield. There are three members of the business community: Mr. Litwin, Gavin Dew and Stan Sipos. Mr. Falcon, who has the largest number of endorsements from the caucus, may be regarded as the front-runner, but under the party’s online, preferential voting system, which gives each electoral district equal weight, an upset is not out of the question.
Whoever wins, the new leader can expect more than two years in opposition to rebuild the party before British Columbians are scheduled to go back to the polls in October, 2024. A lot can change in that time to define which issues are top of mind.
Some trends are pretty constant, said pollster Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute. Housing affordability, climate change, health care and the economy routinely top the polls of issues for B.C. voters – though the order of those priorities varies between Liberal supporters and NDP voters. But the larger problem for the Liberals, at least today, is that NDP Premier John Horgan has retained a remarkable level of popularity.
Mr. Horgan is one of the most popular premiers in the country, according to a recent Angus Reid survey. Even a lot of Liberal supporters like him. “Thirty-six per cent of past Liberal voters approve of John Horgan,” Ms. Kurl noted. “That’s pretty significant.”
Stephen Smart is one of the Liberal campaign strategists who was largely sidelined in the 2020 election campaign. He says the party’s internal review offers a good framework for the new leader, but the challenge is maintaining a political coalition in an increasingly polarized climate.
“So many of the issues raised in that election post mortem provide a road map for what the new leader needs to tackle,” said Mr. Smart, who is now with PR firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “For this leader to be successful, they have to find a way to be the glue holding the coalition together. They need to find a way to appeal to urban voters without alienating rural voters and vice versa. They need to find a way to be relevant to younger voters without alienating the party base.”
That didn’t happen in the 2020 election.
The party’s top organizers had concluded the snap election was simply unwinnable, so they crafted a campaign that would preserve their core vote, leaving their rivals to occupy a broad ideological and geographic space in the political landscape.
“Much of this was a deliberate, ‘furniture saving’ strategy to prevent a broader collapse of the BC Liberal vote,” the party’s official review of the campaign concluded. “Very early on, it became apparent that the party was going to lose seats, and thus, the ‘pick-up trucks and blue jeans’ strategy was employed to shore up the rural base.”
The campaign also exposed a tension in the party over maintaining its coalition base, which includes both federal Liberals and Conservatives. The campaign was knocked off course by self-inflicted controversies because the party would not distance itself from homophobic candidates.
“There is a belief, correct or otherwise, that alienating socially conservative Christian voters will make it impossible to assemble a winning coalition,” the review said after polling thousands of party members and interviewing top campaign officials. “Others, particularly from Lower Mainland ridings, argued that associating with social conservatives alienates far more voters than it gains.”
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