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That which we call a party, by any other name

Kevin Falcon says he’ll change the name of the BC Liberal Party. Maclean Kay considers the pros and cons.

Last week, Kevin Falcon finally confirmed what everyone already knew, and formally entered the BC Liberal leadership race. And while there’s much to discuss, one aspect attracted a lot of attention: his determination to make this the last BC Liberal leadership race.

That is to say, he wants to change the party’s name.

This has come up before. In 2012, then-new leader Christy Clark promised looking at the idea, and appointed Colin Hansen to launch a review. Over the course of two years, apparently only 288 party members even responded, in favour or opposed. The motion was put to a vote at the party’s 2014 convention, and was soundly rejected.

That was seven long years ago – two eternities in BC politics – and just because something worked in the past is no guarantee it will keep doing so.

That said, many of the arguments given then are being made again today.

Reason to change the name - rebrand, reenergize, renew.

There’s a reason (some) sports teams change their colours and logos. It often – though not always – spurs a burst of renewed interest, and merchandise sales. It’s an easy, visual way to signal moving from one era to another, signifying the failures of the past are just that – in the past.

Reason to keep the name: tradition

The most successful long-term franchises mostly keep their name, colours, and logo intact. Think Montreal Canadiens or New York Yankees: classic, legacy brands. There’s a reason for that.

Reason to change the name – reflect reality

It’s practically a cliché, but it bears repeating here: the BC Liberals are a coalition of the two largest federal parties in the province and country – the Liberals and Conservatives.

If you invented this party today, you wouldn’t name it after one side or the other; it would sound very much like a takeover. And having spent a fair amount of time around the party, I can confirm there’s a segment of the blue half of the coalition which finds the name to be an irritant.

Some will say the party is less an enthusiastic union of Tories and Grits than a marriage of convenience to keep out the NDP. And there’s an element of truth to that interpretation, too – but this isn’t unheard of in Canada. In 1997, the remnants of Saskatchewan’s Conservative and Liberal parties joined together to form the Saskatchewan Party, partly because their brands were tired, and partly to defeat the NDP. It worked, and is still working today.

Reason to keep the name – Party McPartyface?

The Saskatchewan Party is perhaps the perfect name for a provincial party: simple, direct, and what are you, against Saskatchewan? But there’s already a BC Party – a tiny group that last ran candidates in 2013. And while it’s certainly possible that an organization both fringe and moribund will either surrender the name or forget to maintain rights to it – what if they don’t?

The worst-case scenario isn’t keeping the name “BC Liberal,” but floundering around for an alternative. Several possibilities get floated, none of which capture the imagination of the wider public, much less party faithful. Eventually, one is chosen with a meek plurality at a convention, or selected by the new leader…and it just doesn’t land.

Kevin Falcon is smart, and probably sees the same potential pitfalls. If you must change the name, have a better one on deck.

Reason to change the name – albatross?

There’s no getting around this: the implicit association with the federal Liberal Party is an impediment in some parts of the province.

Most federal Conservatives in BC have likely never loved the name BC Liberal. And they’ll (often!) tell you, working with Jean Chretien and Paul Martin-era Liberals was one thing – at least they understood the importance of balanced budgets – but under Justin Trudeau, who has consciously pivoted left, things have changed. From their point of view, the BC Liberal name was never ideal, but now it’s even harder to swallow.

Reason to keep the name – timing is everything

All the above aside – that’s not the problem half of the coalition. The story of the BC Liberals' last two provincial elections has not been reluctant federal Conservatives, but federal Liberals in the Lower Mainland either not showing up, or voting NDP.

Here’s the thing: because the party is currently called “BC Liberal,” any name change will be, by definition, a move away from the name Liberal, at precisely the time when the party urgently needs to win Liberals back.

If the name must change, it’s absolutely crucial it not be perceived as spurning red voters in Metro Vancouver – even if they have flirted with the NDP.

Reason to change the name – vote, unsplit thyself

Concerns about vote splitting with the BC Conservative Party aren’t new. The danger isn’t the BC Conservatives winning an election, or even a seat; aside from a brief “surge” in 2013 to less than 5% of the vote (and a consistent tendency to poll much higher) the BC Conservatives haven’t ever gained any traction. The threat posed by the BC Conservatives is vote splitting in ridings BC Liberals would likely otherwise win.

Before the 2017 election, this was best described as a misgiving, but feelings calcified when the party lost government in large part due to losing Courtenay-Comox by less than 200 votes – and the BC Conservative candidate pulled 2,201. Those misgivings have turned into much more.

Reason to keep the name – That’s not the problem, so why solve it

The 2017 election and fallout (enough to fill an excellent book) happened, and changed the province’s trajectory – so you can understand why many in the party continue to focus on it. But even if vote splitting was decisive in 2017, that’s not why the party is in opposition today.

My own analysis of the 2020 provincial election showed that BC Conservative candidates likely played a decisive role in four ridings, all previously held by the BC Liberals, but won by the NDP. And while every riding counts, this wasn’t decisive, or anything close to it.

Even if the BC Liberals had magically held those four seats, they’d still have 25 less than the NDP. Hell, let’s say I’m way off, and vote splits cost the BC Liberals eight or even 10 seats. Still a majority NDP government today.

Put another way: in 2020, the BC Liberals saw their caucus cut roughly in half. Vote splitting with the BC Conservatives contributed to a very small fraction of that. Focusing on (part of) the reason the party lost in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Langley, and Vernon doesn’t solve the exponentially more urgent issue of why they lost so much ground in Vancouver, Surrey, Tri-Cities, North Shore, Burnaby, and Vancouver Island.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca