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Three issues BC Liberals must resolve

In an ongoing series, different commentators and experts weigh in on what the BC Liberal Party needs to do from here. Simrath Grewal argues the party needs to forget left/right labels.

What are BC Liberals? Are they liberals or conservatives? Looking back at British Columbia’s political history and their 16 years in government, one thing becomes clear: they’re neither.

Since 1952, federal Liberals and Conservatives have campaigned together and won every election except the four times they momentarily separated (1972, 1991, 1996, 2020). The coalition works, and not just for electoral reasons. Centre-right coalitions have produced countless good policies have made BC a leader, not just in Canada, but around the world.

As BC Liberals begin the work of rebuilding and renewing after the recent election results, several questions need answering – can the coalition survive? Should the name of the party change? Should the party be more liberal or more conservative?

On the first question, the coalition is going to need work. In a climate where political divides are deeper than when the modern BC Liberal Party first emerged. It’s going to take serious political leadership to keep the coalition intact, but it can absolutely be done.

Instead of rebuilding the BC Liberals as Conservatives or Liberals, the focus must be listening to the issues of real people in all parts of the province and delivering on those needs according to bedrock values of fiscal responsibility and social progressiveness.

As Premier Christy Clark often pointed out, what brings everyone together regardless of party affiliation are pocketbook issues. This is the formula that worked for 16 years: innovative ideas like the revenue neutral carbon tax, record infrastructure investment, LNG development, and the single parent employment initiative. This needs to be the true BC Liberal brand: good for the economy and good for people.

In 2020, that unifying narrative was lost. We need to take it back.

The second question, a potential name change, isn’t new; it has been debated at party conventions for decades. Let’s have the conversation, but not let it dominate the discussion. Because what will truly make an impact at election time is the narrative and ideas, and a refreshed, new generation of inspiring candidates.

Finally, since October 24th there has been a conversation about whether the party’s survival depends on shifting to the right or to the left. The answer is neither. A tug of war between federal Liberals or Conservatives will just see both sides fall.

There are two critical numbers to understand.

In 2020, the BC Liberals lost 5% of their vote share from 2017; the NDP gained 5% and the BC Conservatives gained 1.9%. These numbers demonstrate a simple truth – reducing the BC Conservative vote to zero will still not be enough to win the next election. Voters have bled to the NDP and Greens for the last two elections; until and unless they come back, there’s no winning path.

In the Lower Mainland, which has 48 of BC’s 87 seats, the BC Liberals lost a further 12. As of election night the BC Liberal Party has just nine seats in our province’s most populated region – compared to 35 for the NDP and one for the Greens. (Which may change, pending final vote counts.)

Some argue that absorbing the BC Conservative vote would close the gap. But this ignores the much larger problem of voters switching to the NDP and Greens, making ridings competitive that otherwise had no business being competitive. Tight races in these ridings make the BC Conservatives’ small margins more important than they ought to be.

For example, in 2013, BC Conservative leader John Cummins ran against Mary Polak in Langley and came a distant third.

  • 51% BC Liberal (14,039)
  • 27% BC NDP (7,403)
  • 12% BC Conservative (3,242)

In 2020, the results were dramatically different:

  • 45% BC NDP (6,460)
  • 35% BC Liberal (5,040)
  • 11% BC Conservative (1,583)

It’s clear the BC Liberal pool has shrunk because of voters not showing up, or switching to the NDP. In fact, the BC Conservatives won fewer votes in 2020 than they did in 2013. We can win the popular vote and beat the BC Conservatives by drawing regular voters back into the BC Liberal tent.

To do this requires a compelling narrative. In 2009 when Gordon Campbell campaigned on a revenue-neutral carbon tax, BC Liberals had a presence in every part of the province because it combined environmental, social, and fiscal progress. The same goes for the 2013 campaign, when Christy Clark campaigned on making BC a world leader in LNG.

The future of the BC Liberal Party rests not in ideological shifts but ideas and policies that speak to British Columbians who share fiscally responsible, and socially progressive values.

The centre-right coalition loses when we start talking about “shifting right” or “shifting left.” The fact is, in this election we lost ground on both sides.

British Columbians aren’t ideological. They don’t care about “the spectrum.” They want real solutions to real issues.

Simrath Grewal is a public affairs strategic advisor with experience in public policy, strategic communications, and politics. Simrath has served as a political aide to a number of elected officials, and held senior roles in the BC Liberal Party, starting out as president of the BC Young Liberals.