Opinion: Nanaimo byelection good for Liberals, bad for Greens

The B.C. NDP’s hold on power got a lot more stable with the party’s byelection win last week in the riding of Nanaimo, but the result may have also provided some lessons for its two rival parties in the legislature.

The NDP’s win was not unexpected. While sitting governments usually do not win byelections in B.C. (just three of the last 24 before Nanaimo went the government’s way), the fact is Nanaimo is historically an NDP stronghold (the Nanaimo win means the party has won 14 of the last 16 elections there).

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Percentage-wise, the NDP actually improved its vote compared to its showing in the 2017 general election, climbing to almost 50 per cent from 46.5 per cent.

That is rather impressive, given byelections usually have low voter turnouts. But the stakes were unusually high in this contest, since an NDP loss would likely have led to an election next year.

Now the NDP can breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to what will likely be another two and half years in government.

However, there was also some good news in the results for the B.C. Liberals as well and nothing but disastrous news for the B.C. Green Party.

The B.C. Liberals actually got more votes than in 2017, climbing by just over 1,000 votes after the final count.

Many of those votes likely came from people who voted for the Greens in 2017, and if that kind of scenario is repeated in other key ridings in the next general election, it may be enough for it to swing it the B.C. Liberals’ way.

Take the riding that literally decided the 2017 election: Courtenay-Comox, which the NDP won by just 189 votes. The B.C. Liberal vote there declined by more than 3,500 in 2017 while the Greens’ vote soared by more than 1,800, and any decline in the Green vote during the next election may tip the riding back into the B.C. Liberal win column.

Another NDP-held riding that could be affected by a steep drop in Green support is Maple Ridge-Mission, while two B.C. Liberal-held ridings (Richmond-Queensborough and Coquitlam-Burke Mountain) may revert to their usual status as “safe” B.C. Liberal ridings.

One reason for the improvement in the B.C. Liberal vote is likely that it ran a relatively young candidate in 35-year-old Tony Harris. B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson said Harris’s campaign shows his party now has to get younger and more diverse, and dropped broad hints that some veteran caucus members should consider retiring.

This may cause some internal tension in the B.C. Liberal caucus, but the party has no choice but to redefine itself with some fresher faces. I can think of at least 12 sitting MLAs who may decide to pack it in, but the final number could well be a bit smaller than that.

As I have noted before, the NDP is way ahead of the B.C. Liberals when it comes to matching its caucus demographics with community demographics. It is younger, more ethnically diverse and close to achieving gender equity.

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, meanwhile, seemed frustrated over his party’s terrible showing in Nanaimo and hinted his caucus may revisit its relationship with the NDP.

The Greens may indeed have to do just that, although I am not entirely sure how. They are not going to take the NDP out of power, since the Nanaimo result seems to indicate the Greens could be annihilated in the next election, whenever it is held.

The party is the junior partner in the ruling NDP-Green alliance and has nothing to show for it, other than a loss of identity. That identity problem is bound to continue for some time yet.

The B.C. electoral map is tight. One party or another won most ridings rather comfortably, but if the Green vote is indeed declining, those defecting voters in just a half-dozen or so ridings may well decide the next election outcome.

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