The most striking thing about the BC political landscape as we slouch toward the Jan. 23 election is just how close so many races are.
In the 2004 election, fully one-third of BC's 36 ridings were won by less than five percent of all the votes.
This could make for some surprises on election night. It's pretty much impossible to predict seat totals with any confidence based on the polling material that's available to the public during an election. But when a few thousand votes one way or another could decide any of a dozen ridings, well, all bets are off.
Conservative slide of '04
There were two big trends that produced the 2004 result. The first was a widespread and substantial erosion in the Conservative vote, which had been the Canadian Alliance vote in the 2000 election.
The second was a widespread and substantial increase in the NDP vote.
The reasons behind these swings are up for debate. Voters may have decided that Stephen Harper wasn't as populist enough. Gordon Campbell's unpopularity may have rubbed off on the federal right-wingers. Certainly, voters didn't feel the same desire to punish the NDP that they did when the party was in power in Victoria.
But whatever the reasons, the numbers are clear.
The Conservatives were still the big winners in BC last time around, taking 22 seats and more than one vote in three overall. The Liberals took eight seats, the NDP five and independent Chuck Cadman took one.
The Conservatives, however, suffered a big drop from the 2000 election, when the Alliance scooped up almost half of the total BC vote. There was a redistribution between those elections, in which B.C. gained two seats, so if you want to compare results you need to transpose the 2000 results onto the 2004 boundaries.
Shift was province-wide
According to Elections Canada, the Alliance would have taken 29 seats if their 2000 votes were redistributed onto the current boundaries. The Liberals would have taken five seats and the NDP two.
By that measure, the Conservatives dropped seven seats in the last election; three went to the Liberals, three went to the NDP and one, Surrey North, went to Cadman, the former Alliance MP.
All but two of the seats that changed hands were in the suburbs of the Lower Mainland, which prompted a lot of talk on election night about how urban BC had turned its back on the Conservatives.
And it's true that some of the Conservatives' biggest losses were in suburban ridings, both on the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. But the fact is, the Conservatives lost support all over.
All 36 Conservative candidates saw their vote share drop from the redistributed 2000 totals. The only candidate who didn't experience a drop of more than five percent was Harvey Grigg, in Vancouver East. His vote share dropped by only four percent of the total vote, mostly because he didn't have that big a share to start with.
Voters shifted away from the Conservatives all over the province. In almost two-thirds of BC ridings, the Conservative total dropped by more than 10 percent of the total vote.
Luckily for the Conservatives, they had such a huge share of the vote going into the campaign that they could afford to lose a bit.
In Langley, for example, the Conservatives went from 68 percent of the vote in 2000 to 48 percent in 2004. That was one of the biggest drops for any candidate in the province. But the Conservatives still held on to Langley with ease, running up almost twice as many votes as the next nearest candidate.
In fact, in most of the seats that changed hands, the Conservative vote didn't drop by an unusual amount. The seats they lost tended to be ridings like Richmond, where the Conservatives went into the campaign holding a slim margin of victory from 2000.
In Richmond, a substantial drop in the Conservative vote, combined with a modest gain in the Liberal vote and a substantial gain in the NDP vote, turned a marginal Conservative seat into a Liberal seat.
NDP gained last time
Which brings us to the other major trend of the last election: the NDP gains. After a disastrous showing in the 2000 election, the NDP took 27 percent of the B.C. vote in 2004, just a few points behind the Liberals.
The increase in the NDP vote was fairly uniform around the province. The only New Democrat to see his share of the total vote drop from 2000 was Bill Siksay, who still managed to hang on to Svend Robinson's old Burnaby-Douglas riding by a tiny margin.
Most New Democrats increased their party's share of the vote by somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the total vote. In several ridings, that was enough to put the NDP within striking distance of victory.
The bad news for the NDP was the flip side of the Conservative story: the party was so far behind in so many ridings that even their big gains weren't enough to win.
In Fleetwood-Port Kells, for example, the NDP went from six percent of the vote in 2000 to 28 percent of the vote in 2004 and still finished third.
A third trend that has drawn a lot of attention was the strong showing of the Green Party. It's difficult to say if the party played the spoiler role that many claimed; the Greens seem to have drawn votes from all the main parties and many of their supporters probably wouldn't have voted at all if the Greens hadn't run.
But the Greens did establish themselves as a significant factor, drawing five percent or more of the total vote in almost every riding.
The large number of close finishes in the 2004 campaign will give all three major parties hope this time around. Out of the dozen ridings that were won by less than five percent of the vote, five were won by the Conservatives, four by the Liberals and three by the NDP.
In those dozen ridings, the NDP came in second in six. The Liberals were runners-up in four and the Conservatives in two.
Furthermore, four of those close ridings represent Conservative losses.
What all this means is that if the trend toward the NDP and away from the Conservatives continues, the NDP stands to make some significant gains. But if the Conservatives can reverse that trend even slightly, they will likely regain some ground.
Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.
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