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Feeling Polarized

The May 17 vote is likely to reveal a clearly split BC electorate. To read our political future, gaze into the past.

Will McMartin 15 Apr
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When the ballots are counted on May 17 for B.C.’s 38th general election, the results are likely to show that the province has entered a new era of “polarization.” The term refers to provincial elections fought along the lines of ‘free-enterprise’ versus ‘socialism,’ ‘capital’ versus ‘labour,’ and ‘right’ versus ‘left.’

It may seem to some that it has ever been thus in the Pacific province, but true polarization occurred in just two distinct periods: in the 1940s when the Liberal-Conservative Coalition government battled the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, and in the 1970s and 1980s when Social Credit went head-to-head against the New Democratic Party.

Few people today speak of B.C. politics in terms of free-enterprise and socialism, but the political right — supported by B.C.’s business community — clearly has coalesced behind Gordon Campbell’s Liberal party, while much of the political left — bolstered by organized labour — backs Carole James’s New Democratic Party.

In the event that polarization returns in 2005, British Columbians may anticipate certain consequences. First, history shows that the centre-right portion of the electorate is larger than the centre-left, so the Liberals should win a comfortable re-election to government, while the New Democrats will be strengthened in opposition. Second, none of B.C.’s myriad minor parties will garner a significant share of the popular vote, or elect a single MLA.

Polarization satisfies both right and left, business and labour. For the right, polarization means that parties favourable to business usually form government. The left, meanwhile, can utilize its legislative strength to exert moral suasion and influence public policy, with the added bonus of being available to assume power when a government of the right fractures or becomes unpopular with the electorate.

Polarization first appears: 1945 and 1949

The roots of polarization were planted in B.C. in 1933, the first general election contested by the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The province was at the depths of the Great Depression and the Conservative government had collapsed. On election day, the Liberals emerged with a majority and the nascent CCF found itself as the official opposition with seven MLAs. Four years later, when the Liberals retained their majority, the rejuvenated Tories became opposition with eight seats and the CCF stayed at seven.

Then, two years after war erupted in Europe and mere weeks before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, came the 1941 general election. The CCF had a plurality of votes but won just 14 seats; the Liberals elected 21 MLAs (four short of a majority) despite having nearly 2,000 fewer votes than the socialists; and the Conservatives finished a close third in both votes and seats.

Duff Pattullo, the Liberal premier, was forced out by party regulars and business interests for refusing to consider an alliance with the Tories, and soon thereafter Liberal and Conservative MLAs established a Coalition government. The new premier was John Hart, Patullo’s finance minister, while the CCF, led by Harold Winch, MLA for Vancouver East, once again formed the official opposition.

The stage was set for B.C.’s first polarized election, held after fighting had finished in 1945. "For the first time the issue is clarified and clean-cut," wrote Bruce Hutchison, the Vancouver Sun’s respected political columnist, "with the advocates of socialism on one side and the advocates of free enterprise on the other." When the dust settled, the Coalition had captured 37 seats, and the CCF, 10. The remaining seat went to veteran Labour MLA Tom Uphill of Fernie, while Pattullo suffered an embarrassing loss in Prince Rupert — the seat he had held for nearly 30 years.

Hart had retired by the time the Coalition and the CCF met again in 1949, succeeded by New Westminster’s Byron ‘Boss’ Johnson. Winch remained at the CCF helm. In the end, the Coalition increased its seat total to 39, the CCF lost three MLAs and finished with seven. Uphill again topped the polls in Fernie, and a so-called Independent, Jim Mowat, a former Liberal MLA, won re-election in Alberni.

Both polarized contests were handily won by the Coalition, with 55.8% of the vote in 1945, and 61.4% four years later. The CCF had 37.6% and 35.1%. The strongest minor-party challenge occurred in the first tilt, when the Labour Progressive party took a minuscule 3.5% of the vote.

Polarization ended in 1952, after the Coalition disintegrated on the eve of the general election won by W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit party. The CCF became the New Democratic Party in 1961 when the national party merged with the Canadian Labour Congress.

From 1952 until 1972, when Social Credit held the reins of government and the CCF-NDP was official opposition, nearly every general election was vigorously contested by the four major political parties — Social Credit, the CCF-NDP, the Liberals, and the Progressive Conservatives. And where the Coalition and the CCF combined to capture more than 90% of the vote in both 1945 and 1949, the combined vote-share for Social Credit and the CCF-NDP during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s surpassed 80% just once. Strict two-party polarization seemed a thing of the past.

The return of polarization: 1975, 1979, 1983 and 1986

Dave Barrett’s New Democrats handed W.A.C. Bennett’s Socreds their only defeat in two decades in 1972. In opposition to B.C.’s first NDP government were 10 Social Credit MLAs, five Liberals, and two Conservatives. The left was united; the right, badly split.

But the right soon re-formed when Bill Bennett, who had succeeded his father as Socred leader, enticed four MLAs — three Liberals and a Progressive Conservative — to join Social Credit on the eve of the 1975 general election. A new free-enterprise coalition was born, and polarization was back.

The younger Bennett’s Socreds were pitted against Barrett’s New Democrats in three consecutive general elections — 1975, 1979 and 1983. The contests were closer, in terms of seats and popular vote, than those between the Coalition and the CCF in the 1940s, but the results were the same.

Social Credit took 49.3% of the vote in the first tilt; 48.2% in the second; and 49.8% in the last. The New Democratic Party over the same period won 39.2%, then 46.0% (a party-record), and finally, 44.9%.

And on each occasion, the Socreds captured a majority of legislative seats: 35 to 18; then 31 to 26; and finally, 35 to 22.

All three battles featured a plethora of candidates running under minor party banners or as Independents — 111 in the first; 64 in the second; and 110 in the last. But only two in 1975, both incumbent MLAs, were successful: Gordon Gibson, Jr., in North Vancouver-Capilano, and Scott Wallace in Oak Bay. They were, respectively, the lonely leaders of B.C.’s Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties; both retired without seeking re-election.

Barrett stepped aside as NDP leader after three consecutive losses in 1984, and was succeeded by Bob Skelly. Two years later, Bennett retired from public life and Bill Vander Zalm, a former Social Credit cabinet minister, became party leader and premier. The 1986 general election had the same conclusion as its three predecessors, as Vander Zalm’s Socreds won 49.3% of the vote, compared to Skelly’s NDP at 42.6%. The margin of victory was much larger in the legislature, because redistribution has converted a dozen ridings into two-member districts. The final tally was 47 seats for the Socreds, and 22 for the NDP. No other party came close to winning a seat.

It was B.C.’s last polarized contest. The Social Credit party imploded under Vander Zalm’s leadership, and general elections in 1991 and 1996 saw centre-right voters split their ballots between a number of alternatives — Social Credit, the Liberals, Reform BC, and lesser parties. The New Democratic Party won power in the first contest and retained it in the second, despite a vote-share that hovered around the 40% level in both elections.

The New Democratic Party government collapsed in the 2001 general election, winning a paltry 21.6% of the popular vote — the party’s lowest total since 1933 — and protecting just two seats, also a historic low. B.C.’s centre-left was split between the NDP and the fledgling Green party, which failed to elect a single MLA but garnered 12.4% of the vote.

A rejuvenated Liberal party, led by Gordon Campbell, romped to a massive 77-seat majority with a 57.6% vote-share.

Polarization in 2005?

Recent public opinion surveys show the Liberals with voter-support in the mid-40% range, followed closely by the New Democrats. The Greens, having made no headway over the past four years, and after leader Adriane Carr’s humiliating loss in the Surrey-Panorama Ridge by-election last November, are a distant third, evidently incapable of an electoral advance. British Columbia seems to be entering its third period of polarization, with Campbell’s Liberals on the right, James’s New Democrats on the left, and no room for anybody else.

Polarization by the Numbers

Combined vote, parties elected to government and official opposition - general elections, 1945-2001. (In descending order of combined vote)



* = elections won by New Democratic Party

Tyee columnist Will McMartin is a veteran political consultant and a regular on CBC Radio's "Early Edition". His regularly updated ‘Battleground BC’ seat projections, an exclusive Tyee feature, can be found here in the Election Central section.  [Tyee]

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