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How Close Was It?

Very close, sliced a certain way. New Democrats shouldn’t rush to blame the Greens, though.

Tom Hawthorn and Tom Barrett 19 May
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Almost Premier James? Photo: C. Grabowski

In the dying days of the provincial campaign, Premier Gordon Campbell urged BC Liberal supporters to the polls. Speaking in Vancouver, Campbell said "A perfect storm would be lots of rain, bad weather, people decide not to vote and the wrong thing happens on Tuesday."

As it turned out, the BC Liberals, have won a second majority government, taking 45 seats to the NDP's 34 (pending final vote tallies in Vancouver-Burrard and Cariboo South). The Liberals took 46 per cent of the vote to the NDP's 41 per cent.

But a handful of votes in selected places would have brought about a shocking change in the results. It would also certainly have brought about further demands to replace or reform the first-past-the-post system.

The absentee ballot counts may change matters, but as of Thursday morning the NDP appear to have lost six seats to the Liberals by fewer than 1,000 votes:

Burnaby-North (278),

Burquitlam (417),

Burnaby-Willingdon (489),

Maple Ridge-Mission (506),

Comox Valley (736) and

Prince George-Mount Robson (939).

Those add up to 3,365 votes. Add a one-vote margin of victory for each riding, and a mere 3,371 votes would give the NDP a one-seat majority. (Not to mention a citation in the Guinness Book of World Records for "Most Victories By One Vote.")

Of course, those same votes scattered in constituencies narrowly won by the NDP would have given the Liberals a decisive majority in seats.

Glen Clark led the NDP to a majority government in 1996 even though his party took fewer votes than Campbell's Liberals.

Like old times

Sift the vote patterns another way, and we see that B.C. moves boldly forward... into the past.

In the last 15 years, this province has seen a profound demographic shift. We're more urban. Our visible minorities are becoming a majority.

The economy has shifted, too. The influence of labour is weaker and, we're told, the old resource industries are giving way to the sexy new high-tech sector.

Tuesday, the province marked this transformation by voting pretty much the way we used to vote back in the days before cell phones.

The NDP bounced back to just over 41 per cent of the vote. That's more than Glen Clark got in 1996. More than Mike Harcourt got back in 1991. You have to go back to Bob Skelly in 1986 to find a New Democrat who did better.

Of course, Skelly lost, even though he took 42.6 per cent of the vote. That's because Bill Vander Zalm's Socreds took almost every other vote.

Which illustrates one of the iron laws of B.C. politics: the only way the NDP can win is when the right-wing vote is badly split.


In '86, the Liberals were the only other party to win more than one per cent of the vote; they got less than seven per cent.

On the other hand, Harcourt won in '91 with 40.71 per cent because the Socred coalition that had won every election but one since 1952 finally disintegrated. The Socreds took about one vote out of every four that year; the Liberals about one in three.

In '96, Clark barely won with 39.45 per cent because the B.C. Reform party took more than nine points off the Liberals' total. Gordon Wilson's Progressive Democratic Alliance bled off a bit, as well.

This time, both the right and the left were split to some extent, and by the same party. That's the key difference between Tuesday's vote and past elections.

Green spoilers?

Did the Greens take more votes from the left than the right? Almost certainly. Can anyone say exactly what effect they had? Not with much precision.

For a start, just as in last year's federal election, a lot of Green voters probably wouldn't have bothered to vote if there hadn't been a Green candidate. How many? Your guess is as good as mine.

Second, when Ipsos-Reid asked Green voters last week which party was their second choice, fewer than half - 45 per cent - named the NDP. Another 20 per cent said the Liberals. And another 26 per cent said they'd vote for some other party.

These numbers are rough. The sampling error for a small sub-sample like Green voters is around 10 percentage points. But the result does suggest that the Greens weren't stealing votes just from the NDP.

What we do know is that, according to the latest count, more than 87 per cent of us voted for either the New Democratic Party or the Liberals Tuesday. You have to go back to '86 to find an election where more people voted for the two main parties.

That means that the same people who complained during the campaign about B.C. politics being polarized overwhelmingly voted for one of the two parties that they blamed for the polarization.

Just like in the old days.

For more post-election reports and analysis go to Election Central.

Veteran journalists Tom Hawthorn and Tom Barrett covered the election for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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