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Pandemic made 2020 election unprecedented, yet it echoed elements of 1953 and 1996

NDP win a plurality of votes for first time since 1991

The NDP appear to have won a majority government in the 2020 B.C. election – an unprecedented election in many ways, yet one that nonetheless bears echoes and interesting contrasts with past campaigns.

Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson did not concede the election in his evening speech, although he said “the NDP are clearly ahead and it appears they will have the opportunity to form government.”

Wilkinson addressed the peculiarity of the 2020 campaign by saying “this has been a campaign like no other, in the midst of a global pandemic. We had to learn new ways of campaigning and new ways of reaching out to the voters.”

The election, however, had some resonance to past campaigns.

The result, for example, was the same as what happened following the only other minority government in B.C. history: the 1952-1953 Social Credit government, when in the 1953 election there was a convincing win for the governing party.

“Now, it’s premature to say that [Premier] John Horgan could become another W.A.C. Bennett, because history never repeats itself, and I don’t think anyone, including John Horgan, is anticipating he is going to be premier for 20 years, but the similarities are interesting from a historical pattern,” said David J. Mitchell, who wrote the book W.A.C. Bennett and the rise of British Columbia.

“They’re the only two leaders of minority governments in B.C., and they’ve successfully translated their minorities into majority status.”

Mitchell was part of the BC Liberals’ surge in popularity during the 1991 campaign, as he won election as the MLA for West Vancouver–Garibaldi.

He said, however, that the 2020 election differs sharply from 1991 in how the third party in the leaders’ debate this year lost influence, unlike in 1991.

BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson went from being unknown to most British Columbians in 1991 to being a popular figure. The BC Green Party leader, Sonia Furstenau, in 2020, enjoyed a post-debate bump in the favourability ratings, but she appears to have been unable to translate that into a rise in the number of seats for her party.

The BC Liberal Party in 1991 went from having no seats to having 17 seats, and to opposition status.

The 2020 BC Green Party appears to be able to stay even, and keep three seats legislative seats, but they have lost influence in the government because their former governing partner, the NDP, has a majority government, Mitchell said.

This loss of influence has happened while the BC Green Party, in initial popular-vote results that does not include mail-in voting, has done worse province-wide in 2020, at 15.3%, than it did in 2017, when it generated 16.83% of all votes cast.

One of the only echoes to 1991 is that this is the first time since that election that the NDP has won a plurality of the popular vote. In 1996, the party formed government but obtained fewer votes than did the BC Liberals. In 2017, similarly, the NDP was able to form a government yet received fewer votes than the BC Liberals.

The only other time in B.C. history that the NDP has obtained more votes than any other party was in 1972.

Harold Steves, who won the riding of Richmond as an NDP candidate in 1972, and was part of the three-year David Barrett NDP government, told BIV as the votes were rolling in that he expects the Horgan government to be more moderate and less ambitious than was the one under Barrett.

In part, that is because much of the heavy lifting has been done in putting in social supports in the province, he said.

“So many changes were brought in that it was it was sort of a whirlwind," he said, referring to that government's legislation that created the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), a workers' compensation board, a new labour code and other initiatives.

"We're not facing that today, because a lot of those changes were done 30 or 40 years ago, and even more changes over the years, so our government and our province is run fairly.”

Unlike in 1972, when the NDP were in government for the first time, the party is being re-elected in 2020.

While some people have been saying that Horgan is the first NDP premier to be re-elected, longtime NDP activist and organizer Bill Tieleman begs to differ.

“He wasn’t elected premier in 2017,” Tieleman said, noting how the BC Liberals had obtained the largest number of seats in that election.

“You know, he’s the second NDP premier to be re-elected as premier. Glen Clark [in 1996] was the first.”

Tieleman, who was the NDP communications director during the 1996 campaign, said one similarity between the 1996 and 2020 campaigns is that the Liberals performed in a lacklustre way.

“Gordon Campbell made a number of mistakes in that election,” Tieleman said of 1996. “The slogan was, ‘The courage to change.’ Well, most voters aren't looking to have courage. They're looking to, you know, just continue their lives and protect their jobs and their families, and their kids' educational interest.”

The NDP’s 1996 campaign slogan was “On your side” – what Tieleman said was a more populist message.