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Opinion: Surrey South byelection is a must-win for BC Liberals

Kevin Falcon and his party need the win more than the NDP does. Will they hang on?
BC Liberal leader Kelvin Falcon is facing his first big test as his party tries to defend the Surrey South seat in a Sept. 10 byelection.

BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon faces his first big test early next month when his party tries to defend the Surrey South seat in a byelection set for Sept. 10.

Losing that riding would be devastating for the BC Liberals, as they struggle to regain a toehold in Metro Vancouver, where about half the electoral ridings are located.

However, history suggests the BC Liberals have to be considered the favourite to win the seat. That is because the party that forms a sitting B.C. government rarely wins byelections during its term. Of the last two dozen provincial byelections, dating back to 1989, the government of the day won just three of them.

The current NDP government was able to hang on to the riding of Nanaimo in the January 2019 byelection won by Sheila Malcomson.

The only other wins scored by a sitting government both elected then-Premier Christy Clark, first to replace former Premier Gordon Campbell in 2011 and then again in 2013, when she had to run in the riding of Westside Kelowna after losing in Vancouver Point Grey in the general election a few months earlier.

During their time in power, the BC Liberals lost seven byelections to the NDP. The NDP government of the 1990s lost six straight byelections in ridings they had never won in any general election.

The worst showing by a government when it came to losing byelections was arguably the Social Credit government headed by Bill Vander Zalm in the late 1980s. It lost six straight, including four ridings normally considered to be party strongholds.

So on this point history favours the B.C. Liberals to be victorious next month.

However, history doesn’t always repeat itself, and the last provincial election, in 2020, showed a huge surge in NDP support compared to previous elections in that riding (or in that part of Surrey).

The NDP vote rose dramatically (by more than 3,000 voters) compared to the 2017 contest, while the B.C. Liberal vote dropped by more than 500 and their margin of victory shrunk to 1,200 from 4,800.

The dramatic population growth of Surrey and its increased urbanization, with a younger demographic taking hold, all work to the NDP’s advantage, as was evident in the 2020 election.

The ridings in South Surrey have long been considered safe BC Liberal seats, but those days appear to be over. The NDP is now much more competitive (it lost the neighbouring riding of Surrey-White Rock by just 224 votes, the second closest result in the election) in that region.

Another potential wild card is whether the BC Conservative Party will field a candidate. It did so in the Vancouver-Quilchena b-election won by Falcon, and the party candidate took 6.6 per cent of the vote — a high enough total that could seriously hurt the BC Liberals should the Conservatives win a similar level of support in Surrey South.

But a byelection can turn into a referendum on the sitting government’s performance, and, while the NDP has been enjoying a consistently large lead over the BC Liberals in opinion polls, there seems to be a fair amount of anxiety out there as people grapple with rising inflation and a shaky health-care system.

The NDP can afford to lose the byelection, but it is a must-win for the rebuilding BC Liberals and their new leader.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.