Tuesday, September 07, 2004

New parties of the centre-right threaten Liberals

VICTORIA - Who would have thought that the Campbell government could face a big threat from what most observers would dismiss as fringe parties.
Unity Party leader Chris Delaney grabbed some attention last week by announcing plans to merge with the B.C. Conservatives and adopt their name.
So who cares, you may ask? The Conservatives barely exist and Unity claims about 4,500 members. It doesn't sound much like a big deal.
But it could be.
Because even a small gain in the new party's share of the vote could cost the Liberals closely contested ridings.
It's a little bit weird even to be writing this. After the Liberals' huge 2001 win, it seemed impossible to imagine that they could be challenged in next May's election.
But the polls show the New Democrats and the Liberals effectively tied now. And that sets up a classic B.C. showdown between the evenly matched forces of what we can arbitrarily call the right and the left. If the vote is split within either flank, that side is in trouble. (See the 1991 and 1996 elections, when the right vote split and the NDP won.)
Enter Unity and the Conservatives.
Unity, the child of another unite-the-right marriage, has made a dent in public consciousness, keeping up a steady stream of statements on the issues. The party registers in the polls, claiming seven per cent of decided voters in the southern Interior in the last Ipsos poll.
The Conservatives haven't made much of an impact. But they've got a name, and more importantly they have the potential support of B.C.'s strong federal Alliance-Conservative network. Some federal Conservatives believe the Campbell Liberals are too tightly tied to the federal Liberal party, and that B.C. needs a provincial Conservative wing aligned with the federal party. MP Darrel Stinson has already signed on.
It's a big problem for the Campbell Liberals, because even a small loss of support to another party on the right is serious.
The UBC Sauder School of Business sponsors on-line election stock markets, and to help the punters professor Werner Antweiler has an on-line 'voter migration matrix election forecaster.' The chart lets you model the effects of different vote shifts since the last election. (Google 'ubc election stock market' to try it yourself.)
The most recent poll, from the Mustel Group poll, showed the NDP at 42 per cent, Liberals at 40 per cent, the Greens at 11 per cent and the rest of the parties sharing six per cent of the vote. Plug those values into the model and it predicts a Liberal majority, with 46 seats to the NDP's 33.
But if a new Unity-Conservative party - or any other on the centre-right - takes even two per cent from the Liberals, everything changes. The forecast is for a virtual tie, with the NDP with a slight advantage.
It's not science, but it should be a concern for the Liberals. Unity, which barely attracted more votes than the Marijuana Party in the 2001 election, is poised to play a major role in next May's vote.
And if the merger fails, or Unity proves to be too socially Conservative for British Columbians, then there is the BC Democrat Alliance, another centre-right party looking to capitalize on the Liberals' weakness. Leader Tom Morino is a two-time Liberal candidate and former member of the party's provincial executive who hopes to follow the path blazed by Gordon Wilson and his PDA party.
Come on, you may say. Voters who don't want the NDP back aren't going to vote for some new party. They'll recognize the pragmatic need to unite behind the Liberals. But almost 200,000 people voted Green last time, even though most knew their local candidate couldn't win. They had a message to send.
The new parties of the centre-right offer voters the same chance to send a message. Gordon Campbell should be worried.
Footnote: The Surrey-Panorama Ridge byelection - when Campbell finally calls it - will be a good test for the new parties. The Liberals will likely run Mary Polak, known as a 'conservative' school trustee. The Unity-Conservative candidate will likely be Heather Stilwell, Polak's cohort on the board, while Molino plans to run for the new BC Democrat Alliance.

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