Friday, April 20, 2012

Byelections not great for Conservatives, or Liberals

Four thoughts on the byelection results.
First, New Democrats should obviously be pleased. Tidy campaigns, two wins, no apparent effect from the attack ads. In Chilliwack-Hope, turnout was down by 2,900, but the New Democrats gained 130 votes over their 2009 result, while the Liberals lost 5,490. The Conservatives' total increased by 2,350 votes.
Second, the results show the Liberals can still claim to be the choice of those prepared to vote strategically to block the NDP. That's important for Christy Clark. If the Conservatives had placed second in either riding, John Cummins would have at least a theoretical claim to the support of strategic anti-NDP voters.
Third, the results confirm the Liberals' problems are much deeper than a split in the non-NDP vote. Look at those numbers in the first paragraph above. Liberals support dropped by 5,490 votes; Conservative support only increased by 2,350 votes. Some people who voted Liberal in 2009 voted NDP; many more just stayed home. One of the fallacies in the argument that making the Conservatives go away would solve the Liberals' problems is that Conservative support would all migrate to the Liberals. Many Conservative voters would not vote at all, based on these results.
Fourth, Cummins did well enough in both ridings to keep Conservatives enthused, despite the third-place showing. The party attracted 15 per cent of the vote in Port Moody-Coquitlam; weak, but not bad considering there wasn't even a candidate in the 2009 election, and 25 per cent in Chilliwack-Hope.
That's bad news for the Liberals too. There's much talk of uniting-the-right to save the Liberals - or whatever a new party might end up being named. But that faces big hurdles. The Conservatives are surging because many voters can't stand the NDP or the Liberals. They won't be easily wooed. And other Conservatives are hardcore social conservatives who believe they have finally found a party that speaks for them. They too will be difficult to convert to Liberals.
And Cummins is not a man given to political compromise.
All of which creates a problem for Clark and the Liberals. A bid to relaunch the party - or a new party - looks desperate and might not work. Arguing that people have to vote for the Liberals even if they think they're doing a lousy job would alienate some voters and is hardly inspiring.
Attack ads to scare voters into voting Liberal are an option, but it's hard to see how they would be enough.
Hard days ahead for the Liberal party.

And another thing....
Clark continued to make the argument Friday that the Liberals are the only alternative to the New Democrats, and that she is the ordained leader of the anti-NDP forces.
That was reinforced by calls Clark chief of staff Ken Boessenkool made to Conservative organizers, according to some fascinating reports from Rob Shaw of the Times Colonist. Boessenkool is apparently pitching a merger - but Clark's leadership of the merged party is not open to debate.
But a look at the combined Liberal-Conservative vote in the byelections shows the problem with that position. The fact is that 41 per cent of anti-NDP voters rejected Clark and the Liberals. If there is to be a new coalition party, it's hard to see how it can be led by a person who has - at best - the support of 59 per cent of its base.

1 comment:

Scotty on Denman said...

I'm wondering what effect John van Dongen's defection from the BC Liberals to the BC Conservatives, still fresh enough in the minds of voters in yesterday's by-election in Chilliwack-Hope, might have had in the (as of yesterday) former BC Liberal stronghold right next door to van Dongen's (as of a few weeks ago) Conservative riding, also a former BC Liberal stronghold. The fact Conservative John Martin came in third (with 25.5% of the vote) after wide speculation that this Bible Belt riding presented the best opportunity for the new party to win a seat (as opposed to gaining one by defection from another party) is the only sliver of hope for the increasingly beset Christy Clark. And she'll beat that drum ad nauseam, no doubt.

Conservative leader John Cummins initially attempted to distinguish his party by competing with the BC Liberals on right-wing policy (getting into a little trouble by pointlessly wandering into socially conservative territory.) He soon discovered he'd already won the integrity comparison partly by default (the BC Liberals are widely perceived as unethical) and partly by the fact his party, being brand new, has no record to critique. So the Chilliwack-Hope by-election might have been an opportunity for the riding's traditionally right-wing electorate to vote in and test drive a Conservative in the Assembly before the general election expected next year. Did van Dongen's defection to the Conservatives (although technically he must sit as an Independent) pre-empt the desirability of electing a crash-test Conservative dummy?

I think the Conservatives did pretty well considering, as mentioned, they haven't articulated much on policy. Presumably they will now do so, facilitated by their MLA in the Assembly. There remains a lot of speculation as to how many more BC Liberal MLAs may yet defect to the Conservatives.

I don't think the case is very strong that the Chilliwack-Hope by-election forewarns of vote-splitting on the right, as Christy will doubtlessly remind us ad nauseam. It is quite possible that the NDP would have won if there was no Conservative candidate; or, to put it another way, not all of those who did vote Conservative are erstwhile BC Liberals.

You can bet the results will be getting close analysis by a number of government MLAs who have given up on redeeming their disgraced party. Defections, resignations and palace coups are still a very real possibility, although I suspect, barring some unforeseen crisis, things will tone down until the fall. After mid November, no resignations will precipitate a by-election. The question is can the government stay together until then.