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The right path forward?

Hamish Marshall
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In an ongoing series, different commentators and experts weigh in on what the BC Liberal Party needs to do from here. Today, former Conservative national campaign director Hamish Marshall offers his take.

Last week’s election drubbing should force the BC Liberals and the broad free-enterprise coalition to take stock and evaluate what they offer, and how they fight elections. Here are four things they need to do in order to win again:

1. Take the splintering of the right seriously

Once again, the BC Conservatives cost the BC Liberal seats. But it wasn’t just the BC Conservatives, the overperformance of small right-wing parties, or mishandling the Laurie Throness situation, which handed the NDP a bigger victory. In all, at least six seats were lost by the BC Liberals because of conservative-minded voters going elsewhere.

It was easy to dismiss the BC Conservatives because they only ran 19 candidates, but in those ridings, they got 10.4% of the vote. The BC Liberals need to do what Christy Clark did when faced with a far more organized BC Conservative Party before the 2013 election. Not only did they present a pro-energy resource development platform which appealed to Conservatives, they recruited activists, got Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl involved in the campaign, and basically handed John Martin, a one-time BC Conservative candidate in Chilliwack, the BC Liberal nomination.

They took the threat seriously and won as a result. That has to be the default position of the BC Liberals going forward, not the exception.

2. Recapture the Chinese-Canadian vote

One of the most interesting and underreported trends of the last decade has been the decline of the BC Liberals with voters of Chinese descent. In this election, of the 15 seats with the most Chinese voters, they won three. Each of these ridings is at least 20% Chinese — and that number is not decreasing. The ultimate example is the BC Liberals losing three of four seats in Richmond, a former stronghold.

In 2013 the BC Liberals won 9 of these 15 seats (if they were on the present boundaries) and this dropped to 7 in 2017. BC Liberal vote dropped in ridings with the most Chinese-Canadians from 46% in 2013 (better than they did provincewide) to 40% in 2017, and down to just 36% last week.

There is no path back to victory that does not include winning this community by a significant margin. This has to be a top priority of the new leader.

3. Give people a reason to vote for them

For much of the Campbell-Clark years, the core message in elections was the NDP was too risky to be trusted in government. It was very effective, and almost worked in 2017. But after four years of the Horgan version of the NDP being less scary, less erratic, and downright more likeable than those who ran the province in the ’90s, that message has no hope of success.

The only way to win is to land some punches on Horgan, damage his brand, and more than anything else put forward a positive and distinct vision of the province. Being “New Democrats who are good at math” is not enough to win. The lowest point of the BC Liberal saga was Christy Clark’s embarrassing “clone speech” of 2017 when she basically promised to implement the NDP platform to stave off losing power. Given the choice between the real version of a party and a fake, one voters will choose the real one.

4. Fresh new leader, and a fresh new brand

The next leader has to be a new face — or at least someone who understands how the world has changed. A reincarnation of Gordon Campbell or Christy Clark would be suicide. Their formula worked in their circumstances, but things are different now.

Along with a new leader, the BC Liberals need to change their name. The Liberal brand is too tied to what is happening federally (for good or ill) and turns off too many Conservative-minded folks. A party’s name should be a net positive, not a net negative when comes to attracting voters, donors, and volunteers. There is no reason party members could not be given a short list of names to choose from, and vote online to rebrand the party.

With a new leader, a new brand, a clear vision for BC and an understanding of which voters to go after, the free-enterprise party can win again.

Hamish I. Marshall is a partner with ONE a national public affairs advocacy firm was the Conservatives’ National Campaign Manager for the 2019 Federal Election.

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