COMMENT: The Surrey South by-election is a race to watch for all political parties


BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon will face his first big test early next month when his party tries to defend the Surrey South seat in a by-election scheduled for September 10.

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

However, history suggests that the BC Liberals should be seen as the favorites to win the seat. This is because the party that forms an incumbent government in British Columbia rarely wins a by-election during its term.

Of the two dozen provincial by-elections dating back to 1989, the government of the day won only three.

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The current NDP government successfully retained the riding of Nanaimo in the January 2019 by-election won by Sheila Malcomson.

The only other victories won by an incumbent government both elected then Prime Minister Christy Clark, first to replace former Prime Minister 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 Gray in the legislative election a few months earlier.

During their tenure, the BC Liberals lost seven by-elections to the NDP. The NDO government of the 1990s lost six consecutive by-elections in constituencies it had never won in a general election.

Arguably the worst performance by any government when it came to losing by-elections was the Social Credit government led by Bill Vander Zalm in the late 1980s. It lost six straight victories, including four constituencies normally considered to be party strongholds.

So on this point, history favors the victory of the BC Liberals next month.

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However, history does not always repeat itself and the last provincial election, in 2020, showed a huge increase in NDP support compared to previous elections in this constituency (or part of Surrey).

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The NDP’s vote rose dramatically (by more than 3,000 voters) from the 2017 contest, while the BC Liberals’ vote dropped by more than 500 and their margin of victory fell by 4 800 to 1,200.

Surrey’s dramatic population growth and increased urbanisation, with younger demographics taking hold, are all working to the NDP’s advantage, as was evident in the 2020 election.

South Surrey ridings have long been considered safe seats for BC Liberals, but those days seem to be over. The NDP is now much more competitive (it lost neighboring Surrey-White Rock by just 224 votes, the second-closest election result) in this region.

Another wildcard is the fact that the BC Conservative Party is fielding a candidate. This is potentially very problematic for BC Liberals, since a BC Conservative voter is likely to come from the Liberal camp.

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In the 2020 election, the Conservative candidates appear to have siphoned off enough votes from four normally “safe” ridings held by BC Liberals to allow the NDP to win them.

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But more often than not, a by-election can turn into a referendum on the performance of the incumbent government and although the NDP enjoys a consistent lead over the BC Liberals in the opinion polls, there seems to be a healthy dose of anxiety as people grapple with rising inflation and a weak healthcare system.

The NDP, with its strong majority, can afford to lose the by-election, but it’s a must win for BC’s rebuilding Liberals and their new leader.

Keith Baldrey is Global BC’s chief political reporter.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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