Vaughn Palmer: Expect NDP to find an opening in BC Liberal name-change process

Opinion: BC Liberals taking a big risk in switching names, special in urban areas key to victory

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VICTORIA — Opposition leader Kevin Falcon got what he wanted on the weekend, as three out of four delegates attending the BC Liberal convention in Penticton voted to put the party on track for a change of name.

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The vote clears the way for the Liberals to spend the remainder of 2022 discussing possibilities for a new name.

The option or options — the party hasn’t decided — will be put to the membership in a referendum near the end of the year.

The party got the process underway Sunday by posting a link to an online questionnaire. You do not need to take out a party card to participate. The survey is open to “our members and supporters.”

First question: Do you support changing the BC Liberal party name? Options: Yes, no and unsure.

Second question: If the party was to change its name, what name idea(s) do you suggest?

There’s space to add “any other comments or feedback.”

The party also announced the exercise on its Twitter account, leading to some fun at Liberal expense.

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Some of the more printable suggestions for a new name: The Illiberals. The current Conservatives. Social Credit. The UCP, after the Alberta party of that name. The (money) Launderettes.

Reviewing the not-helpful submissions, someone suggested to the Liberals “that you must have been one of those kids wandering around junior high with a ‘kick me’ sign on your back.”

Joking aside, this is serious business for a party that won four of the last seven provincial elections (and came close in two others) under the Liberal banner.

“A brave step forward,” said Falcon after the votes were counted. “Avoiding the challenges of rebranding and renewing would have been the easy thing, but our party members chose to embark on a process that could lead to monumental change for our party and our province.”

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For all of Falcon’s insistence that this is a necessary exercise — party renewal “demands a new name” he says — it is also a risky one.

If the membership does vote for a new name, the rebranding may have to be done in a hurry, as Falcon himself acknowledged on the weekend.

“We need to be ready,” he cautioned, reminding delegates how in 2020 the New Democrats called a snap election a year before the scheduled date written into provincial law.

“The NDP have shown that we can’t trust them when it comes to even sticking to the fixed election date laws that we brought in as a government. … If they find the opportunity, they’ll break the law and call an early election.”

Falcon insists that the main driver for the name change is a wish to end confusion over the naming of federal and provincial parties.

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“It’s not actually because, as some people seem to imply — and some in the media seem to suggest — that it’s because the Liberal part of the name is such a problem.”

Still, many members of the BC Liberal party have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, according to Mary Polak, the former cabinet minister and four-term MLA for Langley.

“For many, many years there has been a large group of the membership that has wanted to see a name change,” Polak told the CBC. “Part of how you express your identity as a party is through your name.”

She described how when campaigning, she’d have to explain the distinction between her party label and that of the federal party of the same name.

“Sometimes I’d knock on the door and the homeowner would come out and say, ‘Mary, have you switched allegiances?”’ she said.

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“I don’t think the name now clearly identifies the party.”

Polak, like Falcon, has roots deep in the Conservative side of the political spectrum.

They and others on the right may indulge some lip-smacking satisfaction at ridding themselves of having to run under the Liberal name.

But it is not clear how dropping the name serves the provincial party’s interest, given the current distribution of seats in BC

The Liberal Party of Canada won the most seats of any party in BC in the 2021 federal election — 15 versus 13 for the Conservatives and 13 for the NDP.

Together, Ottawa’s current partners in power sharing, the federal Liberals and New Democrats, captured two thirds of the seats in BC and 56 per cent of the vote.

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It’s the Conservatives who are in the minority, with less than 40 per cent of the vote in BC even if one counts support for Max Bernier’s People’s Party.

Those 15 federal Liberal Party of Canada-held seats are in urban ridings — in Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, Langley, North Vancouver, Delta and the Tri-Cities.

The BC Liberals lost almost a dozen seats to the BC NDP in those areas in the 2020 election. They need to win back those seats to form government.

While members of Falcon’s party distance themselves from the Liberal name, the provincial New Democrats have done an effective job recruiting the vote of British Columbians who support the federal Liberal party.

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The provincial NDP racks up tens of thousands of more votes in BC than does its federal counterpart because many British Columbians who vote Liberal federally vote NDP provincially.

I expect BC New Democrats will be contemplating new ways to cultivate that support, if Kevin Falcon and his supporters decide to toss the Liberal name onto the scrap heap.

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