British Columbians like to think of their politics as highly volatile and contentious, but a look at election results for the past hundred years suggests that continuity is more of a norm than change. In the past century there have been 27 provincial elections (we are in the middle of 28). Only eight times has an election resulted in a change of governing party; in the majority of cases voters opted for the status quo (which is what polls suggest will happen yet again on May 12).
What were the circumstances surrounding those eight election losses by incumbent governments?
2001 - Gordon Campbell's Liberals defeated an NDP government led by Ujjal Dosanjh. (Defeat is a kind word; the NDP were reduced to two seats in the legislature.) It was the first Liberal victory in almost 60 years and the main factors were the odour of scandal surrounding the NDP administration and evidence of mismanagement of public affairs. (Can you say fast ferries?)
1991 - The NDP, led by Mike Harcourt, ousted a Social Credit Party tainted by a series of scandals.
1975 - A revitalized Social Credit Party defeated Dave Barrett's one-term NDP government. Barrett accomplished much in just three years but he had alienated not just big business but his own labour support as well.
1972 - The NDP won power for the first time, defeating W.A.C. Bennett's Socred dynasty. The coalition of interests that had maintained Social Credit in power for 20 years split, the centre-right vote divided, and the NDP snuck into office.
1952 - This election saw a brand new Social Credit movement win a surprising minority government with just 30% of the vote. Infighting between Liberals and Conservatives had undermined the previous Coalition Government.
1933 - The Liberals under Duff Pattullo defeated a Conservative government completely destroyed by the economic crisis of the Great Depression.
1928 - The Conservatives won a landslide victory under Simon Fraser Tolmie, defeating a Liberal government weakened by a succession of scandals.
1916 - The Liberals won power for the first time since party politics began in BC, ousting a Conservative government blamed for not responding adequately to the pre-war recession and for the over-generous use of patronage.
This shamelessly brief history suggests that three recurring factors lead to the defeat of incumbent governments: 1. failure to respond to economic difficulties; 2. questions of integrity; and 3. an opposition vote that is divided. Almost every time that a governing party has lost an election, it has been because of one or more of these factors.
Interestingly, two out of three prevail during the present election. There is no divided opposition; it is pretty much a two-way race between the Liberals and the NDP, notwithstanding the forceful presence of the Green Party. However, the economy is in crisis, and questions are being asked about the Campbell government's handling of the sale of BC Rail. So far the polls suggest that the Liberals are not being hurt by these issues, at least not enough to cause them to lose the May 12 election. However, for what it is worth, history suggests that they may not be as secure as the polls indicate.