British Columbia·Analysis

10 reasons why the B.C. NDP had its most successful election ever

The word “historic” gets thrown around a lot, but there’s no better way to describe the NDP’s victory in the B.C. election.

The pandemic undoubtedly played a role. But so, too, did the party’s stability in its 1st term in office

NDP Leader John Horgan is pictured at campaign headquarters at a hotel in Vancouver on Oct. 24, after his party was projected to form a majority government in B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The word "historic" gets thrown around a lot, but there's no better way to describe the NDP's victory in the 2020 B.C. election.

With 55 seats in which it's leading or declared, the party is all but guaranteed to elect its most MLAs ever.

With 45 per cent of the popular vote, it has its highest percentage of the vote in a generation.

John Horgan is the first two-term B.C. NDP premier, and it was the first election in the province's history in which the NDP received the most votes and there wasn't a significant split between several centre-right parties. 

In other words, this time, the New Democrats dominated.

But as the old saying goes, victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.

Here are 10 of the reasons the NDP won on election night, and won big.

1. John Horgan

He's the most popular premier in the country (according to polls) for a reason: The NDP leader looks comfortable in the job running the province; he can be partisan without seeming nasty; and he knows how to deploy a dad joke or Instagram emoji like someone half his age. 

Add in a COVID-19 communications approach where he let experts take the spotlight the majority of the time, and it's little wonder the NDP worked to make the election about John Horgan vs. Andrew Wilkinson as often as possible.

WATCH | 'I will do my level best,' John Horgan says after the NDP was projected to win a majority: 

B.C. Premier John Horgan returning to legislature with NDP majority

3 years ago
Duration 1:55
Featured VideoJohn Horgan led his party to victory on election night, becoming the first NDP premier in B.C. history to be re-elected to consecutive terms.

2. Dr. Bonnie Henry

Her name was barely uttered during the campaign, but make no mistake: the fact B.C.'s pandemic response had been internationally lauded for months in the summer made a difference. 

Henry is apolitical (in fact, she was appointed deputy health officer by the B.C. Liberals), but months of daily briefings standing next to Health Minister Adrian Dix certainly didn't hurt the government. It kept political tensions low for months before the election, and effectively took health care off the table as a hot-button campaign issue. 

Put simply, selling British Columbians on the idea of changing governments during a global pandemic the province had done relatively well containing was always going to be difficult. 

3. Snap election

Yes, despite John Horgan's protestations that "it's never a bad time to ask British Columbians what they want," there was crass politics involved in declaring an election a year ahead of schedule. 

NDP brass knew people would be annoyed at a sudden unscheduled election. But they also believed that annoyance would dissipate once voters were forced to consider which party they wanted to form government, and it was unlikely they would be more popular a year from now.

Obviously, the bet paid off. 

4. Screws to the Green Party

There was an added benefit to calling an election when the NDP did: It was just one week after Sonia Furstenau was named leader of the B.C. Green Party. 

It left the Greens scrambling to quickly recruit a full team of candidates (which they ultimately failed to do), and prevented Furstenau from having time to establish herself to voters before the campaign began. 

Again, the NDP believed the Greens would only become more prepared for an election the longer Furstenau was in charge.

Call it cynical politics or cunning strategy, but it certainly didn't hurt the New Democrats. 

WATCH | Sonia Furstenau vows to hold the NDP government accountable:

B.C. Green Party Leader promises to hold NDP government accountable

3 years ago
Duration 1:30
Featured VideoLeader Sonia Furstenau says although her party no longer holds the balance of power in the legislature, it will continue to hold the government accountable.

5. Targeted campaign

The NDP came into the campaign with the advantage of being up in the polls, and they did little to risk that. It was a low-risk campaign, with few dramatic policy promises and an endless parade of media events where Horgan repeated points in the NDP platform. 

Was it exciting? Certainly not. It didn't need to be, however, and other than a couple of awkward lines during the debate, Horgan made few unforced errors and was content to sit on a lead that the Liberals never made a significant dent in. 

6. Promises made and (mostly) kept

A big reason for this was a party that could honestly say it had delivered voters what they promised.

A CBC News analysis showed the NDP completed 79 per cent of its promises from the 2017 campaign, from raising welfare and disability rates to putting in speculation and vacancy taxes. 

It kept most of the party base satisfied. And it allowed most non-partisan voters to take comfort in knowing that whether they liked an NDP government or not, they would not have massive surprises. Which leads us to...

7. Relatively few scandals

After multiple resignations by NDP premiers and cabinet ministers and controversies with catchy names in the 1990s — remember FastCats or Fudge-it Budget, anyone? — the B.C. Liberals spent election after election while in power warning of embarrassment if the New Democrats took over. 

But over the course of 3½ years, Horgan's government oversaw the fastest growing-economy in Canada. The biggest scandal involved a mid-level minister (Jinny Sims) engaging in activity eventually cleared by an independent prosecutor. The cabinet stayed virtually the same the entire time.

It made it harder to portray the NDP as the bogeyman. 

8. Moderate government

Ultimately, so did the mostly pragmatic path Horgan's government took. Yes, there were a lot of new taxes on businesses and the wealthy — but the party mostly tweaked the way B.C. was run under the Liberals from 2001 to 2017. It wasn't a complete overhaul.

It meant there was some disappointment among its most diehard supporters, who wanted bolder action on inequality, reconciliation and climate change. With so much political capital now, that will be an interesting debate going forward for the party. 

The truth is that 90 per cent of first-term provincial governments in Canadian history are re-elected. But it's likely Horgan's brain trust will point to its strategy over the past three years as a reason they gained the support of a larger slice of voters.   

9. Campaign finance reform

The laws the NDP passed banning corporate and union donations meant the Liberals' multi-million dollar advantage in previous elections didn't happen — and in an election where people's focus was undoubtedly split between politics and the pandemic, it made it harder for the NDP to be targeted to the same extent as prior campaigns. 

10. B.C.'s shifting political culture

The NDP's historically large win puts an exclamation mark on what's been shifting in British Columbia politics for most of this century.

For all the historical stereotypes of B.C. being the land of protests and progressivism, in the second half of the 20th century the province tended to elect centre-right premiers; Vancouver tended to elect centre-right mayors; and MPs tended to come from the Progressive Conservatives — or Reform Party — the majority of the time. 

Now, B.C. has its first two-term NDP premier; Vancouver has had a centre-left mayor for 15 of the past 18 years; and most B.C. MPs are from the Liberals or NDP.  

It's a province that has slowly but surely moved to the left in recent decades. Now it has a premier with more political capital than any NDP government in a generation, with eager partners in Ottawa and B.C.'s biggest cities. 

The next question is what will John Horgan do with it.