British Columbia·Analysis

NPA's byelection victory sets up debate in Vancouver about vote splitting

Vision wasn't the home for the majority of Vancouver's progressive voters on Saturday night. If that doesn't change next year, their nine-year grip on power may be doomed.

Winner Hector Bremner took 27.83 per cent of vote in Saturday byelection

Hector Bremner, left, celebrates his win in Vancouver's byelection on Oct. 14, 2017. (Mark Marissen/Twitter)

Outside of political junkies, pretty much nobody likes talking about vote splitting and strategic voting. 

Winning parties hate it because it discounts what they perceive as the inherent goodness of their ideas and personalities. Losing candidates hate it because it presupposes their losing as an inevitability. 

And voters hate it because it can make their heads hurt, reducing complex political feelings to dots on a spectrum.

Let's talk about it anyway. Because anytime you have a result like Saturday's byelection battle for a seat on Vancouver council, you're going to hear about it. 

Or at the very least, reporters will ask the winning candidate about it during the first media scrum. 

"Uh, no," said Hector Bremner, he of 27.83 per cent of the vote, when asked if vote splitting helped him win the race.

Bremner, the Non-Partisan Association's candidate, finished ahead of Jean Swanson, the candidate endorsed by COPE, who took 21.4 per cent of the vote.

"It's a great victory for working people in this city, who have struggled for a long time," said Bremner, whose resume includes running for the B.C. Liberals in the 2013 election and working for cabinet minister Rich Coleman (responsible for, among other things, housing policy) afterwards.

"We had the clear credible plan. That's why people voted for us."

Well. It may be why 27.83 per cent of voters chose Bremner.

But consider the fact that every single MP elected in the last federal election, all 338 of them, got a higher percentage of the vote. 

Disappointing result for Vision

Bremner's competition was split, with just over 21 per cent voting for longtime social justice activist Jean Swanson, 20 per cent voting for multiple time Green Party candidate Pete Fry, and 13 per cent voting for longtime homeless advocate Judy Graves.

And next, with just 11 per cent, was Diego Cardona of Vision Vancouver, the party that has run Vancouver for the last nine years.

Byelections are rarely friendly territory for a ruling party, because it's a way for voters to express displeasure without changing the balance of power.

And Vision kept expectations low, running a 21-year-old with limited name recognition as its candidate, and being the only party not to have an event on election night.

But three years ago, over 83,000 people elected Mayor Gregor Robertson to a third term in power.

Saturday, less than 6,000 people supported his chosen candidate.

It's not a result anybody in Vision could be happy with, as evidenced by Robertson's own statement on the matter.

"Tonight's results are not what our team hoped for," he said.

"I heard that message loud and clear, and our party heard that message loud and clear."

Housing, housing, housing

It was a campaign focused on housing, and Bremner carved out his place as the supply candidate, arguing the city needs wholesale rezoning of single-family neighbourhoods to have the number of units needed to keep costs down.

"We need to build the housing people need, where they need it, how they need it, and at the speed they need it," he said after election night.

There are many voters who are passionate about housing costs who don't believe more supply is the answer, and don't believe Vision Vancouver has done a good job.

But Swanson, Fry and Graves each offered different solutions, and each had high enough political profiles and organizations backing them to each get a significant amount of the vote.

Vision's only silver lining is that the general election is one year and six days away — perhaps enough time to have progressive voters coalesce around them once again.   

Whether that happens will be one of the biggest political questions of the next year.

Even if it's not the question Hector Bremner wants to be thinking about after a successful campaign.

"Our party is called the [NPA] because we believe you park the partisanship and you have to be big tent," he said.

"We've had too much partisanship, I think we've had too much trying to carve people out into neat little brackets, and I think it's hurt the city."


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.