Mike is a communications and public affairs consultant based in Vancouver. He is a former Chief of Staff and campaign manager for the Premier of BC. He's a lifelong British Columbian with a passion for his province. Online: @BCMikeMcD and https://www.linkedin.com/in/bcmikemcd
Free enterprise coalitions usually win in BC. Electing a left-wing government has proven very hard over the last 80 years.
Since 1941, when the Liberals and Conservatives formed a war-time coalition to govern, it’s largely been a question of the NDP (and its predecessor, the CCF) contending against the leading free enterprise party or coalition in a bruising, polarizing battle. The scorecard is: Free Enterprise 17, CCF/NDP 4.*
Starting in 1952, the new de facto coalition was the Social Credit Party when it emerged from a four-way race to gain power and hold it for 20 years under the premiership of W.A.C. Bennett. In 1991, after winning 11 of 12 elections, the Socreds were dealt a mortal blow and were, subsequently, eclipsed by the BC Liberals who would evolve into the modern-day free enterprise contender. In this transitional period in the 1990s, the NDP won back-to-back majority governments.
The yellow circles note the times that the NDP won elections (1972, 1991, 1996) or took power (2017). In the first three, there was a significant vote split on the centre-right:
1972: an uptick of BC Conservatives eroded Socred support. The Socreds won in 1975 by remaking its coalition, jumping from 31% to 49% of the popular vote, defeating Dave Barrett’s NDP which basically held its 1972 vote at around 39-40%.
1991: the demise of the Socreds and simultaneous rise of the BC Liberals created a vote split that helped Mike Harcourt’s NDP win a majority.
1996: the upstart BC Reform Party cut into BC Liberal support, helping Glen Clark’s NDP win a majority, despite losing the popular vote.
2017: this was the first time the NDP gained power in BC without a significant centre-right vote-split across the province. While some BC Liberal voters (especially in Metro Vancouver) migrated to the Greens as the only alternative to the NDP, it was a single BC Conservative candidate in Courtenay-Comox that struck the decisive blow, taking over 7.5% in a riding the NDP won by only 189 votes.
When the NDP wins, it has some help, and sometimes that help is because of a tired government on its last legs. NDP ascension to power in 1972, 1991, and 2017 came after spending prolonged stretches as Official Opposition.
John Horgan is trying to make history in this election by being the first sitting NDP premier to serve a term of government and win a majority government. He enters the election enjoying high poll standings unfamiliar to his predecessors, and hopes to win BC Liberal votes outright rather than relying on a vote split. By winning a plurality of the popular vote and winning a majority of seats, it would be a historic win for the NDP, given the historical scorecard.
From the BC Liberal standpoint, it has entered an election as main contender in the six past elections, having won a majority four times, and winning the popular vote the other two times (when it did not ultimately form a government). It has been a successful big-tent free enterprise party in the modern era.
The question now is: Can the NDP sustain its pre-election lead in the polls? Alternatively, can the BC Liberals galvanize supporters and consolidate the free enterprise vote as it has done since 1996? Other than the 2001 election, every election in the past 50 years has been a hard-fought battle where the outcome was never entirely certain at the outset of the campaign. We are used to tough fights and a simple cruise to victory would go against the grain of BC politics.
While there is a lot to chew over in the riding-by-riding results, I took a quick look at the seventeen Conservative-held ridings in British Columbia. And who won in these seats on the first count? Leslyn Lewis.
Conservative-held seats in British Columbia
This provides more than a glimpse of Lewis’s support among Conservative members in their heartland (and lack of support for Peter MacKay and his message).
Lewis’s strongest showing was in Chilliwack-Hope where she garnered 53.17% of the vote on the first count. By the second count, Lewis had 66% support in the riding, when she was eliminated. Who won on the final count in Chilliwack-Hope? O’Toole with 78% of the vote, rising from 21% on the previous count – a massive increase of 57 points.
She also won the first count in blue BC seats despite not having any MP endorsements. Many of the MPs endorsed MacKay and O’Toole.
As noted, the problem Lewis had was that her votes were concentrated in ridings with a strong membership base. The type of member that likes her tends to live in conservative areas. Her raw vote per weighted vote was high compared to O’Toole and MacKay. In the non-held seats in BC, where the membership base is lower, Lewis did not do as well. Overall, in BC, she had 24.93% of the weighted votes (points) on the first count compared to winning 29.33% of the weighted votes in the Conservative-held ridings.
Looking at first count in the 17 Conservative seats in BC, Lewis won 8 ridings on the first count, O’Toole won 6, and MacKay 3.
The raw votes ranged from 1,246 in Langley-Aldergrove to only 253 in Steveston-Richmond East. The two Richmond Conservative ridings had the lowest votes cast among incumbent seats in BC, suggesting that the membership drive did not take hold in the Chinese-Canadian community.
Congratulations to Erin O’Toole on the win. He clearly benefited from down ballot support from Lewis and Sloan. His team likely knew where those votes were heading on the final count, as long as he stayed ahead of Lewis. Just as Lewis was an underdog, so was O’Toole, and the underdogs combined to win.
As for Leslyn Lewis, it’s clear she has a very strong base within the party, especially in BC’s held seats. One wonders if she had more time to organize in the weaker ridings, and started from a stronger position, that she would in fact be the leader today.
As Conservatives await the results of the ballots mailed in from party members across Canada, most political observers would agree that conventions are not quite as exciting or dramatic as they used to be. One of the best Canadian political books of all-time – and likely the best on leadership conventions – masterfully chronicled the race. Contenders was co-authored by a journalist (Patrick Martin), an academic (George Perlin), and a pollster – the legendary Allan Gregg.
The Progressive Conservatives had a succession of nail-biting leadership conventions between 1967 and 1983 where the outcome was far from clear before the voting started. In 1967, the party dumped former prime minister John Diefenbaker, desperately (and sadly) trying to hang on, with the real battle place between Nova Scotia premier Robert Stanfield, Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, and former Justice minister, BC’s E.Davie Fulton. Other than Kim Campbell, Fulton’s campaign was the most significant waged by a British Columbian in living memory, and he was backed by two future leaders – Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Stanfield won on the fifth ballot against Roblin and led the party through three unsuccessful election campaigns against Pierre Trudeau.
After Stanfield’s third loss, there was another convention where the outcome was far from clear. Quebec’s Claude Wagner was in a position of strength, while Brian Mulroney – then 37 years old and an unelected party insider, made a fully funded full-court press. Wagner and Mulroney were 1-2 on the first ballot, but lurking behind in third place with less than 12% of the votes was a 36 year old MP from Alberta, Joe Clark. Clark jumped to second place on the next ballot and won on the 4th ballot thanks to support from Mulroney voters.
Contenders picks up the story in January 1983 in the office of the manager of the Winnipeg Convention Centre. Joe Clark was surrounded by his key advisors while he awaited the results of a leadership review vote, essentially, a referendum on his leadership.
Clark had led the PC’s to an electoral win in 1979, albeit a minority. It was the PC’s first win in sixteen years. However, the Clark PC’s lost the popular vote by five points and failed to make enough headway in Quebec to win a majority. Nevertheless, they were in office and could govern with the cooperation of six Creditiste MPs from Quebec. The Liberals were in disarray. Pierre Trudeau announced he was retiring and a leadership race began. Like any rookie government, Clark’s administration was unsteady. Finance Minister John Crosbie brought in an unpopular budget that included a significant hike to the gas tax. Clark’s team underestimated the Liberals’ appetite for power. Behind the scenes, Liberal MPs were rallied for a confidence vote to force a do-over election. The PC’s failed to secure the Creditistes. Then-NDP MP Bob Rae moved a motion of non-confidence and the government shockingly fell on December 13, 1979. Clark went to Rideau Hall to ask for an election – which he would decisively lose to Pierre Trudeau, returning to take the helm of the Liberals one last time.
It was a crushing blow for Clark who was barely 40 years old by this time. He would have felt that he had a lot of politics left in his tank. As Contenders describes, he had modernized the party organization and fundraising apparatus and made significant efforts to build the party in Quebec, thus far, without electoral success. He had most of caucus on side but the stench of defeat lingered within the party. In 1981, the party held its first post-election leadership review where 66.1% of the delegates voted against holding a leadership convention, allowing Clark to continue as leader. He did, but it was hardly a resounding win.
We now rejoin Clark in the backroom of the 1983 leadership review in Winnipeg where he is awaiting the results, the 1980 electoral defeat, and tepid leadership endorsement of 1981 on everyone’s mind. The threshold of success this time was to be above 67%. Fewer than 66% would leave Clark no choice to call a convention (though he, technically, only needed 50%+1). As Contenders describes, “What they had not considered was if the vote should fall in between”. It did – 66.9% voted against a leadership convention. It was a maddening result for the Clark forces.
Chapter 1 describes the conversation around the room as Clark considers his future – soldier on as leader and withstand ongoing challenges to his leadership or ask the party executive to call a full-blown leadership convention and win his own job back, thereby securing his position. At that time, the Trudeau Liberals were deeply unpopular, but PC members feared the return of Liberal John Turner. Turner was very much ‘1a’ to Trudeau’s ‘#1’ in the first two terms of the Trudeau government. Out of politics, it was a only a matter of time before Turner returned, and he was popular. Many PC members were uncertain, or simply didn’t believe, that Clark could beat Turner.
A striking aspect of the scene described in Chapter 1 is youth. Not only was Clark a young man, he was surrounded by peers in their 30s and 40s. The threat to his leadership, Brian Mulroney, who organized fiercely behind the scenes for a leadership convention, was also of the same generation. It was a vigorous time in politics fought by those who had been in the trenches together and against each other since university days.
Clark went for a full-blown convention, unleashing pent-up energy within the party that would culminate in the June 1983 leadership convention in Ottawa. Watching on TV from afar, it was my first awakening in terms of party politics. It was exciting, the personalities were strong, and the outcome far from certain.
Contenders leads the reader through each of the four ballots at the convention with flashbacks to the campaign trail, providing many vignettes of toil and struggle. The three main contenders – Clark, Mulroney, and John Crosbie – are covered in great detail. The secondary players – Michael Wilson, David Crombie, and, bizarrely as it seems now, Peter Pocklington, are also discussed. The role of Amway salesman as a political force is touched on. The race had it all!
It was a long campaign and momentum shifts take place. At one point, Mulroney’s campaign is in disarray while Clark nurtures a strong base of support and Crosbie gains momentum. Would Crosbie overtake Mulroney? As any political warrior can relate, key campaign moments change the narrative. Initiative taken, blunders made, obstacles that could not be surmounted, such as Crosbie’s inability to speak french.
Contenders takes us to the convention floor and the release of the first ballot results. With 2,991 votes cast, the winner needs almost 1,500 votes to win. Clark has a strong lead after the first ballot with 1,091 votes but he is a ways away from victory. Mulroney at 874 has breathing space over Crosbie at 639. It was a long way down to Michael Wilson at 144. As is often the case, optimism crashes on the windswept rocks of political reality and, as the authors write, “the vultures had gathered”. Wilson and Pocklington moved to maximize what was left of their political capital and walked the convention floor. It appeared they were walking to Crosbie. As noted, “Straining reporters, still ignorant of the decision the two had made, began screaming into their microphones, ‘they’re going to Crosbie!'”. But Pocklington and Wilson actually went to a “relieved” Mulroney. It was good television.
After the second ballot, it was apparent that it would not be Joe Clark’s day, though he still led, with a thin 64 vote lead over Mulroney. One of the more dramatic scenes was Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, a Crosbie supporter, pleading with Clark to face reality. Clark stood firm and Crosbie was vanquished on the third ballot, which was now a 22-vote margin between Clark and Mulroney. Crosbie’s delegates wanted change, as did a majority of delegates, and Mulroney easily disposed of Clark on the fourth ballot by a margin of 1,584 to 1,325.
We elect leaders differently now. The outcome of the last Conservative leadership vote between Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier could not have been closer. However, it was just a matter of counting votes. There was no between-ballot jockeying. Is that a good thing? As much as I LOVE watching delegated conventions, whether it was the 1983 PC convention, the 1984 Liberal leadership, the 1986 BC Social Credit drama, or participating in the 1990 and 2006 Liberal races, it has its downsides too. A universal, preferential ballot for members, weighted by ridings, is not perfect but is a more democratic form of leadership selection. This is the manner in which the Conservatives are selecting their leader this weekend, and the one used in two previous BC Liberal races. It may lack drama, but drama alone should not decide how we choose leaders. A universal system draws upon skills that leaders need in a general election (and of course, you can find exceptions).
A benefit of hotly contested leadership races is the bonds that are formed among politically active members, particularly young people. The 1983 PC convention saw a generation of young politicos, particularly in Mulroney’s camp, move on to key roles in the ensuing years and decades, while maintaining a very tight network. The role of youth in the 1983 convention was influential as the authors describe the internal party coalitions that brought support to the respective candidates.
When it was published in 1983, the authors could not foresee the events that would take place. Brian Mulroney conclusively dispensed with John Turner in the 1984 election, winning the most lopsided majority in Canadian history and dominating Quebec – and won a second majority in 1988. Joe Clark became a highly respected Minister of External Affairs, and later, point man on constitutional negotiations. While there would have been no love lost between the two, they found a way to work together. Within the decade, Mulroney’s magic wore off and the PC’s decimated, eaten alive by the forces of regional alienation in Western Canada and Quebec. Joe Clark would return to the PC leadership for the 2000 election, winning an improbable seat, and helping keep the party alive – until Peter MacKay led it into a merger.
Contenders, like few other Canadian political books, not only describes what happened in the 1983 race, but how it happened, combining the disciplines of journalism, academia, and research. It informs us about what has happened since. Rarely do we see such insight from a Canadian political book that is informed by what it is actually like on the campaign trail. While it is now almost 40 years since that convention, and the publication of Contenders, it remains a Canadian classic, a reminder of a bygone time.
It was a historic collision of events – the day the Liberal Party of Canada had two future prime ministers on stage and the day that the 1987 Constitutional Accord (The Meech Lake Accord) expired.
The events leading up to June 23rd and the events that followed are among the most remarkable in Canadian history and have been unmatched since. The era of 1987 to 1995 led to a transformational shift in Canadian politics resulting in the revival of Quebec separatism and the ascendancy of western populism, combining to destroy the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. More fundamentally, this era would feature three epic constitutional struggles – the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord, and, ultimately, the 1995 Quebec referendum. It also produced an uneasy, but workable Liberal partnership that defined an era of governance and restored Canada’s fiscal health.
On stage in Calgary that day, Jean Chrétien – derided as ‘Yesterday’s Man’ – prevailed as leader on the first ballot. He issued his rallying cry, “We have work to do”. He would take over the party following decisive defeats in 1984 and 1988, backed by a loyal and capable network across Canada but fighting against perceptions that his time had passed. His rival, Paul Martin, would join him in helping steer the currents of change in the Liberals’ direction.
The Long Road to Calgary
From 1988 to 1990, I led the BC Young Liberals (at the time, it served both provincial and federal Liberal parties). I loyally campaigned through the 1988 federal election for John Turner, and had a front row seat to grassroots party politics. Despite a spirited run, and a debate performance for the ages, Mr. Turner was outgunned by the well-oiled Big Blue Machine and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Mulroney had two centrepiece initiatives – the Meech Lake Accord and the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. The election was about Free Trade; the internal debate in the Liberal Party was about Meech.
When the Meech Lake Accord was agreed upon in 1987 by the all-male group of premiers and the prime minister, it was a surprise – in fact, to many, a welcome surprise in that Quebec was signing on to a constitutional deal. Liberals divided quickly on the point and Turner, painted into a corner, backed the position of the federal government, the Province of Quebec, and indeed all the provinces. Many in his caucus were opposed, but the real threat was outside his caucus. His predecessor, Pierre Trudeau came out strongly against Meech as did the runner-up to Turner in the 1984 leadership convention, Jean Chrétien. Chrétien, who had resigned his seat in Parliament in 1986, was not constrained by caucus discussions. He made his views known straight to the people.
As a Young Liberal among many during that time, there were countless discussions and arguments in university pubs about the minutiae of the Meech Lake Accord. Whether it was Quebec being a distinct society, a veto for all provinces, the absence of Senate reform, or federal spending powers, there was passion and a thirst to understand the details. There was a real sense of the gravity of the Accord and that the country was literally at stake. Maybe it was because I was young at the time and feel nostalgic about that period, but I have not encountered such a spirited and momentous time in politics since then.
Following the defeat of the Liberals in 1988, the leadership race was on, beginning formally in 1989. It was a given that Chrétien would enter the race. Many would say he never left the race after 1984. He had a well-established network of seasoned veterans across Canada bolstered by a diverse group of grassroots supporters. It was more than a machine though. Chrétien was a very unique force in Canadian politics. He was a populist crowd-pleaser who was strongly associated with the federalist cause in the 1980 Quebec referendum and the fight to patriate Canada’s Constitution in 1982. His biography Straight from the Heart flew off the shelves. He was more popular than John Turner across Canada, but despite internal Liberal machinations, he would have to wait. Turner would get a second chance.
By the time 1989 rolled around, grassroots Liberals were picking sides between Chrétien and the main contender Paul Martin Jr., who had just been elected MP in 1988. The son of a namesake Liberal cabinet heavyweight, Martin had his own national network to fall back on, along with the support of many in the Turner network. He was the pro-Meech candidate (along with Sheila Copps).
This was in the days that leadership conventions were delegated affairs. The grassroots of the party came alive as members jockeyed to become delegates and participate in an historic democratic event that came along once a decade (or less). Organizers for Chrétien and Martin fanned out across the country calling in chits, identifying the local power brokers (then identifying the people who really did the work), and putting together delegate slates and the memberships to get those slates elected.
In a bygone era, longstanding members might contest for a spot and be elected on their own personal standing. By 1984, that quaint practice had largely been disposed of and by 1990 it was a straight slug fest between two rival, well-financed teams. Yes, Sheila Copps was a presence, along with fellow MPs John Nunziata and Tom Wappel but this was a Chrétien-Martin fight and everyone knew it.
While largely staying out of the fray in 1989, I had a chance to meet and hear many of the candidates. I took a liking to a darkhorse candidate, Clifford Lincoln, a former provincial cabinet minister from Quebec. He resigned from Robert Bourrassa’s cabinet protesting the infringement of language rights (“Rights are rights are rights”) and from there jumped into the Liberal leadership race. His campaign winnebago pulled up to my house in Maple Ridge to meet the locals as he sized up his prospects. The moral of this story is that despite meeting him a few times, Lincoln never made the ask for support. I have seen this many times over the years – candidates who go 99% of the way then fail to make the sale. This was not a problem for Chrétien and Martin. They were going full Glengarry Glen Ross.
By the time 1990 arrived, the leadership campaign was heating up while the wheels had been falling off Meech. Prime Minister Mulroney needed to have the Accord approved by every provincial legislature, but as provincial elections took place, he was left with less cooperative partners.
Frank McKenna stormed to victory sweeping all of New Brunswick’s 58 seats in 1987. He would not be following his predecessor’s direction and was the first crack in the armour among the premiers.
Then in 1988, the Manitoba NDP government lost a confidence vote. An election was triggered in what was expected to be a waltz to victory for Gary Filmon’s Progressive Conservatives over new NDP leader Gary Doer. Along came Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, a ferocious opponent of Meech Lake, taking control of the campaign agenda. Carstairs started with one seat and rocketed to 20 seats, just behind Filmon’s 25, forcing a minority parliament. Meech stalled. In my Forrest Gump-like youth politics life, my pal, Iain, and I drove to Manitoba to campaign for Carstairs. She was a force who galvanized opinion in urban Winnipeg. In due course, the position of the Manitoba government would change, demanding amendments to the Accord and holding back ratification. Rather than be led by Carstairs on the issue, Filmon seized it, bringing along Carstairs and Doer to the final negotiations. The 1988 Manitoba election was also noteworthy for the election of NDP MLA Elijah Harper. (My former colleague, Greg Lyle, ran Filmon’s campaign and would go on to fight the Meech wars as Principal Secretary – I’m looking forward to his retelling of that some day).
However, there would be no greater challenge for Prime Minister Mulroney than Newfoundland’s new Liberal premier, Clyde Wells. Elected in 1989, Wells, an accomplished lawyer, campaigned against Meech with relish. He became a folk hero among Liberal anti-Meechers. Back in the day, the national media was much more robust and the views of Wells, Filmon, Carstairs, et al. had a lot of airplay alongside the Prime Minister and the Meech defenders.
In BC, both the Vander Zalm Social Credit government and the Opposition NDP, led by Mike Harcourt, supported the Meech Lake Accord. The anti-Meech forces were led through the media by CKNW radio host Rafe Mair and politically by Gordon Wilson who was leading the then-seatless BC Liberal Party. As a new leader and political unknown, Wilson was able to fill a political vacuum and gain profile, while building key political relationships with Carstairs, Wells, and Chrétien.
While Mulroney held his Quebec fortress solid, with lieutenant Lucien Bouchard by his side, he had a grassroots brushfire on his hands in Western Canada. Denied seats in the 1988 election, Preston Manning’s Reform Party was clearly on the rise and, in 1989, it elected its first MP, Deb Grey, in an Alberta by-election. Manning was a fierce opponent of Meech and making life difficult for western right-wing premiers like Bill Vander Zalm, Don Getty, and Grant Devine who were finding it increasingly difficult to justify their support for the Accord.
That was the lay of the land heading into Liberal delegate selection meetings slated for March 1990. Each riding would elect 12 delegates – 4 adult males, 4 adult females, and 4 youth (2 female, 2 male) delegates (ages 14-25).
Teams were being solidified. I was on the fence. My heart leaned toward Chrétien, though I was looking for something a bit different. My Dad had always gravitated to the long shots, backing Eric Kierans in 1968 (not a contender) and always favouring the John Crosbies and Don Johnstons from the comfort of his arm chair. I had taken a look at Clifford Lincoln but he had actually dropped from the race in any event. I spent hours debating Sheila Copps at a friend’s kitchen table into the wee hours of the morning, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t agree with her on issues important to me (though I admired her for making a hard pitch). I did like Paul Martin but I just didn’t feel like he was the right guy right then. So, humming and hawing, I paid a visit to friends at Chrétien HQ in Vancouver. While there, a key Chrétien organizer, Joan Lew, taught me one of life’s lessons, paraphrasing her, “Mike, whether or not you support our candidate, make up your mind. No one is going to care what you think four weeks from now.” Gulp. I supported Chrétien. Joan was right, and I jumped in and never regretted it.
The next 3 or 4 weeks was a blitz of candidate selection meetings around British Columbia. It was a Chrétien buzz saw, as it was in most provinces, with slate after slate delivered for le petit gars de Shawinigan. Working as a naive youth volunteer, I began to see how the sausage was made in the sausage factory learning more life lessons. One key takeaway is that the Chrétien campaign had discipline. There was respect for campaign leadership. BC’s leader was Ross Fitzpatrick and everyone knew that he had Mr. C’s ear before and after everyone else. Another key point was getting real about the numbers. You had a list, you had to know the list. Get the memberships in, and once you got ’em, get ’em out. And make sure those delegates don’t turn! They better be solid.
On one occasion, I happened to be in Alberta and rode along to a delegate selection meeting in Wetaskiwin with my good friend Raj Chahal, a Chrétien organizer. It was the same there as it was in BC or any other province – working the list, getting the bodies out, right down to the presence of the prominent local lawyer make sure he was seen to be doing his part. There was something reassuring knowing that this process replayed itself in 295 ridings across Canada in similar ways, with regular folks showing up to have their say.
In my own riding of Mission-Coquitlam, I had a responsibility to deliver for Chrétien. My federal candidate and mentor, Mae Cabott, was strongly for Chrétien so were aligned and getting organized. There was an independent contestant for delegate, my Dad. I knew that Chrétien was going to be a hard sell on the old man, but I dearly wanted him to be elected and come to Calgary. So, at the meeting I stood up and spoke for the Chrétien slate, but requested that the good people of Mission-Coquitlam leave a spot open for Dad, who had paid his Liberal dues in years past. A hopeful pitch that didn’t work! But he did get elected as an Alternate.
At one point, some of the Young Liberals supporting Chrétien were sent to our own buzz saw experience in Kamloops where we had a slate contesting the Martinites. We were put up at the then-Stockman’s Hotel and went out to win hearts and minds. Some misguided soul in the Chrétien campaign thought a good strategy would be to promote me to be a guest speaker addressing Kamloops Young Liberals, with free pizza! My first sign that the evening’s vote would not go so well when 18 year old Martin organizer Todd Stone showed up for free pizza and made sure no one else did. The Martin team won the day and, since many were good friends, it wasn’t so bad. But in another life’s lesson, you can often as much fun losing (if you fight the good fight). We left Kamloops the next day with a few sore heads following a night’s entertainment at the Jack Daniels, with a letter from the hotel manager chasing us to Vancouver seeking damages after a drunken pillow fight went horribly wrong.
The 1990 leadership race also featured the active presence of the South Asian community. For the Chrétien side in BC, Prem Vinning was ubiquitous. When doing the math, you might expect 50 to 100 members voting in a typical BC riding to elect 12 delegates who will help choose, maybe, the next prime minister of Canada. A small membership in the Fraser Valley or Williams Lake had as many delegate spots as downtown Toronto. That’s a lot of power for a small number of people. Now, if you are able to recruit, say, an extra 50 members who will vote for your slate en masse, it’s a huge advantage. The flexing of muscle by the South Asian community – and other communities – has manifested itself in a substantial improvement in the diversity of MPs and MLAs across Canada since then. Membership strategies were not unique to the Chrétien campaign or the South Asian community. For example, pro-life MP Tom Wappel won 5% of the vote on the strength of the pro-life network within the Liberal Party. Moreso now, because of the decline in the role of membership participation and active riding associations in political parties, party politics is an open door for groups that want to influence policy and outcomes. But everyone has a chance to do it – that’s democracy. I saw it first hand in 1990.
The Convention and the demise of Meech
The meetings were over, the debates had been had. Proxy battles were being fought with Chrétien candidates and Martin candidates contesting the national executive positions and youth executive positions in Calgary. I became campaign assistant for a friend who was seeking the role of VP External Relations. We’ve worked on a few campaigns together since.
Thousands of Liberals were finding their way to Calgary including well over a thousand young people. Lifelong friendships were formed throughout the process and in Calgary. Where can you find so many people that share your affliction – political involvement – in the same place? That year, it was Calgary. It was a very exciting time.
By the time the Calgary Convention had arrived, my Dad had been upgraded from Alternate delegate to Full delegate status. It was kind of like an Aeroplan upgrade for longtime Liberals. Once he had his delegate package, he finally declared for Paul Martin. We spent an afternoon on the convention floor, me with my Chrétien gear, him with his PM for PM button, chatting with old and new friends. A great memory bonded by our mutual passion for politics, similar to many multi-generational political families across Canada.
In parallel to the leadership convention was the demise of Meech. It was a surreal overlap of events in a time before social media or cell phones.
Much had happened leading into June. Federal cabinet minister Jean Charest issued his report outlining constitutional recommendations to break the impasse. Colleague Lucien Bouchard would not stand behind it leading to his ouster from Cabinet, and his rededication to Quebec sovereignty. It was a shocking turn of events and huge blow to the Mulroney government, especially given that Mulroney had personally recruited him straight into cabinet on the strength of their personal friendship.
Following the Bouchard conflagration, high stakes constitutional negotiations took place in early June in Ottawa. Extreme pressure was placed on the holdouts with CBC Newsworld breathlessly reporting every hallway conversation to the millions of Canadians tuning in. Premier McKenna found his way to support a compromise. Manitoba promised to bring back a compromise to its Legislature. Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells was the most adamantly opposed but even he relented and promised to bring it back to St. John’s for a vote. At one point, Wells was intent on bolting the negotiations but was blocked by other premiers who pleaded with him. Ontario Premier David Peterson, recipient of much laudatory pro-Meech media coverage for his role in backstopping Mulroney, put six Ontario senate seats on the table to make the deal happen. It was dramatic deal-making stuff. And it looked like it would work.
Largely ignored throughout this entire process were Canada’s indigenous people. Indigenous leaders had been excluded from the 1987 negotiations that led to the Accord in the first place and had grave concerns over the impact of the Accord on their rights. While the premiers may have found their pathway to say yes, an incredible turn of events was yet to unfold.
By the time the Calgary convention convened on the week of June 18th, the Meech Lake Accord was barrelling to its conclusion. The Accord would expire on June 23rd, meaning ratification would have to take place by Friday, June 22nd.
Following the ‘successful’ Ottawa negotiations in early June, Prime Minister Mulroney made a publicly reported comment that the had “rolled the dice”. His lack of post-agreement humility angered premiers who had given way to pressure and compromise and caused a media firestorm. He had made the task of ratification much harder.
Ratification was fought on two provincial stages – Newfoundland and Manitoba. My recall of events is imprecise, so I defer to official accounts. On June 21st, while the Calgary Convention was underway, Prime Minister Mulroney went to Newfoundland to speak from the floor of the Legislature – an extremely rare move for a sitting prime minister to address a provincial legislature, pleading for ratification. Meech was really on the ropes.
Manitoba required unanimous consent of the Legislature to allow for the ratification process to take place before June 23rd. A single MLA, Elijah Harper, denied approval for that consent effectively stopping Meech dead in its tracks.
In Calgary, delegates were straining to catch snippets of these events on televisions where they could find them, or hear reports from other delegates. The delegates choosing the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada were in a vacuum-sealed bag, finding it difficult to keep up with fast-moving events. No cell phones, no social media. It was bizarre to be part of a historic event and not entirely knowing what was happening with the other.
With Elijah Harper delivering a mortal blow to Meech Lake, Newfoundland opted not to proceed with a ratification vote, which signed the Accord’s final death warrant. By the end of the day on June 22nd, Meech was dead.
Throughout the month, Chrétien, who had opposed Meech, had avoided taking a strong position on the June compromise, walking a delicate line. Now that Meech was dead, he may have thought he had steered clear.
Saturday, June 23rd
I’m sure there was no doubt in the minds of the Chrétien and Martin senior commands when they woke up on the 23rd. The numbers were the numbers.
Yet for impressionable Chrétien youth delegates, you heard all sorts of wild convention floor rumours. So and so was defecting to Martin or this riding or that riding had switched sides. And some, in fact, did switch allegiances. The Martin campaign fought valiantly until the end – and they did sing a lot.
Meanwhile, Clyde Wells arrived in Calgary sparking an electricity in the building, meeting up with Chrétien for a famous hug. In his book, The Big Red Machine, author Stephen Clarkson writes that repercussions of the hug were immediate. Wells was blamed for refusing to bring Meech to the floor of the legislature for a vote, thus denying Quebec.
At one point when I was on the floor of the convention hall, I looked up into the seating area and saw Pierre Trudeau in a bright orange shirt, thinking, “He’s here?” It hadn’t occurred to me that he would attend. There were a lot of strong feelings in the hall, fuelled in large measure by Meech.
But any notion that there might be a second ballot was made ridiculous by the results of the first. Of the 4,888 votes cast at the Calgary Saddledome, Chrétien stormed to victory with 56.8% of the votes. Martin was well back with 25.2% while Sheila Copps garnered 11%.
Chrétien mounted the stage and paid tribute to Mr. Turner and to his rivals, announcing that “we have work to do”. Meanwhile, Liberal MPs Jean Lapierre (a senior campaign official for Martin) and Gilles Rocheleau quit the party before they even left the building, joining Lucien Bouchard in a newly formed breakaway group in Parliament.
At that point, it was time to leave the Saddledome and enjoy the after-party.
From that dramatic day, numerous events flowed from it.
Prime Minister Mulroney, with Joe Clark at his side, would try again to deliver a constitutional deal – The Charlottetown Accord. It went to national referendum and failed decisively.
Decimated in Quebec by Lucien Bouchard and by Preston Manning in Western Canada, the two-term Progressive Conservative government was reduced to only two seats in the 1993 election. The Bloc Quebecois became Official Opposition and the Reform Party elected over 50 MPs. The PC’s ultimately merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada. It has a fundamentally different character today than it had prior to 1993.
Quebec voters elected a separatist government under the leadership of Jacques Parizeau who readied the province for a second referendum. Lucien Bouchard was the heart and soul of the Oui campaign, which led the polls, but narrowly lost (49.42%) to federal forces (50.58%). Bouchard would shortly become the next Premier of Quebec.
Ontario Premier David Peterson rashly called a snap election in the aftermath of the Meech collapse. He badly misjudged the mood of his voters and was shocked by Bob Rae and the Ontario NDP that September – the first and only NDP government in Canada’s largest province.
Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon called an election after Meech Lake and won a majority government. Carstairs’ Liberals were pushed down to third-party status and have never recovered.
A year after Meech, Gordon Wilson’s BC Liberals rose from zero seats to Official Opposition, a platform from which he would oppose the Charlottetown Accord.
Elijah Harper put indigenous issues more firmly on the agenda in constitutional discussions and went on to serve as a Liberal MP. He was voted Newsmaker of the Year by Canadian Press in 1990.
Paul Martin would become one of Canada’s most successful Finance Ministers before serving as prime minister from 2003 to 2006.
What of Jean Chrétien? He successfully navigated through treacherous waters to win three successive majority governments, a feat not accomplished since Mackenzie King. He took a fractious party and brought it together – for a time – to govern and win. Underwriting his three majorities was a near total dominance in Ontario due to the vote split between the PCs and Reform Party/Alliance. Lucky? Sure, but smart enough to take advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses. His partnership with Paul Martin led to a huge improvement in Canada’s fiscal health and the slaying of the deficit`.
But for a modest shift in Quebec opinion in the 1995 referendum, Chrétien could have been a short-lived prime minister who had failed to defend federalism. Instead, federal forces rallied in the final days and he scraped by, ultimately bringing forward the Clarity Act which has helped put the constitutional question into hibernation. Starting on the back foot with Quebec voters, the reclaimed support by his third election. For over 25 years, Canadians have been spared the constitutional wars, as exciting as they may have been.
These were exciting times. As a 21-year old university student, it was a privilege to be a witness to these historic events and the leaders who drove, steered, harnessed them. I haven’t seen a time like it since.
For over 6 or 7 decades, one of the province’s most hotly contested annual sports competitions has been taking place in Prince Rupert – the All-Native Basketball tournament. It’s the largest basketball tournament in British Columbia, but it’s much more than that. It is an indigenous cultural phenomenon that draws dozens of teams and communities from the northwest, the central coast, and beyond.
It’s also the backdrop for All-Native, the debut novel of Prince Rupert’s Rudy Kelly. A former journalist who covered the annual tournament for the daily newspaper, Kelly leans into his own ancestry to produce a multi-generational story about a Tsimshian family, spanning the 1960s to the 1980s.
The story breathes in the salty sea air of Prince Rupert, and takes us to the fish canneries, the working-class bars, the wharves, and the First Nations villages. Then and now, Prince Rupert is very much an indigenous mosaic, drawing residents from Tsimshian, Haida, Nisga’a, Haisla, Gitxsan and other peoples along the coast. It’s a unique place that has had its share of struggles, but the embrace by First Nations of basketball as a vehicle for community building has endured.
The passion for the All-Native tournament is conveyed through main characters Frank Wesley and his son Nate, both who have high hopes on the hardwood. As the reader settles in to All-Native, he or she will discover that the book is less about the tournament and more about the father-son dynamic in the Wesley family -one that exists in many families: the transfer of the father’s dreams onto the son, the striving to make one’s own mark, the awkward code that exists between fathers and sons that requires the interpretive skills and conciliation of the mother. In this story, the father-son relationship is upended by the emergence of Nate’s friend, BJ, a free spirit with an outgoing and, sometimes, mischievous manner. Inevitably, Nate is torn between loyalties to father and friend.
The emotional centre of the story is Nate – loyal, innocent, and likeable. From childhood, he is focused on playing in the All-Native. Upon entering the local high school in grade 8, he is in awe of the “hallowed halls” where the best played on the Rainmakers senior team. He is not a kid hoping to bust out of town – his heroes are near to him. The other characters revolve around him, before finding their own trajectory. Nate is the unfulfilled future for Frank and the ballast for BJ. Ultimately, the story becomes one of redemption and forgiveness. Kelly navigates authentically through sensitive and turbulent emotional issues.
The story also has a light touch and sense of humour. These are boys growing up, a coming-of-age fuelled by bologna sandwiches and Orange Crush, thinking a lot about girls (or hoping not to). For those who grew up during the time-frame of this book, you will find yourself recognizing a childhood that came before iPads and personal computers.
Indigenous novelists, like Eden Robinson and Terese Marie Mailhot, help bridge a cultural gulf by sharing their stories with a wider audience. Rudy Kelly’s debut novel is another contribution to improving our understanding of indigenous BC while entertaining with compelling characters in a distinctive setting. It’s a nice addition to the regional stories that help paint a more complete picture of our province, and a welcome break from quarantine.
All-Native was published by Prince Rupert’s Muskeg Press in 2020.
It appears we are spending a lot more time at home than we expected this spring. As viewers scrape the limits of Netflix, Prime, HBO, Disney Plus, and even GEM, there comes a moment where you think you have reached the end of the Internet. I’m here to help!
Recently, the Times of London held a ‘playoff’ of the top political movies of all-time. I was greatly encouraged by what I anticipated to be an elegantly curated list of under-rated political dramas that delivered deep insight and resonated with those of us that closely observe politics. Sadly, the Times under-delivered with a predictable Hollywood-dominated roster and left behind many worthy UK choices.
So, here is my list. I’m not saying they are the best political movies in the world, but I liked them, that’s something. You may have a hard time finding them. They may be relegated to someone’s basement DVD collection or they may be languishing on YouTube in its furthest reaches. That’s on you to find them.
Let’s start with the UK…
You have probably heard of, or seen the move The Queen, starring Helen Mirren. What you may not know is that it is the second instalment of a trilogy starring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and written by Peter Morgan (The Crown). The Deal is part one.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were both elected as Labour MPs in 1983. The up and coming politicians were ambitious, but also opposites – the sunny, media savvy Blair and the dour workhorse Brown. They learnt the ropes during Neil Kinnock’s two failed attempts to win in 1987 and 1992, and then rose to key spots under Kinnock’s successor John Smith. However, Smith died suddenly of a heart attacking 1994, presenting an unanticipated opportunity for Blair and Brown. ‘The deal’ between Blair and Brown, and what was exactly agreed to at Granita restaurant in Islington, is a big part of political lore in the UK, with Brownites feeling Blair overstayed. Brown was never able to secure his own mandate (parallels to the Chrétien-Martin dynamic in Canada).
The third movie in the trilogy, the Special Relationship, looks at the relationship between Blair and Bill Clinton – the weakest of the three movies. Couldn’t really buy in to Dennis Quaid as Clinton.
First Among Equals
Jeffrey Archer wrote the novel in 1984, following the careers of four up-and-coming politicians (two Labour, two Conservative) from the same intake. The story weaves through the 1960s into the 1980s, integrating historical events such as IRA bombings, while dealing with inside political manoeuvrings like seat redistribution, party nominations, and floor crossings. At the heart of it are the relationships between the four politicians and how they evolve over the years. Archer had been a Member of Parliament and knows politics intimately. The novel, and the miniseries give political observers a lot to bite into.
The novel was turned into a 10-part mini-series produced for ITV in 1986 and aired, back then, on PBS. It has been available on YouTube at times. One of the four politicians is played by well-known actor Tom Wilkinson. I have read the novel, and watched the series twice, feeding my political junkie soul and satisfying my love of UK politics.
A Very British Coup
This drama made a splash when it was released as a mini-series in 1988. It is the story of a working-class, hard-left Labour MP who becomes leader and is elected prime minister. Imagine Jeremy Corbyn being elected prime minister and actually following through on his agenda. This is essentially what a Very British Coup carries through, but thirty years earlier. While the plot satisfies lefties who see the deep state resisting the democratic will of the people to unilaterally disarm its nuclear weapons among other things, it’s an interesting political scenario that, in some respects, was a preview of future campaigns (eg. Trump, Bernie, Brexit, presenting a leader who goes against the establishment and taps into popular support. The movie differs from the book it is adapted from, which also inspired the 2012 drama Secret State, starring Gabriel Byrne.
A stylish 2010 film starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor, Kim Cattrall, and aforementioned Tom Wilkinson, and directed by Roman Polanski. It’s based on the Robert Harris novel. The plot revolves around a retired UK prime minister who is staying in the US and has become deeply unpopular in his own country over the invasion of Iraq (sound familiar?). Except, everything is not as it seems, and ghost writer Ewan McGregor begins to put the pieces together. Lurking not far from the action is – suspenseful music – the C.I.A.
Harris is a tremendous writer. Check out another of his novels – Imperium.
House of Cards (UK)
It really was a sensation when it was released in 1990. We were all so innocent then. The US-version followed the UK-version quite closely in its early years, mirroring key plot moves. The UK version, for its time, was more daring.
The drama picks up following the demise of the Thatcher government. Francis Urquhart, masterfully played by Ian Richardson, is the Chief Whip for the Conservatives. The second installation in the series, To Play the King, foresees a constitutional crisis with a new king (thinly disguised as Charles III). Filmed in the early 1990s, there is a Diana-dynamic that Urquhart exploits as well.
The final part in the trilogy didn’t stand up to the first two in my opinion. If you like UK politics like I do, and haven’t seen the original House of Cards, you will probably get a kick out of it.
Let’s move on to the US…
Primary Colors / The War Room
These go hand-in-hand. For those millennials out there who missed the 1992 presidential campaign, it was a turning point in politics. With the onset of 24/7 news programming, the Clinton campaign mastered “quick response”. In part, they were facing a very traditional opponent (President George H.W. Bush) and they benefited from a third-party candidate that was chewing through Republican votes (Ross Perot). However, the winners write the history and the documentary The War Room mythologized James Carville and George Stephanopoulos as the new political craftsmen of the 1990s. It certainly helped that Carville is extremely colourful. The documentary was directed by D.A. Pennebaker, one of the greats of all-time. (Footnote on Carville: he starred as himself in the 2003 drama series ‘K Street’. He and his real-life wife Mary Matalin run a fictional K Street lobbying firm. The cast includes ‘Roger’ from Mad Men. Cameos from the likes of Howard Dean are woven into the episodes. It lasted a season. I have the DVD if you’re desperate for it).
A ‘fictional account’ of the 1992 campaign, Primary Colors, was written by ‘Anonymous’. The book was a bestseller though the publisher would not reveal the name of the author. It was clearly someone who knew the inside of the 1992 campaign and the scandals that dogged Bill Clinton over his personal behaviour. It would be revealed that journalist Joe Klein authored the book. By 1998, it was a movie starring John Travolta in the role based on Clinton (I did buy into Travolta), Emma Thompson in the role based on Hillary, and a strong supporting cast. This movie will feel familiar for a lot of former political staffers who encounter a lot of crazy situations, live through controversies and disasters, and make it through to the other side.
Face in the Crowd
This 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan, stars Andy Griffith, well-known as the amiable Mayberry sheriff in the Andy Griffith show and as Matlock. It was Griffith’s debut role and he is a menace.
His character, ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes is a drifter and radio host that was discovered by a media producer. He rises to stardom based on his homespun, southern charm and enjoys considerable influence. However, he is not a positive or even benign influence; he demonstrates a darker side that his enablers – actors Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau – must grapple with. It’s a ride on a populist wave and we see it through the eyes of the populist, on his way up and down.
The 2012 HBO movie is based on the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. McCain, played by Ed Harris, is the outsider who must earn the trust of GOP supporters while shaking off the unpopularity of George W. Bush. McCain attempted to recruit his friend and Democratic senator Joe Lieberman to the GOP ticket. When that failed, he went all-in on Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The movie is based on the inside story written by veteran US journalists. We are taken behind the scenes of the McCain campaign and see the sausage being made.
Woody Harrelson plays McCain’s key campaign advisor while Julianne Moore delivers a stellar performance as Sarah Palin – I was beginning to believe I was watching a documentary. The movie takes us through the roller coaster. For about a week, Palin re-energized the McCain campaign and pulled off an exciting speech at the GOP convention. The tracks would soon fall off the snowmobile.
Robert Redford’s portrayal of a long shot would-be senator in The Candidate had a documentary feel and captured a mood coming out of the 1960s of a Baby Boomers seeking to change the status quo. I also like movies that integrate the campaign advisors into the storyline in a sensible way. An interesting sequel would have been Redford as senator after three terms and see what happened to the guy.
Danish drama Borgen is first rate. It follows the career of a centrist politician who finds her way to the top in Denmark’s brokered political system.
Another Scandinavian offering is Occupied (Netflix), a drama set in Norway that sees into the not-to-distant future where Russia occupies Norway to secure its oil supplies, with backing from the EU.
Again, from the UK, for its broad sweep of British history, you have to pay homage to The Crown, though the latest season is a bit tiring. What I like about the Crown is that deviations from history are quickly reviewed and chewed over. The Bodyguard (Netflix) is a political thriller that has a bit of sizzle to it.
Thanks to loyal reader Bruce Burley, I am reminded of Boss, starring Kelsey Grammar as a tough as nails mayor of Chicago, fighting his own private health battle, and not afraid to overcome political obstacles with brute force. Grammar fits the role perfectly, delivering as a plausible political leader and a monstrous operator.
A little known political drama from 2006-08 is Brotherhood, starring Jason Clarke and Jason Isaacs, two actors who enjoyed considerable success after the show ended. The show revolves around brothers – a Rhode Island state legislator and his crooked brother. The show was inspired by real-life story of mobster Whitey Bulger and his politician brother in Massachusetts.
For satires, VEEP is probably the funniest political show. I have heard from a clutch of Thick of It/In the Loop devotees – and I am unmoved.
No question that West Wing broke a lot of new ground when it came out, and it’s well done, but annoyingly self-righteous at times. A precursor of West Wing was American President, which pushed its agenda. Michael Douglas fits the role, and I always welcome Michael J.Fox in any role, but, like West Wing, it pushes its agenda to satisfy one half of the audience.
Finally, this one is a departure from my tendency to appreciate accuracy and realistic portrayals of politics and government. 24 – Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer created a new format for TV. It was basically live-action drama. For sure, it was preposterous at times, but 24 provided some great portraits of political leaders, such as the heroic President David Palmer, a Nixonish, weak and calculating President Charles Logan, an LBJ-ish president played by Powers Boothe, and William Devane as the Secretary of State who could be counted on. At least there was always a higher purpose (“save the world!”) unlike Scandal, 24 makes the list because it employed a lot of Canadian actors.
Speaking of Canada…
This three-part documentary, directed and narrated by Donald Brittain, should be curriculum in Canadian schools. It’s brilliant. It follows the trajectories of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, side by side, from their childhoods to the climatic moments of the 1980 Quebec referendum and 1982 repatriation of the Constitution .
Rene Levesque’s back story may be a revelation to many young Canadians who were not around for those constitutional wars. Levesque emerged from humble roots to become a renown war-time and post-war journalist. He was able to break down complicated issues and explain them to a broad audience. For a time, he and Trudeau were allies, resisting the repression of the Duplessis regime. Levesque was a prominent cabinet minister in the Jean Lesage Liberal government (‘the Quiet Revolution’) in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, Trudeau was recruited to federal politics in 1965 alongside Jean Marchand and Gerard Pelletier. In the late 1960s, Trudeau’s and Levesque’s paths diverged – Trudeau catapulting to prime minister of the federation; Levesque choosing to leave the Quebec Liberals and form a party dedicated to break up the federation.
These two foes were giants. It makes politics today look trivial by comparison.
Champions is available online through the National Film Board.
Where are the other Canadian offerings? The National Film Board does have a selection of documentaries on leaders like Prime Minister Diefenbaker, Tommy Douglas, and Danny Williams, and trailblazers like Flora MacDonald. I haven’t seen them yet and interested to hear any reviews.
As for Canadian political dramas, there is not a lot to consider. There was a mini series on Premier Duplessis in 1978. A biopic on Pierre Trudeau in 2002. Again, would be good to hear any contributions to a Canadian list. As a British Columbian, it’s pretty thin when it comes to BC political stories in film or video.
There is an inexhaustible supply of political films and documentaries. The list above are some that stuck with me over the years. It would be great to hear your recommendations.
1/ It’s Election Day in the UK. The culmination of a fascinating period of political upheaval with two leaders – Boris and Jeremy Corbyn – that could not be more different than David Cameron and Tony Blair. They eschew modernity for a new polarizing populism, chucking the old rules into the cut. This is not the hopeful UK of Love Actually, the stoicism of Dunkirk, or the dash of 007. This election is a Peaky Blinders smash and grab.
2/ Boris has remade the UK Tories. This guy. An excellent writer with sense of humour, he was bedevilled by personal scandal as MP. And lying. Pulls off election as London mayor in a Labour city. Shores up David Cameron’s campaign in 2015 that led to surprise majority. At last-minute, joins Leave campaign and, unquestionably, made the difference. No Boris, no Brexit. His partnership with Michael Gove trumped Remain establishment.
3/ Instantly, David Cameron resigns from office. A leadership campaign kicks off (the Brits don’t mess around). Boris is not ready and stumbles. At deadline for filing, Michael Gove (Judas) wields the knife against Boris by jumping in race suddenly. Boris is shocked out of the race he was supposed to win. Theresa May emerges as safe alternative to stabilize divided Tory party. Gove loses and is sent to purgatory, Boris to Foreign Office. May starts strong with positioning that foreshadows a shakeup of Tory base. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-from-the-new-prime-minister-theresa-may
4/ May moves to an election within the year, with a huge lead in the polls. I mean, she’s going to clean up against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn (more on him shortly). Her campaign is a disaster. Textbook case of fuzzy strategy and failure to execute. She falls short of majority by 5 seats. Worse yet, she is already a dead duck. Hobbled by blown opportunity, May attempts to finesse her Brexit deal through Parliament and fails again, again, and again.
5/ Meanwhile, Boris flew the coop to sit as backbench MP. He wants no part of wearing May’s deal. But Gove was resuscitated to serve in Cabinet (he is a clever boy) to try to rally Brexiteers. Out in the countryside, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (leader most likely to enjoy having a pint with) starts Brexit Party and is inhabiting the Tory electoral base like necrotizing fasciitis.
6/ Finally, Jeremy Corbyn. In 2015… hold it… need to go back more… in 2010, the Tories had a plurality of seats under David Cameron but far short of majority. Labour PM Gordon Brown (UK’s Paul Martin) tried to extend Labour to a fourth term and failed. The Lib-Dems negotiated a true coalition government with the Tories with leader Nick Clegg serving as Deputy PM for five years.
7/ Labour has a leadership vote. Unlike Tories, this is membership-based vote. Labour is divided into Blairites and Brownites. Blairite David Miliband, a former Foreign Minister, is seen as frontrunner. His younger BROTHER Ed, a Brownite, challenges him. Political fratricide. Ed wins! Based on support from lefties and union supporters. It’s a bit of a mess, especially at Christmas dinner in the Miliband household. Ed is not really up to it but he is competitive in the polls. The 2015 election is going to be a horse race!
8/ David Cameron, and his advisor Sir Lynton Crosby, with Boris’s help, surgically detach Lib-Dem voters. You see, Scotland was feeling quite uppity at the time and Middle England did not see Red Ed as strong enough to preserve the union. Cameron shocks by winning a majority. Five more years! Just have to deal with this election promise to hold a Brexit referendum then it’s onwards and upwards. (Of course, he loses referendum, resigns immediately, and squanders the 2015 majority).
9/ Ed is toast. He didn’t even have time to change his underwear before resigning. Again, the Brits don’t mess around. There’s a leadership contest and many Labour MPs jump in. While the members vote, candidates must have papers signed by at least 40 or 50 MPs in order to qualify. Jeremy Corbyn is running around getting signatures at last minute. People sign because they feel sorry for him. He has no chance of winning!
10/ Here’s the thing about political parties. They are vulnerable to takeovers. Few people actually belong to parties. An emerging group, Momentum, decides to take the piss out of the Labour establishment by backing Corbyn. Corbyn represents what is on the minds of disillusioned activists. Blair brought them the Gulf War and ‘New Labour’ that looked like moderate Toryism to many. Gordon Brown hated Tony Blair but he was very much associated with that agenda. Ed was transitional and not strong. Here comes ‘Jezza’ who voices the frustration and it catches fire.
14/ Theresa May is, like, “I’m having an election. This guy is a clown, Labour is a disaster”. We are now in 2017. Please follow along.
15/ May is way, way ahead. Her campaign chokes. Corbyn has one of the great comebacks of modern political history. This is actually his first election campaign as leader after TWO leadership processes. Turns out UK voters like his sincerity and honesty. “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” becomes an anthem on the left. In fact, the election is polarizing between the two parties in England where most of the seats reside. Fun fact: Tories and Labours have held 1-2 position exclusively for about a century.
Two party domination by Tories and Labour. Lib-Dems and predecessor parties peaked out at 25% (1983)
16/ Corbyn is secured in his leadership. It’s virtually a hung Parliament and Corbyn has centre stage across the dispatch box from the PM.
18/ Fast forward to summer 2019. May is out, Boris is in. After all of the feeble attempts to get her Brexit deal passed, the party turned to Boris. It wasn’t close, he won in a landslide. He arrives to office with his advisor, the Dark Lord, Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Leave campaign. Who is at Boris’s side in Cabinet? Judas! Boris and Michael Gove have kissed and made up.
19/ Jeremy Corbyn is still there, looking a bit wobbly, and does not have clear position on Brexit. At first, they have Boris on the run. He wants to have an early election but new legislation blocks him without consent of the House. He wants to have the leverage of threatening to crash out of the EU without a deal. A majority of MPs flip out and force him through some humiliating votes. Boris removes the whip from over 20 Tory Remain MPs, including Churchill’s grandson! Things are getting rough. Elites are aghast! Tory and Labour MPs are joining the Lib-Dems, who have the clearest Remain position.
20/ Why is Labour so fuzzy on Brexit? Many Labour voters in their traditional heartland outside of London voted Leave. They are very split while Tories are more Leave than Remain, and Boris is betting that Tory Remainers fear Corbyn more than they fear Brexit. The Lib Dems are banking on owning Remain and also riding unicorns chasing rainbows. They are about to get squeezed like a lemon in a lemonade factory.
21/ Boris negotiates a deal! It’s oven-ready! Pop it in the microwave, let’s get Brexit done. Enough’s enough! We’re getting ready to have the election. Time to see the Queen. Corbyn’s response, while fending off serious charges of anti-semitism in his ranks, is to make the ballot question all about health care. People don’t care about Brexit, they want someone to stand up for them.
22/ At the heart of Boris’s strategy is a ‘smash and grab’ of Labour voters in traditional Labour seats. It would be like Stephen Harper trying to win East Vancouver. Except, Boris might pull it off. British voters feel like they know him. They know he’s glib, stretches the truth, and puts his foot in his mouth, but, like Trump, there is high familiarity with him. He’s been around a long time, leading a public life. His flaws have already been discounted. They know what they’re dealing with.
23/ Personality aside, Boris has a proposition: get Brexit done and, unlike Thatcher and other Tories, he will spend bigly on health care and other core services. No more austerity! He is coming for 30-50 year old working women. He wants the mums. He wants the union guy. He is saying, “I don’t care about London bankers, I’m with you blokes in Birmingham!” In fact, he was out delivering groceries in Leeds this week in the early hours (before hiding in a walk-in cooler to avoid the media). He is looking to realign the political map. Theresa May got started on this and Boris aims to finish it.
24/ Corbyn’s play is to remind people that the Tories don’t care for regular people – working people – and hopes to boost turnout among younger people, who strongly support Remain and the values that Corbyn represents. They are still singing “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” in Liverpool. Like Canada, the Conservatives in the UK have low support among under 35s. They own old people. The election battle is with middle-aged, workforce-aged voters.
25/ The Lib-Dems have been cast aside despite floor crossings and thirsting for an election. They have fallen flat with new leader Jo Swinson. She has been unable to move the dial. In an existential battle between two populist insurgents, the Lib-Dems find it very difficult to elbow in to relevance.
26/ This post is about 2% political science and 98% soap opera. But there are a few things about the UK politics and this election that stand out:
27/ There is way more outspoken behaviour from backbenchers in the UK. Professor Greg Lyle counselled me that it’s because there are more MPs at Westminster (650 in total). The chances of promotion are much lower so backbenchers feel more freedom to do as they like. There is no question that Westminster is a much, much, more vibrant cauldron of political debate than Ottawa. I blame all Canadian parties for this. They are too focused on party discipline and dissent. Loosen up! Maybe we need more MPs in Ottawa? Did I say that out loud?
28/ Parliament really matters in the UK. The level of debate is high. There are no desks. Many MPs must stand at Prime Minister’s Questions (once a week). There’s a sense that debates can turn issues. Even the TV angles are better, covering reactions of MPs and creating a sense of the environment in the Chamber. Maybe I’m mythologizing a bit, but I would sure like Canada to do a better job emulating Mother Parliament.
29/ The media is very diverse. While Boris has taken on the BBC (and others), the reality is that there are clearly Labour papers (The Guardian), Tory papers (Times of London), Brexit papers (Daily Mail), and many others in between and all over. It may be suffocating for those in politics, but it also enlivens debate. BBC coverage is generally excellent, IMO.
30/ The advertising is more creative and to the point than anything we saw in the recent Canadian election. The main parties are keying on emotions, using digital as key medium. In this election, Boris is rejecting old rules of mainstream media. Declining some debates, and refusing outright to do a popular interview show. While the BBC sputters indignation, Boris is happy to have that fight.
31/ There are many more parties represented in Parliament than the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems. First past the post also produces Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, a Green MP, independents, and seven Sinn Fein members who refuse to take their seats. It’s a dynamic place.
32/ Around the UK, candidates will gather in their constituency at a central polling location where they will climb on stage to hear the results together, each wearing a candidate ribbon bearing their party’s colours. The losers will congratulate the winner – a much more community-spirited ceremony than the Canadian tradition of hanging out exclusively with supporters at campaign offices.
33/ I think Boris is going to pull off his smash and grab in the Labour heartlands. As Tory grandees like Rt. Hon. John Major reject him, he gains elsewhere. He put Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party to bed. He may lose his own seat in London, but may gain Tony Blair’s old seat in northern England. He will receive a working majority and implement Brexit. Can he hang on to be a competent prime minister? Who knows. Labour will give Corbyn the heave-ho finally, but it will be Momentum that holds the cards. Their own smash and grab of the Labour Party apparatus likely continues.
Lib Dems fading down the stretch. Light blue line is Brexit Party. Peaked around the time that Theresa May left office. Boris has put them to bed. Night, night.
34/ What happens when a powerful movement drives the politics of a party away from the mainstream (and victory)? Is it a policy problem, or is it just a matter of leadership? The reality is that its problems pre-date Corbyn and he may have been the one to breathe new life into it. A new Corbynista could be the PM next time. Our parties in Canada are very vulnerable to such movements ‘taking over’. That’s democracy. Anyone can join. Don’t blame Momentum, or dairy farmers, or pro-lifers – anyone can join, but most don’t.
35/ What Boris and Corbyn realize is this – power is ‘out there’, to be harnessed. A strong message is the power to break, reshape and coalesce an electoral base, or motivate a narrow group to action, to supersede a passive majority. Either way, it goes against the old rules. They are both prepared to “alienate the base” in order to – they hope – grow their movements. They are making new rules.
36/ Thanks for reading, if you made it. This started as a tweet storm and ended as a blog post. At 2pm Pacific / 5pm Eastern, the polls close. BBC will release immediately the results of exit polls that forecast what will happen with analysis by the brilliant Professor John Courtice. Unlike Canada, the UK rolls out results slowly, over 6-8 hours. It will be great entertainment, as usual.
How did the votes get distributed on election night? Nationwide, the Liberal vote share declined by 5.6% compared to 2015, while Conservative vote share increased by 2.5%. NDP vote share decreased by 3.8%, while the Greens increased 3.1% (this is counter-narrative). The Bloc increased 3% nationally, translating to a 13.2% boost in Québec, and the Peoples Party, new to the scene, carved out 1.6%.
How the parties rose and fell varied on a regional basis. The Liberals went down in every region, in terms of popular vote. However, their losses were lowest in vote-rich Ontario and Québec. They suffered a decline in their popular vote by over 15% on the Prairies, where they only elected 5 seats in 2015. They also suffered an 18% decline in the Atlantic, but because they were so dominant in 2015, they had a buffer which allowed them to retake 26 of 32 seats.
Conservative gains were disproportionately higher in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they already had a near dominant position. Significant gains were made in B.C. (4 point increase) which allowed for a six seat gain. A ten point gain in the Atlantic helped deliver four new seats but they were climbing out of a big hole and needed more in order to harvest bushels of seats. In Central Canada, Conservative popular vote declined, down 1.8% in Ontario and 0.7% in Québec. To get from opposition to government, you can’t give up ground in the two provinces that combine for 199 seats.
Therefore, for the Conservatives, seat gains were modest. Of the 22 newly acquired ridings, seventeen were west of Ontario: seven in B.C., four in Alberta, six in Saskatchewan-Manitoba. Of the remaining five pick-ups, four were in the Atlantic and three were in Ontario, offset by the loss of two seats in Québec.
Liberal losses were spread fairly evenly. They gave up 27 seats, compared to the 2015 election, but lost no more than six in any region (B.C. and Atlantic). The key to victory was only losing a net of one seat in Ontario, where they had a very strong showing in 2015. Their Québec losses were lower than what they gave up in the Atlantic.
The storyline as it relates to the Greens and the NDP is interesting. Much was made of NDP momentum and the Greens blown opportunity. And it’s true.
However, the NDP momentum was relative to their abysmal standing in the polls at the outset of the campaign. When it was all said and done, the NDP lost a significant share of its popular vote, based mainly on it being decimated in Québec. It made no headway in Ontario, where its leader is originally from and previously elected in the Ontario legislature. Wasn’t the business case for Jagmeet Singh that – to offset losses in Québec – he could win in the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver and broaden the base in the rest of Canada? Didn’t happen. Outside Québec, Singh’s share of the vote (17.5%) was lower than Tom Mulcair’s (17.9%).
The Greens on the other hand can see some encouragement in the wake of a hollow election night. Yes, they had a golden opportunity on Vancouver Island, which passed them by. They did, however, make significant popular vote gains in B.C. and the Atlantic, far surpassing the NDP in New Brunswick and P.E.I. While the NDP went down 3.8% nationwide, the Greens went up 3.1%. Again, it was a disappointment based on expectations, but in the long-run, it is a step forward.
As these graphs show, there was really only one leader who excelled at regional math on election night: Yves-François Blanchet.
It’s not uncommon in Canada to have a party with the most seats have fewer votes than another party. But the 2019 election will be the first time the governing party was elected with less than 34% of the popular vote. Justin Trudeau’s 33.1% is the new low, falling beneath John A. Macdonald’s 34.8% from Canada’s first post-Confederation election in 1867.
Justin Trudeau’s minority win is much lower than other minority wins we have seen over the past sixty years. Joe Clark’s government came to power in 1979 after winning a plurality of seats with 35.9% of the popular vote, over 4% lower than Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals.
Aside from Justin Trudeau and Joe Clark, other prime ministers and parties that had more seats, but fewer votes:
1896 – Wilfred Laurier Liberals lost popular vote by 7 points to Charles Tupper’s Conservatives
1926 – William Lyon MacKenzie King’s Liberals lost popular vote 43% to 45% for Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives
1957 – John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives had 39% compared to Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals 41%
Then there is MacKenzie King who had fewer votes and fewer seats in 1925, but continued to govern thanks to the Progressives which held the balance of power. That could have happened following October 21st had Scheer won more seats, but fallen short of a majority.
So, that’s where the Trudeau Liberal win on October 21st fits in the context of Canada’s electoral and parliamentary history. It’s not a majority and it’s underwhelming in terms of popular support. With the lowest popular vote since Confederation to form government, the Trudeau Liberals can reflect on how it approaches governing where two-thirds of the electorate voted for other parties.