The BC Liberal campaign war room was jolted into action late in the evening on Oct. 10, just two weeks before election day, when an embarrassing video from a party fundraiser emerged on Twitter.
The recording showed party leader Andrew Wilkinson among the prominent Liberals who laughed as candidate Jane Thornthwaite made derogatory remarks about a female political rival. It was rapidly spreading on social media, but the team opted to ignore it in the hopes that it would go away – they decided no apology would be forthcoming.
“The decision was made in the war room and there was consensus on that one. And right or wrong, it was a decision that was made,” said campaign co-chair Sarah Weddell.
Voters apparently concluded it was the wrong one. Ms. Thornthwaite lost the riding of North Vancouver-Seymour to the NDP, a constituency that hasn’t elected a New Democrat since 1972.
That decision and the incident that prompted it have become emblematic of the crossroads the BC Liberals now find themselves at. The Liberals had ruled British Columbia for 16 years straight, before narrowly losing in 2017 when the NDP formed a minority government with the Greens. The Liberals did not take the loss as a message from voters to embrace change. Current Liberals and volunteers and former true believers say the party has lost touch with the issues of urban residents and centrist-leaning voters, people who have found a more responsive home with an NDP that has successfully shaken off the perception of being a party of grievances.
The Globe and Mail interviewed more than 20 Liberal insiders, both on and off record, to assemble an account of how their party earned its worst showing in the popular vote and lowest seat count in seven provincial elections -- and what should happen next. Mr. Wilkinson declined to be interviewed.
This weekend, the BC Liberal provincial executive will meet to respond to Mr. Wilkinson’s post-election decision to step down. That is just the first step in a broader debate in the party about what kind of leader will give the Liberals a chance, four years from now, to reclaim power.
Inside the war room
The Thornthwaite video broke on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. By Sunday morning, Ms. Thornthwaite was deluged by Liberals urging her to say sorry for her remarks. Her first response, on Twitter, fell short. The calls kept coming. In defiance of the direction from the central campaign, she finally apologized.
The campaign team still hoped to move on. Mr. Wilkinson remained out of sight all through the Thanksgiving long weekend, emerging on Tuesday to unveil what the party hoped was a game-changing election platform. But the campaign had been knocked off course and Liberals supporters were grumbling about the optics.
Watching the leaders' TV debate from the sidelines, the director of the Liberal campaign says he remembers thinking Mr. Wilkinson did everything the party’s strategists asked him to do. And yet, Emile Scheffel concluded, it didn’t make a difference in the election result.
“[Mr. Wilkinson] could have given the most brilliant performance of all time in that debate. He could have been right about everything,” he said. "But ultimately that mattered less than the inherent advantages that the NDP were able to set themselves up with by calling the campaign when they did.”
The NDP simply outcampaigned the Liberals, he said. "Their theme was very simple. It was, ‘We’ve done a pretty good job of managing the pandemic. If you want that to continue then vote for us. Change is a risk.’ I think, in hindsight, [NDP Premier] John Horgan was able to drive that message effectively,” he said.
This was the third Liberal campaign in a row with pollster and strategist Dimitri Pantazopoulos in the war room. The first two campaigns were with the charismatic Christy Clark as party leader, and the party had a healthy war chest at its disposal. This campaign was different. Mr. Wilkinson has a sharp legal mind, but is “a less capable retail campaigner” than Ms. Clark, he said. And the party didn’t have the money to do the kind of detailed polling that could have helped shape the response to emerging issues, such as the Thornthwaite affair.
Even with limited internal polling, he said it was clear the platform’s central promise, to eliminate the Provincial Sales Tax for one year, was a good gambit. "What we saw in the numbers, in terms of what people recall from the campaign, it was about the only thing that really stuck.”
Mr. Pantazopoulos believes the Thornthwaite video, and the subsequent eruption over candidate Laurie Throness' public remarks equating birth control with eugenics, were not deciding factors for voters -- but they were damaging within the party. “The absence of any competing narrative, frankly, was the bigger problem. The problem, in my view, wasn’t the apology or non-apology -- we can argue what was the right response or the wrong response. The problem was, there was no other narrative. We kind of downed tools for the weekend."
Ms. Weddell, as another senior member of the war room, argued the fall election was going to be a tough one for the Liberals even if everything went right. The pandemic made it difficult to reach voters, and challenging to persuade them to vote for change. “There will be a lot of armchair quarterbacks who can probably say things that we didn’t do, but for a snap election, I’m not exactly sure what else we could have done.”
Outside the war room
The armchair quarterbacks include many party loyalists who usually provide the muscle for Liberal campaigns. Many were left on the sidelines in this campaign, working local campaigns because they weren’t asked to help with the central campaign. Now, in the wake of this campaign, they are sharing a collective frustration with a leader who was too conflict-averse to deal with troublesome candidates, and a party that yielded the social progressive field to its opponents.
Mr. Wilkinson won the leadership less than three years ago, after the Liberals were toppled from government in the 2017 election. As much as some Liberals now say they are disappointed that he did not reform the party during his short tenure, his mandate was not to launch wholesale renewal. He was the status quo candidate with deep roots in the party. He is known in the party for his formidable intellect -- a Rhodes scholar who worked as both a doctor and lawyer. But it was recognized that he didn’t exude warmth. He had served as Ms. Clark’s attack dog in the legislature and he promised the membership that, as party leader, he would make the NDP’s skin crawl.
Jillian Stead, a director with National Public Relations, was a senior communications adviser for the party until Ms. Clark quit. Mr. Wilkinson asked her to help when he was considering a bid for the leadership. “I really think you would be great as premier, I said to him, but, you do have a perception problem,” she recalled. Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged he needed to work on his people skills, and she agreed to work on his leadership bid.
But after helping him win, Ms. Stead said, the phone calls stopped. She was a designer of the party’s digital membership database, and Ms. Stead recognized this as a sign of something seriously wrong. “After he was elected the leader, no one reached out to me to say, ‘Do you want to volunteer, do you want to donate, do you want to come to these events?’ No one asked me to renew my membership.”
Stephen Smart, general manager of Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Vancouver, was, like Ms. Stead, a well-regarded Liberal strategist who was not asked to help this time around. Instead, he kept his hand in by helping four candidates on their local campaigns.
He dismissed the idea that the snap election was an excuse not to have a strong, fresh and diverse slate to offer voters. It was a minority government and the parties had to be ready for an election at any time. “Preparations should have been further along. A year ago, even two years ago, that was the time to start identifying who wasn’t going to run, or who Andrew should have a tough conversation with because that person shouldn’t run again.”
The party must adapt to a shifting political landscape, particularly in areas such as Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, he added. “Where was our progressive urban agenda? Where were the bold visions for transportation and communities, healthcare, education, childcare?" The party does not have to turn its back on its rural supporters, he said, to come up with a complimentary agenda that offers urban voters something to embrace.
Having an interim leader at the helm will allow the party more freedom to discuss what renewal should look like, but in the meantime, the debate is being led by some of the party’s star candidates who, had the Liberals mounted a stronger campaign, might have been heading to the Legislature.
Former TV reporter Jas Johal, a BC Liberal who lost his Richmond seat, said Mr. Wilkinson was the wrong leader for these times, and now the party has a chance to reset. “In an era of populism and generational change, the BC Liberal leader needed to show real renewal. Instead, what we had was a risk-averse deputy minister rather a political leader who needed to drive change,” said Mr. Johal.
On the campaign trail, Alexa Loo, a two-term city councillor in Richmond and an Olympic snowboarder, found voters indifferent about key pieces of the party platform, and also about the party leader. But now she wants to help shape the party’s future. “We need to get together and decide who we are, and what is the face of that?”
Gavin Dew is a former Liberal candidate who did not run in this election. In the wake of its crushing loss, he has emerged as an outspoken critic of the party’s lack diversity -- in gender, ethnicity, and age -- that Mr. Wilkinson’s team fielded. While the final numbers are not yet in, it appears the BC Liberals will have a caucus that is predominantly white and male. But now, he says, there is an opportunity for change.
“This was a pretty massive episode of creative destruction for the BC Liberal Party. The task ahead," he said, "is to make sure creativity follows the destruction.”
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