The Tories blamed their loss of a seat in a B.C. by-election on the NDP turning into a bunch of total losers, a nice way of deflecting blame, and not entirely wrong. But both opposition parties were guilty of running a campaign about nothing, and it was the Tories who paid. Andrew Scheer's party is the one that can learn a lasting lesson from this latest round of by-elections. They counted on disappointment or anger toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals, but didn't have much of a new Conservative program or identity to offer.
It's easy to see Mr. Trudeau's Liberals running against Mr. Scheer in 2019 as a smiley version of Stephen Harper who just wants to turn back the clock to Tory-time. And if Mr. Scheer keeps making it this easy, they'll succeed.
Only one of Monday's four by-elections in four different provinces was really up for grabs, in the B.C. riding of South Surrey-White Rock. Conservative MP Diane Watts, the former mayor of Surrey, had stepped down to run for the provincial Liberals, opening a vacancy. And the Liberals took the seat for the first time in decades.
The Conservatives say it's because the NDP fell to 4.9 per cent from 10.4 per cent, allowing the Liberals to gain votes on the left. Worse, they said, that seems to be a developing trend in other by-elections. And it is true: the NDP faded into a directionless party during an 18-month leadership race and haven't had better by-election results since new leader Jagmeet Singh took over in October. But the NDP never had a chance in those by-elections anyway.
Yet, the Liberals win in South Surrey-White Rock, on top of another Liberal by-election triumph over the Conservatives in October in Lac Saint-Jean, Que. – a riding they hadn't won in 37 years – should be telling Mr. Scheer something.
Mr. Trudeau may have lost points in polls since his postelection honeymoon, but his Liberals aren't falling apart. There isn't a national sentiment to throw them out. If Mr. Scheer is to win, Mr. Scheer will have to beat them. And so far, he hasn't done much to tell voters why they should vote for him.
In South Surrey-White Rock, Mr. Scheer's party ran with a former Stephen Harper cabinet minister as the candidate and a campaign centred on stoking anger about Liberal small-business tax reforms, much of which had faded. It gave voters a choice between Mr. Trudeau's party and some kind of a return to the past.
A by-election is obviously very different from the general election two years away. The Liberals had a popular local candidate, long-time provincial MLA Gordie Hogg. The Conservative candidate, Kerry-Lynne Findlay, was an outsider who had represented Delta-Richmond East before she was defeated in 2015. Tellingly, though she had been the federal revenue minister in Mr. Harper's cabinet, she was less well known than Mr. Hogg. The Liberals had a good ground organization. They also had Mr. Trudeau.
The Prime Minister campaigned twice there. The Liberal leader goes out on the hustings in by-elections, unlike prime ministers past, such as Mr. Harper, who didn't want to be embarrassed by a loss. In fact, Mr. Trudeau has shown up in every by-election race since he's been elected. It is something like the U.S. Democrats' 50-state campaign a decade ago, that refused to concede any state as lost, and it is to Mr. Trudeau's credit: A party leader should make their case to voters.
It's also notable that it works. Local Liberals think it helped Mr. Hogg. It looked like the government cared. It amplified the Liberals' campaign themes. They talked about aiding the middle class through the Canada Child Benefit, and infrastructure money and transit for a commuter riding. And far away from Ottawa, the Liberals found a fair number of people still wanted to hear about what they're offering.
Mr. Scheer went to the riding too – unlike the NDP's Mr. Singh. But the Conservative leader didn't really have anything to give. He hoped for discontent with the Liberals, but there wasn't even enough to hold on to a Tory stronghold. He had a former Harper government minister as a candidate and no new message to connect Conservatives to voters' lives, making his offer look little more than a plan to turn back time.
And that's just what his Liberal opponents are hoping he'll look like in 2019.