Liberal Candidate Carla Qualtrough and supporters watch as the final count rolls in on election night (Oct. 19, 2015). Qualtrough defeated incumbent Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay in the newly-formed riding of Delta. (James Smith photo)

Liberal Candidate Carla Qualtrough and supporters watch as the final count rolls in on election night (Oct. 19, 2015). Qualtrough defeated incumbent Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay in the newly-formed riding of Delta. (James Smith photo)

COLUMN: Liberal MPs to keep eyes on South Surrey byelection

Delta, Surrey haven’t traditionally been Liberal strongholds, so byelection could presage 2019 vote

By Frank Bucholtz

Two years ago this week, the federal Liberals cruised to victory after a long and tiring election campaign – the longest in decades.

They went from third place in the federal House of Commons to first, winning 184 seats after winning just 34 in 2011. One of the keys to the party winning a majority government was its very strong showing in B.C, a showing that surprised many observers.

The Liberals won four of the five seats in Surrey, as well as the Delta seat. They won seats in Mission and Kelowna, Maple Ridge and Whistler – places where there had not been Liberal MPs since the 1950s.

Party leader Justin Trudeau was a big reason. He contrasted very favourably with incumbent prime minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. He brought a second generation of Trudeaumania to the often-staid world of federal politics, and connected very well with younger people.

For much of the past two years, the party has stayed high in the polls. Part of this is continued enthusiasm for Trudeau, and continued economic prosperity in Canada. Part has been due to the lack of opposition figures – the Conservatives were leaderless until May, and the NDP just selected a new leader on Oct. 1.

However, many of the B.C. MPs who were elected as a result of round two of Trudeaumania must be concerned about whether they can hold their seats – particularly in areas like Surrey which are not traditional Liberal strongholds. History is a guide for them.

In 1968, when Justin’s father Pierre won his first election and brought the Liberals the majority government they had been trying to achieve for five years, the party won 16 seats in B.C. In the next election in 1972, they won just four. Overall, the party lost 46 seats across the country and barely held on to power. They won two more seats than the Progressive Conservatives, and were propped up by the NDP for almost two years.

In 2015, the Liberals boosted their seat total to a new record in B.C. They won 17 seats. However, since that time they have had a number of challenges, particularly in B.C. The federal approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline has been deeply unpopular in many parts of B.C., particularly urban areas. It is notable that when Justin Trudeau did a series of town hall meetings almost a year ago, he did not do any in B.C.

The recent move to more heavily tax small businesses, and the labelling of many business people as “tax cheats,” has caused Surrey MPs’ office phones to ring off the hook. They have been flooded with emails and other messages, and held a number of meetings with constituents on this topic. Changes were announced Monday on this topic. Whether it will mollify them remains to be seen.

Perhaps the most damaging thing for Surrey Liberal MPs has been the election of Jagmeet Singh to the leadership of the NDP. He has impressed many people across the country with his stylish dress, the story of his rise from challenging circumstances and his youth.

Singh is a proud Sikh. In Surrey, many Sikhs were drawn to the Liberals in the last election. This was particularly noticeable in ridings which had elected NDP MPs in the past. It is a pretty safe observation that many of those who voted Liberal in 2015 will be more inclined to vote for the NDP under the leadership of Singh.

Surrey and Delta have not been Liberal strongholds. In Surrey, federal representation has been split between the Conservatives (and their predecessors) and the NDP since the 1950s. Delta has been a Conservative stronghold.

A good test of how much things have changed will be a forthcoming byelection in South Surrey-White Rock, where Conservative MP Dianne Watts has resigned to seek the BC Liberal leadership. Watts was a very popular mayor, but didn’t win her seat by a huge margin – a sign of how strong the Liberals were in 2015.

If the Liberals do well in that byelection, their other seats in Surrey may be relatively safe. If they go back to their usual levels of support, the five Liberal MPs from this area may have a tough time winning their seats in 2019.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for Black Press, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca.