Wilkinson did not consult with caucus in any type of conference call over whether he should stay in the job until a new leader is selected, or resign immediately. It’s unclear if he even has the support required to lead the 29 remaining Liberal MLAs.
Wilkinson also did not consult with the party before issuing the public declaration for an immediate race. The B.C. Liberal party executive isn’t set to meet until Sunday to discuss the election results.
Not all Liberals are convinced the party should lurch into a leadership campaign before understanding what went wrong in Saturday’s campaign, in which it lost 14 ridings and was mostly swept out of Metro Vancouver by the NDP.
For some, their preference would be to wait a year or two for a full leadership race, during which time the party can retool and rebrand if necessary before emerging with new momentum before the next election campaign.
“It would be best for the B.C. Liberal Party not to rush headlong into another leadership race,” former Liberal cabinet minister Barry Penner wrote in a social media post Monday.
“For one thing, there is a pandemic. Mr. Wilkinson could stay on as leader until all ballots are counted and the final results are confirmed. Then it would make sense for elected MLAs to select an interim leader once all the ballots are counted, and then conduct a review of the current rules for running a leadership.”
An extended wait before a leadership race “could provide one or two years of stability where the focus is on fixing the party rather than arguing about who should lead it,” added Penner, who served 16 years as MLA for Chilliwack, a riding which also fell to the NDP on Saturday.
The Social Credit party dominated B.C. politics from the 1950s to late 1980s by uniting the former Liberal and Conservative parties under one banner. It locked out the NDP in all but one election during three decades.
The B.C. NDP defeated the remnants of Social Credit in 1991 to win 51 seats — it’s largest total until Saturday in which John Horgan’s NDP won 55 seats.
The NDP ruled the 1990s until Gordon Campbell reunited liberals and conservatives under a new B.C. Liberal brand and reduced New Democrats to just two seats in the 2001 election.
It won’t be so easy to rebuild the party this time, particularly on social issues, said Johnston.
Some B.C. Liberal members publicly criticized Chilliwack-Kent candidate Laurie Throness during the election for his anti-LGBTQ views and his comparison of free birth control to the sterilization of the poor. Whether anti-gay, anti-abortion conservatives are still welcome in a new Liberal party, could have ramifications on whether the B.C. Conservative party continues to exist.
“I think conservatives are gonna start wondering to themselves whether the price of social conservatives suppressing their voice de facto in the party led by people like Christy Clark in the past is worth paying,” said Johnston.
“They might start thinking in terms of the long run possibility of re-engineering the landscape. There is a sense in which you could imagine a Conservative Party of B.C. as the alternative to the NDP.”
“There will be much effort required to restore public confidence and rebuild the B.C. Liberal Party, so that it is ready to provide voters with a clear alternative next time,” wrote Penner.
But Wilkinson appears to have chosen a different path, under which he intends to preside over the party’s election learning process.
“Today we begin the challenging and exciting process of rebuilding the party, and we do so with a very strong base of elected members in the legislature and a strong membership throughout British Columbia,” said Wilkinson at the press conference, which lasted fewer than two minutes. He did not respond to an interview request.
The Liberals currently sit at 29 seats, down from the 43 won in 2017 and the 49 in 2013. The total could change depending on the outcome of more than 525,000 mail-in ballots which begin to be counted Nov. 6.
The party is now reduced mainly to rural ridings in the Fraser Valley, interior and north. Even there its lead has shrunk dramatically. The NDP won both Langley ridings, both Chilliwack ridings, and may yet win Abbotsford South after the mail-in count — all regions the Liberals used to count as strongholds.
Richard Johnston, political science professor emeritus at the University of B.C.,, said any future path for the Liberals will require the party luring back lost urban voters and reconciling them with a base that is now primarily rural.
“The Liberal party electorally looks like Social Credit — and not Bill Bennett Social Credit, W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit, small town interior and rural farming,” said Johnston. “That’s no longer a prescription for governing this province.”