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CAMERON: What’s in a name? The BC Liberal Party contemplates a name change

‘The name change effort may look trivial, but it is a crucial step on the road to potentially regaining power’
Bruce Cameron

Names are tricky things.

I grew up in the east end of Toronto near Lake Ontario, in a community we called “The Beach.” I moved westward in 1989, and a few years later I heard a debate was raging about whether my childhood neighbourhood should be called “The Beaches” or simply “The Beach.” It sounded trivial, even comical, but my brothers, who still live there, assured me it was a heated discussion. Since there are four beaches in the area, it has since become known as “The Beaches” but locals hang on to the phrase “The Beach” like a badge of honour.

Sometimes the official name of something is superseded by the more common name assigned to that place by locals. “The Big Mo” or Nanaimo? And pronunciation can be a dead giveaway of whether you are speaking to a local or a newcomer. New to Toronto? Or are you a T’ronno local?

On Salt Spring Island where I live, my wife silently but gleefully let me go around saying CushEEon Lake for at least a year, before admitting that it’s pronounced “Cushion” even though it is spelled Cusheon. Salt Spring itself is Saltspring Island on one BC ferries sign, and Salt Spring (the way locals refer to it) on most maps. Don’t get the locals started.

Which brings us to the seemingly trivial, but ultimately substantive process the BC Liberal Party just launched: choosing a new name.

Newly elected leader Kevin Falcon explained to the Vancouver Sun that “a name change can be part of [a] renewal process,” admitting after the party’s convention ended last week that “it’s way more than changing a name. It means attracting the absolute best people to run with us.”

The name change initiative is ingenious on several levels, despite unsuccessful attempts in 1996 and 2013 to change the name by removing the moniker “Liberal.” The process of selecting a new name will involve a summer-long tour by Falcon and his team, as well as an online process allowing all 45,000 plus members of the party to weigh in on the new name by the end of 2022.

The name change effort may look trivial, but it is a crucial step on the road to potentially regaining power. The BC Liberal Party (or BCLP) has always been a loose coalition of voters seeking an alternative to the NDP. That has meant that where political loyalties run more “conservative”, such as the interior and many rural ridings, candidates for the BC Liberals tend to be drawn from federal conservative ranks. That includes Kevin Falcon, who has been affiliated with the federal Conservatives, although he says he will not try to unite conservative forces, but rather focus on building up the free enterprise coalition established between liberals and conservatives in BC.

Comparing the 2017 and 2020 provincial election maps, the next election will be won or lost in the contested ridings around greater Vancouver. In those areas, where the NDP picked up many seats from the BCLP in 2020, “Liberal” candidates stand a better chance than “Conservative” candidates of winning against the NDP. Just look at the success of Christy Clark, a liberal-affiliated BCLP leader who became Premier. Even though rural party members may hate the Liberal label, dropping it may backfire in those crucial suburban battlegrounds.

Name selection is a complex and unpredictable process. Just look at the efforts of the Royal British Academy when it invited the public to name its newest Arctic exploration vessel. Boaty McBoatface won the online contest, and although they went with the more dignified name Sir David Attenborough, the vessel’s small submersible proudly wears the Boaty McBoatface name.

Whatever name ends up being selected by BCLP members, you can bet there will be a lot of entertainment value around this political branding exercise. And that’s half of the battle; getting people to pay attention when an election is still years away.

Bruce Cameron has been a pollster and strategist for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own consultancy, Return On Insight.