The 1979 election was a very close one in BC with Social Credit winning 31 seats to the NDP's 26. The margin of votes between the two parties was only 31,419 or 2.24% of the votes cast. The two parties took 94.22% of the vote overall.
It would not have taken much of a shift of votes for the NDP to have won a majority in that election, the loss of three seats by Social Credit would have given the NDP a 29 to 28 win.
List of the closest seats the NDP lost
Riding Margin in votes + Pct NDP Cand Socred Cand
Columbia River 410 4.42pp Sandra Small (Jim Chabot)
Dewdney 646 2.62pp Joan Norris (George Mussallem)
Prince George North 774 5.56pp Charles Boyd (Jack Heinrich)
Kootenay 818 6.54pp Doug Wright (Pat Segarty)
Van Little Mountain 1621 2.35pp Mike Harcourt (Evan Wolfe)
Saanich + Islands 2057 6.34pp John Mika (Hugh Curtis)
Surrey 2246 1.89pp Michael Watkins(Bill Vander Zalm)
Richmond 3234 8.81pp Harold Steves (James Nielsen)
Of these eight seats, the NDP won six of them in 1972, only Columbia River and Saanich and the Islands did not go NDP in 1972.
4,513 more NDP votes in the three closest ridings in percentage terms would have given Barrett his second term but a one seat majority is not enough. 4,923 more votes would have given him a 30 to 27 election win. The NDP would still have lost the overall vote in the election by 1.89 percentage points but that is closer than NDP managed in 1996 when they did win the election.
It would have been interesting to see what a second Barrett government would have looked like. One major downside they would have had to deal with is the early 80s recession. I am sure that if the NDP had won in 1979 they have been blamed for the miserable economic state of BC in 1983. This was the first major economic downturn in BC since the depression.
The Social Credit government from 1979 to 1983 became the first BC government to regularly have a deficit on operational spending. The NDP were considered bad money managers because in their last year of their 1972-75 government there was the first large deficit. The fact Social Credit had to deficit finance in the 1980s means the NDP would have had to as well only they would have been called out for it.
Some major things could have been different. Would BC have hosted Expo 86? I do not think so beecause the cost for the event was a lot of money. This would have meant no BC Place and maybe no Canada Place. I suspect the NDP would have pushed for North East Coal with at least as much vigour as the Socreds did. Would the SkyTrain have been built? The NDP massively increased transit in BC during their first term but would they have built SkyTrain? I suspect the Coquihalla would not have been started.
If the NDP had won the 1979 election I suspect they would have been crucified in the 1983 election, likely not as bad as 2001, but down to 30-35% versus 55%-60% for Social Credit. Social Credit managed to win the 1983 election with the economy in rough shape and the provincial government finances the worst they had ever been is one of the more unexpected election wins in BC.
In 1979 one of the most likely New Democrats to win was Mike Harcourt. If had won then he would not have been mayor of Vancouver from 1980 to 1986 which in itself would have dramatically changed BC because it was in those years that the city changed from the parochial post war Vancouver to the next incarnation as a city on the edge of the world stage.
One of the Socreds that would most likely have lost is Bill Vander Zalm. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened with his political career at that point. His loss in 1979 might have meant BC was spared it's worst premier.