The Liberal Party has never before experienced third-party status, but by playing a long game with courage and creativity, it may find important advantages there.
The possible destinations for the Liberal Party of Canada over the next two elections run the full gamut — from disappearing to taking office. Liberals know this, and the reality is both sobering and energizing. There is opportunity in crisis, and to the extent the party’s fate will be determined by its own actions, it may come down to how well it capitalizes on the upsides of being down.
Party folklore mythologizes earlier periods in the wilderness of Opposition in the early 1960s and early 1990s when policy renewal, steady leadership, good timing and a lot of hard, unglamorous work returned Liberal governments to office. However, the current banishment, since 2006, has so far been characterized more by shortcuts than renewal. A compressed version of those earlier renewal successes was attempted in 2010, but it didn’t convince voters. Throughout, the debilitating dynamics of being the Official Opposition in minority Parliaments proved deeply distracting.
That is now behind the Liberals, but the hill to climb is steeper than it has ever been.
It is still early, but there are some positive signs in how Liberals are dealing with their fate. To the extent we have pondered the past, it has not simply been about the last election, but about downward trends of the last decade — or three. Naturally, there was debate about how we got here. But the real work is being directed at how we might get out of here.
The recent Biennial Convention was a milestone. Turnout always matters in politics, and more than 3,000 braved weather that was as inhospitable as it gets in mid-January in Ottawa. More than that, the presence of delegates attending their first Liberal convention was the most intriguing. They were everywhere, and not just the Young Liberals, as strong a presence as they were. Most veterans, like myself, knew several first-time delegates — mid-career friends and neighbours who may have started paying closer attention in the lead-up to the last election, donated and thought Michael Ignatieff would make a good prime minister. When they saw the outcome on May 2, they got more serious, attended riding association meetings and participated in the convention as delegates. For many, the extent of the loss was actually mobilizing.
Those first-time delegates experienced not only packed meeting rooms, but an upbeat mood, a capable and compelling interim leader, a gracefully honoured former leader and his moving farewell. They mingled with Liberal caucus members — who were reduced in number but whose ranks still include notable personalities. They also voted in hotly contested elections for party executive positions that produced, among others, a new president offering a fresh face and organizational savvy.
What would make someone start going to Liberal conventions on the heels of that election result? The party needs to understand — really understand — the answer to this question, as well as what will keep those new members showing up and contributing to renewal. To these members, it matters whether a progressive, compassionate and responsible Liberal option contends for power again, and they want to be part of a climb out of the depths. How well the party takes them up on it will say a lot about how far it climbs.
A party embarking on a steep climb can afford to shed the weight of caution. Liberals did that with an aggressive opening up of their leadership selection rules. A primary-based process in which you won’t even have to join the party to vote is a high risk/high reward proposition. On the downside, without a vigorously contested campaign, it could look like a gimmick. But there’s much to gain if a clash of ideas and personalities creates some excitement, and everyone is invited to weigh in. The winner will lead a party that is serious about connecting Canadians with their politics and institutions.
Another silver lining in the cloud of electoral defeat is the opportunity to choose — and support — a leader for more than one election. A major reason for the feeling that “I don’t know what they stand for” is that three different Liberal leaders contested three successive elections in five years, the latter two getting just one kick at the can. In the absence of serendipity, what a leader can get across in a single national campaign is limited. Liberals need to choose someone they will stand with for at least two campaigns and preferably more, without reliving the polluting effects of inter-camp warfare. It has nothing to do with age. It’s about playing a long game. Most modern political successes in Canada have followed defeats. Put Stephen Harper and Jack Layton on that list, but my favourite is fellow Manitoban Gary Doer. He lost three times before he won, but his party stuck with him. When he finally won office, he could have stayed there until he was 120 years old had he wanted to.
The recent Biennial Convention was a milestone. Turnout always matters in politics, and more than 3,000 braved weather that was as inhospitable as it gets in mid-January in Ottawa. More than that, the presence of delegates attending their first Liberal convention was the most intriguing. They were everywhere, and not just the Young Liberals, as strong a presence as they were.
Many Liberals have rightly emphasized the need for grassroots policy-making in the aftermath of the last election. But the party has not lacked for policy. Its recent platforms have been consistently much more substantive and rigorous than those of its main rivals. Liberals know what they stand for and have applied those values in new and realistic ways to the major issues. The few who read platforms know this. Obviously, whatever “connecting” with voters means, it involves much more than a serious platform.
Liberals can and should consider whether their recent policies have done enough to drive that connection home. And party activists should reinvigorate a new grassroots process, using all the tools at their disposal. But even more than that is needed.
If Liberals are going to reconnect with a broad Canadian public, they must demonstrate they can listen, articulate issues that resonate and solutions that penetrate and be heard in simple and compelling terms. That should include some risks, innovations and the courage to take stands that might engender some opposition as well as support. It’s an enormous challenge. The work will have to include, but reach well beyond, the militants who traditionally debate party policy resolutions. There isn’t a party elite or even a “grassroots” that can own it. Liberals should be as fearless in opening up their policy debate as they have been in opening up their leadership selection process. And of course, a new permanent leader will have to personify a renewed message and imbue it with his or her unique vision and personality.
Beyond the party itself, there is a need for well-financed, independent institutions that develop progressive ideas for a new era and create the space for them in the public domain.
The Center for American Progress south of the border is often touted as a model.
It has been years since any serious Liberal thought of the party as the “natural governing party.” The moniker has survived mainly through the laziest punditry. But there is a sense in which we are a party of government: Liberals care about good government and governing well. In contrast, the Harper Conservatives see government principally as a weapon of partisan warfare. Beyond that, they view its role narrowly and with mistrust. The NDP have always cared much more about causes and issues than actually governing, perhaps because there has been no chance of it occurring. Time will tell if that circumstance has changed. No party has a monopoly on earnestness, but Liberals, more than other partisans, are in politics to guide government constructively — that is, manage it responsibly, and deploy it to address big issues and make the future better than the past.
Canadian Liberalism still values the institutions of our parliamentary democracy — indeed more as a matter of values than political strategy. We went into the 2011 election attempting to defend the cause of democratic institutions against an unprecedented string of insults. We didn’t do that because it was a sure-fire vote-getter. We did it because it mattered.
But there are some tough questions to address in this period of renewal. Do voters care much about good government, sound policy and healthy institutions? It seems they care less than ever and expect less than ever from politics. Political journalism, with an ever-shrinking attention span, brings out the worst and serves it up moment to moment to the few still paying attention. So, should Liberals get off the high horse, follow the electorate to that place of indifference and cynicism and just get a lot better at exploiting it? Or is there an opportunity to lead Canada in a renewed politics, in which good government matters, respect for democratic institutions matters, civil dialogues of many voices matter and reconnecting citizens to their government and to each other is a core purpose? More to the point, can Liberals again get elected while doing so?
Most voters will be motivated less by how government works than by what it delivers. Still, our politics continues to be cheapened by the ongoing erosion of respect for the rules of the game, rejection of evidence in policymaking and frequent, tactical abuses of power for partisan advantage. Liberals and many supporters are unlikely to walk away from this issue because it didn’t “resonate” in the last campaign. Their challenge is to communicate how good government in the 21st century goes hand in hand with results that average Canadians really care about.
In rebuilding for the future, and learning from the past, Liberals should avoid repeating the error of distancing themselves from everything that came before. It would be a mistake to assume that everything that preceded the 2011 election result caused it. For example, consider how the party under Michael Ignatieff engaged both citizens and experts on substantive issues. When the Harper government prorogued Parliament to shut down inconvenient debate, the Liberal caucus swiftly organized literally dozens of free-wheeling round tables on every conceivable issue. Of course there was a political point to be made, but there was also real dialogue — seldom heard on Parliament Hill before or since.
Look at the Canada at 150 conference that Ignatieff convened in March of 2010. More than 50 leading experts led a 21st century town-hall that engaged over 30,000 participants via social media, live webcasting and 72 satellite meetings across Canada. It was a grown-up discussion of six major issue areas that helped frame the subsequent platform. No political party had previously attempted anything like it. At least one veteran policy wonk and conservative commentator called it “the best policy conference I have ever attended.” The 2012 Biennial Convention renewed the standard with another successful live webcast. That standard for substance, openness and innovation can surely continue to set Liberals apart.
Liberals need to choose someone they will stand with for at least two campaigns and preferably more, without reliving the polluting effects of inter-camp warfare. It has nothing to do with age. It’s about playing a long game. Most modern political successes in Canada have followed defeats. Put Stephen Harper and Jack Layton on that list, but my favourite is fellow Manitoban Gary Doer. He lost three times before he won, but his party stuck with him.
When Ignatieff visited nearly every nook and cranny of the country week after week in the Liberal Express bus, several objectives were being pursued. Perhaps the most lasting was what he was trying to convey about the practice of politics. Despite all the necessary technology, management and strategy, it can still be authentic. There can still be genuine fun. There can still be great storytelling, fed by real life and real people at each stop along the way. In the general election, he waded into every crowd (larger than those for other leaders until close to the end) without a scrap of paper, let alone a teleprompter. He took unscripted questions every day. And each day, he delivered a message that travelled through his head but came from his gut. Because it was real, he connected with his audiences. Usually, there was a flow and a charge in the room. John Ivison of the National Post called it “political jazz.”
Of course, the music wasn’t heard beyond the room. Connection was not the news story. Political pros point out it wasn’t entirely coherent and disciplined. They’re not wrong. And yet, as Liberals work at renewal, there may be something noble and essential about the practice of politics that should be retained and built upon. The challenge is to expand the connection of authenticity beyond the room. Far beyond.
Meeting that challenge will require a stronger organization on the ground than the party has had in many years. Liberals know they simply cannot permanently concede to the Conservative Party a massive gap in finances, as they have done since contribution rules were reformed. Liberals also know they can’t leave some riding associations dormant, and others functioning but not actively welcoming newcomers. They know, and they are taking action.
In all respects — organization, policy, strategy, philosophy, leadership and more — Liberals face crisis and opportunity as two sides of the same coin of fate. But with courage, commitment and ingenuity they can squeeze some advantage from that daunting fate. Though the journey will be long, and the destination uncertain, the first steps have been taken.