I whipped off a reply today to Susan Delacourt’s blog post questioning whether the Liberal Party of Canada is dead.
Coincidentally, I’m doing the Klout thing again – unconvinced it means anything but mindful that people check such scores – and lo and behold, I’m still a “specialist” in politics. I think this is Klout’s way of telling me I’m unhealthily obsessed.
I have more to say about the Liberals, and my own recent yearlong political journey to there and back again, but the more personal story can come later. For now, here’s the text of my email to Ms. Delacourt.
Oh, I just can’t agree that the Liberal Party of Canada is dead…
I think in politics and journalism, hence in political journalism, we expect events to fit a narrative that makes sense to us. The LPC never has. In most countries, centrist parties faded between the World Wars as social democratic parties grew, and for years commentators have wondered why the LPC survived as a governing party without being eclipsed by the CCF/NDP.
The May election seemed to indicate that this process had begun, and maybe it has…but I’d like to make a few points that might not argue against the Liberals being relegated to third party status but hopefully argue well against the assertion that the party is moribund.
A result of 19% is dreadful for the LPC but would be respectable for any third party. Had it been the NDP that netted that result, we would not have suggested the NDP is dead. The NDP didn’t die after winning, what, 7% in 1993?
Journalists expect the Liberals to do better; Canadians expect Liberals to do better; Liberals expect Liberals to do better; but one in five votes in a bad year still elected more MPs than the NDP usually manages.
I’ll eat my hat if the NDP keeps all its support in Quebec through one or two cycles. Again, I’m making this fit an expected narrative, but if the Orange Crush is analogous to Mulroney in Quebec in 1984 and 1988, well, that lasted 9 years; Diefenbaker/Duplessis, that worked for the 1958 election only.
Most of my partner’s family lives on the Quebec side of the river. They are all English, they all voted NDP, and they all voted NDP for Jack. It’s a huge question mark as to whether or not they will vote for the next NDP leader. NDP branding in Quebec especially was very Jack-centric; these people are not born Dippers.
The point about the old battles is well taken, and I believe the worst thing that happened to the Liberals was that the party was not utterly defeated in 2006. It didn’t encourage the party to rebuild but instead it stayed in a holding pattern, and the old guard remained.
Interestingly, with reference to your blog, it was Sheila Copps who first mentioned to me that the LPC would have been better off had the Tories won a majority in 2006. Sure, Sheila is a former deputy PM, old guard by definition, and she isn’t universally liked, but I don’t think her candidacy for party president has quite the sting as some insiders might suggest.
I’m an outside insider, or inside outsider, and as far as I can tell the old battles are fading into Liberal history. It has taken too long, and we have suffered because of the games played by an old boys’ network that produced the likes of Ignatieff, Apps, and Rossi, but I’d like to think the LPC can avoid the old power struggles when the time comes to pick the new leader.
As for the leadership, I disagree that the absence of a race right now is a bad thing. Rae is doing just fine, and because of his interim status, he isn’t seen internally as a divisive leader. Many of the anti-Rae Liberals I know will accept Rae in order to neutralize Rae. Even I, who backed Rae’s leadership gambits in the past, concede that Rae as leader looks to the past, not to the future, and I think he accepts that his role is to unify, and he will bow out gracefully when the time comes.
In other words, I don’t see the old Chretien/Martin, Rae/Ignatieff rivalries as necessarily relevant to the choosing of the next leader.
The thing is, there really isn’t anyone obvious right now. I stress “right now” because you have to consider how exceptional 2011 was. There have been how many elections this year? That ties up many of the provincial Liberals, especially in Ontario – and who knows from where the next leader will come? It doesn’t have to be someone from the federal caucus, and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe we shouldn’t discount good first-term MPs who were defeated in 2011, either – Siobhan Coady comes to mind.
The delay in choosing a new leader does mean the LPC isn’t doing anything exciting these days, but frankly we let Dion and Ignatieff have a long time to suffer Tory attacks – 2 years each – and I shudder to think what state the party would be in if we chose a humdrum or perhaps unready (cf Trudeau) caucus member as permanent leader now.
My thinking is that the LPC is smart to let the new NDP leader get stale. Does anyone really think he (because as yet there are no female NDP leadership candidates) can do better than Jack?
I hesitate to use my own story as evidence of anything, but you know, Liberals really love the Liberal Party. That’s your point about hope, I suppose. I fell out with both provincial and federal wings for almost exactly a year for many reasons that seemed right for me at the time, but belong in the past.
I knew almost immediately after the election that I’d drift back into the Liberal fold at least federally. Sure, some folks like me will drift to the CPC or NDP, but 2011 wasn’t a schism like the PC/Reform split prior to 1993, and it wasn’t as crushing a defeat as the NDP in 1993 and (sorry to repeat myself) those parties survived. I think many people – Liberal voters, of course but also political operatives such as myself – sat on their hands this spring, but at heart we are not social democrats or conservatives; we are Liberals.
I know Liberals have a tough time explaining to non-Liberals what being Liberal means, but it does mean something, possibly something deeply unsexy like beliefs in pragmatism and compromise; the LPC does also have a proud history and a fine tradition of attracting essentially good people who want to do what’s right for the country. I firmly believe that however much the left and right ideologues mock us for it.
The LPC is a family – dysfunctional at times, yes, but with deep roots that do matter to those who believe. It’s just that the belief is so much less ideological, so much less black-and-white than being a New Democrat or a Tory that people don’t get it. I don’t get it, and I’m a Liberal. But then it isn’t my job singularly to define what Canadian Liberalism means, and perhaps that’s it in a nutshell – Liberals believe in throwing everything into the pot and trying to figure out what works best as policies and practices that will steer Canada away from polarizing extremes.
We were in power for a long time and yes, we lost our way, but Canada is too pluralistic to be resigned to solitudes of left and right. There is ample room for the radical centre.
If there is a schism still in the LPC it is no different, really, from that which has existed in the CPC between moderates and social conservatives or indeed that which has emerged in the NDP with Mulcair’s entry in the leadership race and his taking on the unions and party brass who would anoint Topp as heir to Jack’s throne.
There’s no doubt that the LPC has taken a huge blow, but unless one accepts the inevitability of the narrative – that the NDP has room to grow, that the Liberals will always be framed by the Chretien vs. Martin struggle, that no new Liberal faces will emerge, etc. – it doesn’t follow that the party is dead.
In 1993, could we have predicted a Conservative majority in 2011? In 1993, could we have imagined a Jack Layton winning over 100 seats for the NDP? Did we not all herald the “moribund” state of the “dead” PCs and NDP? To go back to the start, we should be wary about forcing a narrative because it makes sense or looks right in the short-term. The Liberal Party isn’t suffering mass defections; its provincial cousins in Ontario hung on to government; there are signs of life.
Don’t count us out yet, and thanks for reading.