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Subzwari: What’s Wrong With the Liberal Party?

August 10, 2011
The Liberal Party struggles to look away from images like these.

The Liberal Party of Canada has been one of the most successful political parties in a liberal democratic country, dominating Canada’s political scene for much of the 20th century. However, the 21st century so far hasn’t been kind to the Liberals; the change from the majority years of Jean Chretien to the disastrous results of May 2nd’s vote has been dramatic. The party now sits on a precipice: will it rebound and capture the hearts of Canadians again, or will it fade away into political oblivion as the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom did almost a hundred years ago.

We’ll let history be the judge of that, but for now we must try to understand what is wrong with the Liberal Party. Why has it fallen from grace? Why has the once great party of Sir Wilfrid Laurier been consigned to the lackluster afterthought position of the third party? Rather than regurgitating the familiar rhetoric of a lack of policies, poorly organized campaigns, or a lack of funding, I intend on focusing on deeper issues within the party. These problems have developed over several years and under various leaders, and have formed the foundations on which recent problems are based.

The first problem has to do with an excess of nostalgia, a problem that every illustrious party eventually finds itself battling with. Over the years rhetoric within the party has moved from what it is doing to what it has done. This was best seen under the recent leadership of Michael Ignatieff where we heard again and again how the Liberal Party was the once great party of Sir Wilfrid, and Mr. Trudeau, and Mr. Chretien, never telling us how that warranted a reason to vote. Certainly parties should be proud of their history and flout their successes to bolster their reputation, but to make it a cornerstone of the party’s campaign is another matter. Most elections revolve around current issues and how they will be dealt with in the future, and it is understandable how common voters may find themselves disconnected by a party that insists on talking about the past.

Naturally, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of this nostalgic excess, but this problem may have arisen from the Liberal high brass, which has been devoid of any fresh faces for a few years now, preferring to use tried and tested veterans to map the party’s direction.  While this can have its benefits, it can also mean that those people who are charting the future of the party have several years of memories and successes behind them. And when things don’t go according to plan, it is only natural for veterans to turn to previous successes to seek comfort. This may also be a root cause of the second deep problem within the Liberals: not knowing how to behave as an opposition party.

The problem is greater, rooted in the basic behaviour of the party and its struggle in accepting its new place within a new political world.

You see, the party as it is in opposition and the party as it is in government is two completely separate beings. The only role of an opposition party is to undermine the government and attract votes. Being loud, both in voice and in ideas, does this.  Their policies must be radically different (or appear to be radically different while not actually being) that creates a buzz and an excitement. Of course, they might be too idealistic or too radical to the point of being unrealistic, but that is the role of the opposition party: to don a bright yellow hat with a huge strobe light and yell and jump at the electorate shouting: “pick me!” But once the election is over, and the people have picked that party as government, it must sober up, because now it has to be a government.

Government is like an orderly gentleman in a three-piece suit; cool, calm, and collected, projecting the image of an entity in charge of the well being of an entire nation. Governments, through their enormous power and influence (and control over the purse of state) can change its tactics in trying to attract voters. It can make concessions; give funding here and there to gain favour with particular groups of voters and thus build a base for re-election. Almost every government adopts this vote gathering technique, ensuring that while governing, a party finds itself operating from the centre, no matter how it leant while in opposition.

But you can’t be in government forever, nor can you be a center party out of government; it just won’t get you noticed. Once a party falls from government and into opposition, it must take off the three-piece suit and don the bright yellow hat again. But when you have been in government too long, and its mannerisms have become second nature to you, it is rather difficult to leave it all and become a shouty partisan again.

And there is the Liberal Party’s second handicap: it finds it very difficult to let go of its behaviour as a governing party and change its way of attracting voters. Even though it lost government in 2006, the party continues to operate its campaigns as if it were a governing party.  In the most recent election, Mr. Ignatieff found himself promising differing child care options and increased funding for university students, sensible promises designed to attract specific groups which would be fantastic for a government to be re-elected but rubbish if you were an opposition party looking to stand out against other opposition parties like the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP.

The final great problem with the Liberal Party again comes back to the seasoned high brass. In recent years it has failed to come up with a charismatic leader of the times. That is not to say that the leaders it has chosen have been mediocre, quite the opposite actually. The Liberals have a history of choosing intellectual leaders who have served with distinction in their original professions. But while such leaders may be deserving of the job in their own right, they are not leaders of the times. Like it or not, today’s party leaders have to be charismatic and photogenic, even if it means a compromise on intellect.

The sad reality is that the common voter does not sit and analyze a party’s policies, considering their implications and benefits, both in the long term and the short term. The common voter simply gravitates to the leader who catches their eye. They are magpie-like in a way; they see something bright and shiny and go for it.  The clearest example of this has to be the recent success of the New Democrats. It is common knowledge by now that many who voted in the May 2nd election for the NDP didn’t vote for its policies but for its leader and his charisma. The Liberal Party must abandon its old approach of choosing party leaders and come in line with modern trends.

In many ways, the Liberal Party is where the British Labour Party was in its long years in the wilderness of opposition. Labour was overly nostalgic of previous successes, didn’t have attractive opposition-style policies, and was bereft of a charismatic leader. Electoral success came as soon as they abandoned the nostalgia, adopted revolutionary policies, and allowed Tony Blair to become the face of the party. The Liberal Party needs a similar transformation. Its recent failures are not because of the wrong policies or message. The problem is greater, rooted in the basic behaviour of the party and its struggle in accepting its new place within a new political world. It will be a challenge to overcome it, but that is what will need to be done if they want to become Canada’s natural governing party again.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2011 8:28 pm

    Good analysis, though a couple facts didn’t seem quite right to me:

    I think Pierre Trudeau might disagree with your depiction of government as “an orderly gentleman in a three-piece suit”. Fuddle duddle and all that.

    More substantially, you mention the problem of lack of turnover in the party’s top brass as a hindrance to success. But didn’t Michael Ignatieff replace his chief of staff after being selected to lead the party? Rocco Rossi also came to breathe new life into the party’s fundraising abilities, and yet it still fell flat on election day.

  2. August 10, 2011 8:31 pm

    I dont really like the comparision to voters with magpies who simply look for shiney things. I imagine you were aiming for a “fish likes shiney hook” or “baby like shiney keys” thing, but at least you were being honest.

    “Like it or not, today’s party leaders have to be charismatic and photogenic, even if it means a compromise on intellect.”

    I have to agree with the above statement. I think this has been the key to Jack Layton’s success. He is, in fact, from an intellectual and academic background, but he always played it down, except when he was speaking at a University.

  3. August 10, 2011 8:32 pm

    Martin, Dion, Ignatieff…they all didn’t resonate with the public at large. There is no disputing this no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum.

  4. Anon permalink
    August 13, 2011 3:44 pm

    Good article, i also agree that the liberal party’s huge failures are in leadership selection. But I think you’re a bit off re:magpies. I would argue the vast majority of people do weigh out the pros and cons of their choice on election day. Unfortunatly, these decisions almost always rely solely on economic factors (ie. How much will I get? How much money will he save me?)

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