The Fall election is getting closer and closer and as that date with whatever destiny it turns out to be gets closer, there is a lot to ponder. So, it’s been in that mind set I’ve found myself recently, reading what others are having to say out there. That led me to the newest piece by Jamie Carroll, about the plight of the Liberals currently and his advice on how to correct their course:
This all might be turning into a point/counterpoint thing in the grand scheme of things, but it led me to sit down and offer my own thoughts. Heck, one of his suggestions was to take advice from the Conservatives, so surely some friendly advice from a New Democrat could be welcomed too.
Let’s start at the end of his comments and work my way back. Carroll asks the existential question of “What is a Liberal?”, a question that I really think should be the starting focus, not so much the end point. As he rightly points out, the Liberal Party of Canada has traditionally been a brokerage party, in the mushy middle, sometimes a bit further left, sometimes a bit further right, sometimes inside the same electoral term depending on which way the winds are blowing. As he points out, there was no ideology there outside of doing what it took to win.
This is a legit model for a party, and given their success since Confederation, it’s one that’s worked for them. But folks it’s a model that has limitations to go with its strengths; those limitations come back to motivations and keeping people active and involved with your party. Jamie is right that most people get involved in politics at the grassroots level to be a part of something, to be involved, but that thing simply being the end result of wins and losses isn’t what keeps people there long term. It’s things they care about deeply, issues, policy and in some cases, that means ideology on some level. While the Liberals may see ideology as an impediment, an anchor that keeps a party in place, I would say it’s more of a North Star that helps guide. Ideology, like anything else, can be interpreted in many ways and that allows for flexibility. And yes, you will always have those in a party like that who will never be satisfied and will always hold themselves up to be the paradigm of ideological virtue, but they are the minority by far.
I raise that because of another piece of advice that he gives the Liberals, to basically learn from the Conservatives and how they operate towards those who will never support them. As he points out, Conservative don’t give a flying fart what those who oppose their views think, and in fact inflaming those people can actually help to motivate those who do agree with them. And that’s how they run their party, it’s pretty clear to see. But here is where Jamie’s advice hits a roadblock of sorts; those Conservatives don’t rally around pissing off everyone else, they rally around a core set of ideals. That 40% or so of people who identify with them want to win, but they aren’t willing to win at any cost. They are willing to sacrifice to get to the mountain top, but they aren’t willing to sacrifice everything in the name of winning. That’s how you ended up with the Reform Party in the 90’s.
For the Conservatives they are not so much unencumbered by not caring what others think as they are just hyper focused on what their smaller group does think and tries to motivate the Hell out of them. And they’re good at its folks, you have to admit that. But is that a function of good politics or is that more of a function of the electoral system we have? I would argue that the current system does benefit parties that have central ideological views and big enough numbers to back them. It makes big blocks of voters that much stronger. You can argue that with Conservatives, you also could argue it with Sovereigntists back in the heyday of the Bloc Quebecois. If you have a central idea to rally around, you’ll get motivated people involved.
Winning alone simply doesn’t do that, and we saw that in 2011 and the run up to 2015. In 2011, when the Orange Wave hit, yes there were people who flocked to the NDP because they became the better option to challenge the Harper Conservatives. That hurt the Liberals because as a party built around winning being the major motivation, the second that someone else looked stronger, they jumped ship. They had nothing else to hold them there or at least to think about. At the start of the 2015 campaign, the NDP attracted many strong candidates across the country in ridings I never expected who, you could argue, fell into that camp too. They were great candidates and this is no knock on them, but in the past, they would have naturally flowed to the Liberals because they were seen as the best option. They were the best chance at winning. The same thing happened with certain people flowing to the Conservatives, with the likes of David Emerson the first popping to my mind. The bigger point being that both the Conservatives and the NDP held their bases, their ideologues, while bringing others on board, which made them stronger. It’s not a matter of either/or, and to win, you need a bit of both. The Liberal Party doesn’t naturally have that.
While brings me to Jamie’s first point about outreach, a point that I generally agree with. MPs, Party Leaders, local riding associations and all need to be out there, talking to people. That’s where elections are won and lost, and while sometimes people do get elected based on the strength of their leader’s performance and they ride their coattails, that’s not the way it happens for most. We saw it in 2011 with some NDP MPs who got elected that way, and were swept out in 2015 because they didn’t put in the work (along with many who did put in the hard work too I will say), and we’ll see the same in 2019 with many Liberal MPs who got elected in 2015 in the same way. So yes, outreach is hugely important and a must.
But where I part company with Jamie is the focus of that outreach. It’s true that a party always needs to keep in contact with their members, their former staffers, former riding folks, former elected people and pick their brains. I especially agree with the point of letter those people vent and taking it all to heart going forward. But that can’t be the whole part of it; if you’re going to win, you need to bring in more people and more views into the party. For a party with no ideology, you’d think that would be easier as there shouldn’t be anyone off the table. But you can’t do that while taking the Conservative approach at the same time; those are two very different lanes. And it’s hard to take the Conservatives approach to this if you’ve got no founding ideas beyond winning that holds it all together.
In the end, I would argue that listening too much to the that group of eminent Liberals is not the solution to todays problems; you should listen a bit but take it all with a grain of salt. In my view, the Liberal Party needs to decide what it is; it can’t be a brokerage party where winning is the sole organizing principle while also shunning whole blocks of electors because they “don’t agree with you”, whatever it is you are “agreeing” on today. The advantage of the brokerage model is that you can, in theory, be accessible to all, because you have no ideology to push people away. The drawback to it is that you don’t get the people there motivated by ideas who will always be there, through the thickest and the thinnest. That’s a circle you can’t square. And when your party is increasingly built around a leader and their image, this problem becomes that much greater. So, I wish my Liberal friends well in their thoughts of this, but I would argue that at least in 2019, the mood isn’t there for the brokerage approach of the past. Does that mean blowing it all up? That’s not for me to say but if I were to give any advice, it would be to not panic. Politics, like life, goes in cycles and what the mood of the public doesn’t support today could very well be the mood of the day in the future.