Liberals: You’re electing a “third party” leader – and there’s nothing wrong with that

- November 19th, 2012

There is much in Andrew Coyne’s latest column to commend. For example,

Liberals, do not delude yourselves. You are not, whatever you may say to each other, electing “the next prime minister of Canada” here. If your checklist for assessing the candidates includes “ability to win the next election,” strike it now.

And then he develops the thesis:

… you are not choosing a prime minister, and if you allow considerations of that kind to cloud your judgement, you are unlikely to choose well. Rather, you are choosing a leader for a third party. And in that role it is quite possible to see any one of a number of the candidates. I say this with the greatest respect, for there is nothing wrong with being the third party. Get used to thinking of yourselves as one, and you can do much good, both for your party and your country.

Put it this way: that is your only chance of survival — as a forceful, effective third party, the kind that inspires a determined, loyal following. Harden up the brand, persuade even 20% of the electorate that you are their party through and through, and you can build towards the day when you might contend for power once again. Neglect that task, and you will be eaten alive by the other two parties.

Put your third-party status to work for you. See it for the advantage it is: for it frees you to take risks that those closer to power will not.

I tend to agree with this and, as Coyne has primed my cranial pump, let me gush forth some more:

I start from the premise that Canada is, by and large, what most political scientists would call a “progressive society” in the sense that there is broad support for, among other things, publicly funded healthcare, a significant role for the government at almost every level, and a broad sense that Big Government can or should take the lead in solving society’s ills. There are are several parties at the federal level which compete for vote advocating this basic position — the NDP, the Liberals, the Green Party, and the Bloc Quebecois are the major ones – while there is precisely one party that, while it continues to advocate for our single-payer, publicly funded healthcare system, believes the federal government, at least, ought to be “small enough to drown in a bathtub”, as one Conservative adherent colourfully put it to me.

Those Conservatives, right now, are the federal government, having convinced 5.83 million Canadians in the right 143 ridings to to vote for it in the last election.  In 2000, just over a decade ago, there were 4.8 million Canadians who voted for the right of centre parties, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, the two parties which would eventually merge under Harper. So, the political right of this country has found an extra 1 million voters in just over a decade.

What about activity on the left? (And remember, if you agree with me that Canada is pre-disposed to be a “progressive society”, then this is where the big money is politically speaking.)

Well, the Chretien-led Liberals in 2000 got the votes of 5.2 million Canadians while the Alexa McDonough-led New Democrats won 1.1 million votes.

Fast forward to the election of 2011. Jack Layton’s NDP got 4.5 million votes. Ignatieff’s Liberals got 2.8 million.

So over the last decade the party on the right of our political spectrum has found 1 million more voters. The party on the left, the NDP, has found 3.4 million more voters. Meanwhile the party which likes to think it’s in the centre of Canada’s political spectrum has lost votes and seats in every election since 2000 — 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011 — and now has to find the 2.4 million voters it had in 2000 but has now lost. So, NDP up 3.4 million in a decade; Liberals down 2.4 million in a decade.

That is a picture of country, folks, that is not moving right (as you will hear any number of Ottawa Press Gallery columnist drone on about with no evidence to support their moaning) to one that is moving left. Sure, the left has not yet found the electoral sweet spot to put it in power but it took right-wing parties movement in Canada a while to figure out that formula, too.

As Liberals consider a new leader, it’s probably useful to remember that both Jack Layton and Stephen Harper took the better part of a decade to get to where they were today. And they both grounded their success in deep ideological roots. Paradoxically, both Conservatives and New Democrats are coming under fire for modifying or abandoning some of those ideological roots which helped put each party where it is today. Those parties may, in four or five years, look back and see that their failure to tend to those roots led to their eventual downfall.

This is where “third-party” Liberalism comes in. The Liberals, as Coyne points out, should cultivate some ideological roots and recognize that it may take a decade for them to grow.

And, on that score, Justin Trudeau may be the better leader at this point. He is young enough to stick around for a decade to watch those roots grow. He clearly has the kind of fundraising and media star power that will help the Liberals during that long rebuilding process. But Trudeau is also, it seems to me, best suited to be a “cause” leader. Trudeau tilts at windmills. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He is not the Machievellian that Harper is or that Mulcair aspires to be (and I use that adjective, I should point out, as an admirer of Machiavelli). When Trudeau swore at Environment Minister Peter Kent in the House of Commons (I was was there) it was an absolutely natural if unparliamentary display of passion. Mulcair can be as fiery but, given how he has clearly displayed an ability to tamp down a temper we all saw before his elevation, one now wonders if that temper when he was Layton’s lieutenant was more for show. So far Trudeau’s emotional outbursts — even his tirade against my news organization — is clearly from the heart. That’s good for the leader of a “cause” party but probably not so good for the leader of a party poised to take power (Mulcair) or holding power (Harper.).

Marc Garneau, Martha Hall Findlay, Deborah Coyne, etc. feel to me as if they are running to be PM in 2015. For that reason, they are not so much running against Trudeau as they are against Coyne’s thesis that that is simply impossible.

* Here’s an electoral math coincidence:

  • 2000: Liberal + NDP votes = 6.3 million. 2011: Liberal + NDP votes = 7.3 million. Difference in 11 years: +1 million.
  • 2000: Alliance + PC votes = 4.8 million. 2011: Conservative Party votes = 5.8 million. Difference in 11 years: +1 million

Categories: Politics/Liberals

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3 comments

  1. Claudia Lemire says:

    I agree with this for the most part and @acoyne. However I am 99.9 sure Mulcair is gone, he won’t be Loyal Opposition in 2015 it will be JT and well, hopefully he will grow into his new job.

  2. Nigel says:

    You note this a little, but I think that the major intervening variable that changes your “Canada is moving left” thesis is that the NDP has significantly moderated to the point of occupying a fair amount of prior LPC territory. If 3.4 million people had voted for a party that still opposes NAFTA and NATO membership, that’d be something else, but they voted for a broad left-of-centre party that’s defined itself primarily by the social progressiveness it shares with the LPC. I read these changes more as the country staying fairly stable ideologically, with some conservative ideas become more thinkable and plausible in the mainstream through conservative governance, and with the LPC splintering at a 2-1 left-right ratio to the other parties.

  3. Mark Hlady says:

    Easy come, easy go. Liberals, have been cleaning up after the Conservatives, like forever. Probably won’t be anything left to rebuild by 2015. You killed it, you clean it!

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