What happened to the Liberals?

The party is being outclassed at its own game by the Tories

Consider a political party that’s been governing in Ottawa for a couple of years with only a parliamentary minority. Its leader is seen as a strong but aloof prime minister, occasionally harsh, and hardly a man of the people. He decides the time is right to force an election anyway, even though grim economic news has voters worried. Saddled with the leader’s image liabilities and an unsettling economic backdrop, what sort of campaign would such a party mount to leap from minority to majority?

Start by repackaging the prime minister in a way “contrived to make him seem if not folksy at least accessible,” even cast him as “a gentle father, adoring husband.” Next, provide him with a reassuringly low-key platform, nothing too dramatic, but with niche policies aimed at attracting, say, women and the “aspiring middle class.” Finally, have him “ridicule” his main adversary “mercilessly,” painting his “awkward” rival’s more daring platform as foolish, particularly given the fragile economy.

This may sound like a sketch of Stephen Harper’s position going into this election, and of the Conservative strategy for winning it. But it’s actually drawn from the late Christina McCall’s masterful account of Pierre Trudeau’s 1974 campaign, masterminded by Jim Coutts and Keith Davey, that won back a Liberal majority. All the telling descriptive words and phrases in quotation marks are drawn from McCall’s take on that election, in her 1980 essay, “Jim Coutts and the Politics of Manipulation.”

If the classic Liberal approach to manipulative politics has a home in the present contest, it seems to be in the Conservative camp. To suggest that Harper’s 2008 campaign might be consciously modelled on Trudeau’s 1974 run—with Stéphane Dion in the hapless Robert Stanfield’s role—might be a stretch. But Harper does pride himself on his knowledge of political history, routinely talks about the Liberal party’s past dominance, and once wrote that it was Trudeau who “provoked both the loves and hatreds of my political passion.” Is it too much to imagine that he’s now applying know-your-enemy logic, adopting techniques that kept the hated Liberals so long in power?

There’s an essential Grittiness to Harper’s campaign, a combination of a cautious platform and unrelenting focus on the votes he and his strategists have identified as essential to expanding their base. But these same core old-school Liberal elements are less evident in Dion’s strategy and tactics. In place of the platform pragmatism of, say, the 1974 vintage Trudeau or the 1993 Jean Chrétien, Dion is running on his Green Shift. It’s a creative, signature policy, more like Stanfield’s wage and price controls, or—to cite a much more successful case of a Big Idea campaign—Brian Mulroney’s 1988 free trade platform.

Figuring out precisely what blocks of voters Dion aims to win over with his conviction-driven message is also tricky. Harper’s target audiences are well-defined, notably Quebecers ready to ditch the Bloc Québécois, and suburbanites, especially in heavily ethnic ridings in Ontario and B.C. By contrast, a senior Liberal campaign official admitted Dion has been forced to fight a diffused, multi-front campaign—fending off Tories on his right, the NDP, Greens and even the Bloc on his left, all while defending urban Liberal strongholds. “The Conservatives are running a very surgical campaign,” the official said. “We don’t quite have that luxury.”

Campaigning in this unfamiliar way has sunk Liberals to unexpected depths in the polls, as low as 23 per cent to the Tories 39 per cent in a recent Harris-Decima survey. It’s rarely looked this grim since Wilfrid Laurier first put the party on top, by combining rural strength with overwhelming support in Quebec. That basic coalition lasted, with adaptations, until Lester Pearson lost the West and rural Canada to John Diefenbaker. But under Pearson, and then Trudeau, the Liberals repositioned themselves, at just the right time, as the party of booming big cities, especially among immigrants and Catholic voters.

The most constant ingredient in the Liberal recipe for victory, though, remained Quebec. “The party tilted so much toward Quebec,” says University of Waterloo historian John English, who is both a former Liberal MP and a biographer of Pearson and Trudeau, “that it was the source of strength, but also the source of weakness elsewhere.” The rise of Mulroney, and then the Bloc Québécois, ended the federal Liberals’ Quebec dominance. Still, Chrétien managed to win three national majorities without ever fully recapturing his home province, thanks mainly to smashing victories in Ontario.

All this history adds up to a record unrivalled by any party in the democracies Canadians usually look to for political comparisons, the U.S., Britain, and France. For similar party success stories, scholars reach all the way to Japan’s Liberal Democrats, Sweden’s Social Democrats, and the Irish Fianna Fáil. It’s rarefied company. Yet to view Liberal history since Laurier as just a string of wins misses a key point: the party’s knack for minimizing the damage of election setbacks. Tories have tended to plunge far deeper, and stay down far longer. Liberals bounced back surprisingly strong from, for instance, Pearson’s frustrating run of two losses and two minorities, and John Turner’s two successive defeats.

That resiliency is often attributed to superior institutional muscle, bolstered by shrewder backroom talent. “It’s not enough to have good principles,” as Laurier said. “We must have organization too.” But two factors conspired to undermine that tradition in recent years. Firstly, facing hopelessly divided opposition during the Chrétien years lulled Liberals into complacency about their command of the moderate middle. Secondly, the drawn-out split within their ranks, between the Chrétien and Paul Martin factions, sucked energy into an internecine struggle, while the permanent party apparatus atrophied.

After Martin’s defeat in early 2006, a succession of Liberal heavyweights—Frank McKenna, John Manley, Allan Rock—opted not to seek to lead a demoralized party. Suddenly, the Liberals appeared to be without a functioning establishment, and the unlikely Dion took over late that year, on the strength of a pact with Gerard Kennedy, a rank neophyte on the federal scene.

As well, Liberals had long before conceded to the reunited Conservatives a huge lead in computer-based membership management and fundraising. Yet an overdue push to catch up, which Dion’s leadership win was supposed to usher in, hasn’t gained much momentum. According to former Liberal national director Steven MacKinnon, the party has done little to build the centralized databases needed for reaching out to active and potential supporters. “The basic infrastructure of the party has fallen into neglect,” MacKinnon says. “These aren’t even hard decisions—they require some disciplined management, but they aren’t hard decisions.”

No matter what happens in this campaign, the Liberal party faces years of work to modernize its operations. On the level of election strategy, it may also need to rethink its coalition for the long run. English says that when Quebec ceased to be the party’s bulwark, Toronto conveniently replaced it. The trouble is Quebec has 75 seats (Trudeau took 74 of them in 1980), whereas Toronto has only 45 (of which the Liberals won 36 in 2006). “There aren’t enough seats in Toronto,” he concludes, “to make up for losing Quebec.” As a result, Liberals today must dominate the rest of Ontario, too. And that makes the winning Liberal election arithmetic look more regionally unbalanced, and thus more vulnerable, than the more broadly based Tory strategy.

Still, beyond questions of election strategy and party organization, Liberals argue they have a fundamental edge: they’re more like most Canadian voters. Harper himself admits his party is probably to the right of a “broad majority of Canadians.” A survey by the Canadian Elections Study in 2000 found that 18 per cent of Canadians think of themselves as on the right, and 13 per cent on the left—leaving a whopping 39 per cent in the centre, and another 29 per cent who don’t identify with any band on the ideological spectrum.

Harper makes no secret of his efforts to encroach on traditionally Liberal voters in that fuzzily defined middle. “Not only do we want to pull Canadians toward conservatism,” he recently said, “also Conservatives have to move toward Canadians, if they want to continue to govern the country.” His capacity to so fundamentally shift voting patterns remains in doubt. What isn’t in question any longer is that his Conservatives have usurped the Liberals on the level of political professionalism.

An outclassed Liberal machine, running with an unconventional leader, on a platform based on conviction rather than calculation, forced to compete for centrist votes—so many verities of the party’s identity overturned at once. Still, tangible and rhetorical links to the Liberal past remain. There’s Gordon Ashworth, veteran of many winning campaigns, again directing this one, and Senator David Smith, a seasoned warhorse, back in harness. There’s the way Dion misses no chance to claim continuity with the fiscal probity of Chrétien and Martin, and with older centre-straddling party traditions.

And there’s the tendency of thoughtful Liberals, steeped in their own glorious history, to optimistically view Dion as a potential Pearson-like figure, his policy creativity making up for what he lacks in political charisma. Of course, Pearson doesn’t rank with the great Liberal campaigners, since a majority always eluded him. But then Dion, given the state of his party, would surely be more than relieved to settle on Oct. 14 for a Pearson-sized minority of his own.

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