Liberal rebuilding: cautious optimism, but also fear the party hasn’t yet hit bottom

A preview of our cover story this week

Photograph by Blair Gable

The cover of the issue of the Maclean’s that’s on newsstands today features my colleague Paul Wells making the case, which you will surely want to read, for a certain pugilistically proven Liberal for the party’s vacant leadership. Working in Wells’s corner, I provide a glimpse into the Liberal party’s internal rebuilding effort, leaning heavily on an interview earlier this week with Mike Crawley, who was elected the party’s new president at its convention back in January.

But beyond Crawley’s insider perspective, I spoke with many Liberals about efforts, after last spring’s election knockout punch, to clear the party’s collective head, and start getting back in shape for the next campaign, expected in 2015. Inevitably, quite a few telling observations ended up on the cutting room floor, so here’s a compendium of what I wish I’d been able to squeeze into the article.

To set the scene, Brooke Jeffrey, a former top federal Liberal official who’s now a political science professor at Concordia University, sees the rebuilding process now underway as much more promising than the hasty efforts that proceeded the 2006 campaign under Stéphane Dion’s leadership and last year’s disastrous run with Michael Ignatieff at the helm. “Mike Crawley has spent a great deal of time in the early stages trying to engage with members of the party,” Jeffrey said. “As a member I get endless emails from Crawley & Co. If you’ve got the members engaged, they’ll show up to work in an election campaign.”

Katie Telford, another former federal Liberal official, now a Toronto-based consultant and riding association president, also sees signs of the party reconnecting with its members, and also productive foment at the local level. But Telford isn’t convinced many Liberals yet grasp how dangerous it is to be relegated to third place.  “I actually don’t know that people realize how bad it really is,” she said. “People keep saying, ‘Oh, we hit bottom in the last election.’ I’m not sure that’s true. There are a whole variety of ways to look at it. One is the current caucus: quite a number of them if they wanted to could decide not to run [in next election] and retire with good reason—they’ve had long careers. Do we hold those ridings if they retire, or are those their ridings? That’s one way things could change quite quickly in terms of our numbers.”

As it happens, Telford heads the riding association for Parkdale-High Park, where prominent Liberal Gerard Kennedy lost his seat last spring to the NDP’s equally high-profile Peggy Nash. Kennedy told me he was deeply disillusioned with the Liberal mindset before the election, but now he’s tentatively upbeat. “In some ways there has to be an outcome from the Liberals’ humbling in the last election that could be quite positive,” he said. “My main attitude is fairly optimistic that those better conditions can be created, first within the party, and it might have some impact on how things play out in a few years. I think the party was fully part of that elite culture, that politics was mainly about manipulation from Ottawa, rather than collecting up a new direction for the country that was in touch with people.”

Humbly listening to the party rank and file and Canadians in general has to be healthy. But in the end voters want any party, and any party’s leader, to offer clear ideas, not just endlessly consult. Liberals won’t pick their next permanent leader until next spring, and a firm platform can’t be formulated until the new boss is in place. Still, many of them are pushing the policy files they hope will redefine their message over the next two or three years.

Ottawa MP David McGuinty, brother of the Ontario premier, calls for a more activist government role in partnership with businesses,  and for recognition of rising social tension over retirement security. “Number One is the economy. The smartest jurisdictions are those where there is a real symmetry between the public and private sectors,” McGuinty said. “The second front has to be pension reform. There is a massive divide in Canada, which is forming much more quickly than I ever thought. There is an awful lot of anger in the private sector about public-sector pension support. By that I don’t mean we should eviscerate public pensions. We need to have an adult conversation about public- sector pension reform, and about supporting private-sector pension reform.”

Does any of this even begin to add up to a combination of electoral clout and policy innovation that might threaten Conservative dominance in federal politics? It’s far too early to guess. In any case, the first order of business for the Liberals isn’t chipping away at the granite core Tory support, but winning back more fluid left-of-centre votes that swung to the NDP in 2011. And that raises a question few Liberals are even asking, at least openly, these days: Will some form of cooperation between the parties on the left, of the sort advocated by B.C. MP Nathan Cullen is his surprisingly strong bid for the NDP leadership, ultimately become unavoidable?

Allan Gregg, the veteran pollster and Harris/Decima chairman, told me polling leaves little that in theory a combination of the “progressive” vote would be potent (although his polling shows an outright NDP-Liberal merger isn’t a popular notion). “If you look at the research, you’ve got to believe that there’s a lot of people who do consider themselves progressives who really do abhor this Conservative agenda, that are saying, ‘There has to be a better way—my progressive ideals are greater than any partisan allegiance’,” Gregg said. “The fact of the matter is that twice as many Canadians identify themselves as progressive as identify themselves as conservative. There’s a significant plurality, possibly a plurality, to appeal to if you were the obvious progressive alternative.”

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