Some Liberals look to France for party reform inspiration

Could a French political inspiration be the key to success or failure in revitalizing the Liberal Party of Canada? It seems improbable, but the Liberals’ outgoing party president, Alf Apps, touched on the possibility this afternoon at the party’s policy convention in Ottawa.

The big decision Liberals must make here is whether or not to open up their club, humbled as it was in last spring’s election, by accepting new rules for the selection their next leader and nominating candidates at the riding level. Apps, who will be replaced in a vote at this convention, is championing controversial reforms that would allow Canadians who sign up as Liberal “supporters”—but not as paid-up members—to vote in the leadership race and at riding nomination meetings.

Answering questions from party members at a session at the convention today, Apps mentioned that a promising model for the reform push is France’s Socialist Party. That allusion would of course have meant nothing to most Liberals, or other Canadians for that matter, but it’s surprisingly relevant.

The French Socialists chose Francois Hollande last fall as their candidate for this year’s presidential election in an open primary process, which was a dramatic departure for the historically cliquish party. In two rounds of primary voting, held Oct. 9 and Oct. 16, any French voter could merely show up, pay just one euro, sign a document avowing that they support the party’s values, and cast a ballot.

The result was a lively, wide-open affair. The Economist said the exercise put the Socialists in an “extraordinarily buoyant mood” and “lent the party a fresh, modern air.” Clearly, Apps and the other Liberal insiders campaigning for this key amendment to their party’s constitution are hoping the same magic can work for them in Canada.

But they are facing resistance from delegates who fear giving over control of their party—especially during local nominating meetings—to non-members. And, unlike the French Socialists, the Canadian Liberals are pondering making this big change in one, swift reform gesture. In France, the Socialists moved partly toward a more open membership system and a primary-like process before the 2007 presidential election, which their candidate, Ségolène Royal, lost to Nicolas Sarkozy.

No internal party reform can guarantee an election victory. Still, last fall’s the big primaries turnout among French voters who lean left but aren’t traditional Socialist members, and the resulting far greater interest from French TV in the race for the Socialist presidential nomination, has to count as a major success for the party. Britain’s Labour Party, for instance, is edging in a similar direction.

It’s hard to guess how Liberal delegates in Ottawa will vote on this and other serious constitutional reform proposals. To those who are voicing skepticism in the corridors here, the idea evidently seems quite radical. But the evidence from across the Atlantic tantalizingly suggests the gamble could be worth it.

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