The Liberal leadership race matters

brooke jeffrey

The Liberal Party is the most successful political machine in the Western democratic world. Widely referred to as the “natural governing party” of Canadian politics, it dominated the political landscape in Canada throughout the twentieth century.

Between 1945 and 2000 the Liberal Party received more votes than any other party in all but four of 17 national elections. In more than three-quarters of these elections it obtained more votes than all other parties taken together.

One of the most commonly cited reasons for the party’s success has been its ability to take advantage of its brief periods in opposition, or infrequent changes of leadership, to renew itself in terms of policies and organization.
Another has been its remarkable degree of internal cohesion. Liberals, it was well known, did not wash their dirty linen in public.

Unlike the Progressive Conservatives, they did not destroy their leaders. In exchange, successful Liberal leaders reached out to defeated opponents and their supporters to keep the party united. This show of solidarity translated into public confidence in the party’s ability to govern.

Last but hardly least, the unparalleled success of the Liberal Party has been attributed to its ability to shape and define Canadian values as Liberal values, including a centre-left brand of Canadian liberalism, and support for a strong central government within a strong federation. This once prompted a frustrated Alliance leader Stockwell Day to exclaim, “You can be a good Canadian and not vote Liberal!”

Given this historical backdrop, the current plight of the Liberal Party is remarkable but easily explained, since all three of the factors which accounted for its past success were disowned with reckless abandon in the past four years.

The internecine warfare, the removal of a leader who was a sitting prime minister and had recently delivered a third straight majority government for the party, the coronation of his challenger in a leadership race devoid of other candidates or meaningful policy debate, the ongoing purging of the departed leader’s supporters — Canadians could be forgiven for wondering whether the Liberal Party had changed overnight.

Prime Minister Martin’s subsequent support for a greatly decentralized “asymmetrical” federalism, his uncertain stand on a range of social policy issues which should have been natural strengths for a Liberal government, and his administration’s painfully obvious lack of competence produced a confused and disillusioned electorate which felt it had little to choose from in the last federal election.

In this context, the current leadership race offers the party a chance for redemption. With 11 declared candidates and five policy forums in advance of the leadership convention to be held in Montreal in early December, Liberals have an ideal opportunity to take the challenge of renewal seriously.

On the other hand, virtually all candidates come with baggage. Some lack fluency in French; others are too closely identified with one of the two camps, or lack any identification with the party or the country.

Given the importance of the challenge the Harper government presents, this leadership race could be a crucial turning point for the party and the country.

Brooke Jeffrey is an Associate Professor of Political Science, and has been a policy advisor to three Liberal leaders. She is currently a member of the Liberal Renewal Commission.

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