Monday, June 28, 2010

The Liberal Party in Decline Part Three / the NDP Revives

Parallel to Liberal decline the NDP by the late nineties was beginning to achieve new growth. Alexa McDonough gave the NDP a major breakthrough in Atlantic Canada in 1997 when the party won eight seats in the region, strength retained federally to the present day. The NDP now holds four of thirty-two federal seats including representation in three of the four Atlantic Provinces, and was elected to government in Nova Scotia last year. By 2008 the NDP had increased its Commons representation from a low of 9 in 1993 to 37 with MPs from all provinces except PEI and Saskatchewan plus one from the Northwest Territories.
Jack Layton currently has the strongest approval rating of the three national party leaders and the NDP is potentially poised to win the next election if the Harper government falters between now and then. It appears at the moment that the NDP is one transformational moment or issue away from winning. It may not happen – Michael Ignatieff could still wind up as the next Prime Minister - but the potential is there for the first time. The NDP has occasionally had the illusion of winning prospects before (during World War II and the late eighties) but they had no strength east of Ontario at that time so they were forced to concentrate their hopes on Canada west of the Ottawa valley. Today the party is far more regionally balanced and actually has one seat each in Alberta and Quebec. Layton has been working at winning over Quebec with some success. You can see that in this poll (tables on page 12) more BQ voters (and therefore more Quebec voters) cite the NDP as a second choice than any other party including the Liberals.
Liberal weakness today stems from important internal failings as well as bad luck. Post-Trudeau the party was divided between factions led respectively by Chrétien and John Turner, whose 1980s faction would be taken over by Paul Martin in the nineties. The Martin government was then done in by a Chrétien-era scandal.
During the Chrétien period the Liberals did a poor job of recruiting future leaders, for example, in Ontario, where they won all but a few seats over the course of three elections. The Ontario-based leadership hopefuls from Ontario elected first in the eighties and nineties and early 21st century were Ken Dryden, Sheila Copps, John Manley, and Alan Rock, an unimpressive group. Despite the enormous size of the cohort of MPs that came into Parliament in 1988 and 1993, these hopefuls were all that the party could muster from Canada’s largest province. There is a substantial measure of chance in this. The NDP’s weakest leader, Audrey McLaughlin, came from its largest ever caucus. The entire field of 1989 NDP candidates (who were all weak) came from the same federal caucus. In the 21st century this phenomenon has been visited upon the Liberals.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Liberal Party in Decline/ Part Two: the Chrétien Era

There can be little doubt that Jean Chrétien is and was one of the most naturally gifted politicians in Canadian history. However, he alienated French Quebec in the early nineties during the constitutional wars and the party remains weak there to this day. In addition his string of victories in the nineties rested to a degree that remains unrecognized on a run of unbelievably good luck. Let’s go through it all in order:
First came the fracturing of Mulroney’s coalition. It was always a tenuous alliance at best. Free trade united PC MPs from Quebec and the rural west. When the question shifted to Quebec’s place in the federation during the debate on Meech Lake, the Progressive Conservative Party split into three: the original party, the new western-based Reform Party and Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Québecois. It is easier to win an election when your opponents are so thoroughly divided.
Our national media from time to time gets the national political scene spectacularly wrong. Perhaps its low point came in the early nineties when, despite the obvious collapse and fracturing of the Mulroney coalition then underway, all they could see was that somehow Kim Campbell would rescue the sinking PC ship. At the time it meant completely disregarding and underestimating both Reform and the Bloc. So they wrote stories about how Jean Chrétien was yesterday’s man.
But there was a second key element of Liberal good luck: the party also benefited from developments on the left. The NDP took control of Ontario in 1990 and B.C. in 1991 at the provincial level, and promptly started to drive down the popularity of the NDP brand provincially and federally. That came on top of the NDP selecting the inexperienced and unqualified Audrey McLaughlin as its federal leader in 1989. Given that second choice for the majority of NDP voters is the Liberals, that meant the NDP electorate defected en masse to the Liberals in 1993. The NDP brand in Ontario in particular was deeply hurt by the early nineties recession. At the same time this meant the Ontario Liberal Party, being out of power provincially, could not do any damage to the federal Liberal brand during the early nineties downturn. Had David Peterson won in 1990 the story would have been quite different.
Third, the split on the right had a clear regional character that helped the Liberals in Ontario. West of the Ontario-Quebec border only one PC was elected between 1993 and 2000 whereas east of the Ontario-Quebec border there were no Reform or Alliance MPs during the same period. In Ontario the two parties split the right almost perfectly down the middle. Combined with NDP weakness, this gave the Liberal party a near sweep of seats in Ontario for three elections in a row. But Ontario politics had never before displayed such uniformity. It couldn’t last and didn’t. The Liberals’ apparent invincibility in Ontario ended in 2004 when the unified Conservatives won twenty-four seats, and the NDP, newly reinvigourated by Toronto-based leader Jack Layton, took 7 seats (the NDP now has 17). Those 31 seats were the difference between Paul Martin winning a minority and a majority that would have somewhat resembled the Chrétien victory in 1997.
Overall, Chrétien faced weak leaders such as McLauglin and Stockwell Day on the opposition benches. The political stage was set for the three consecutive majorities. Economic developments would prove to be equally favourable.

The Political Economy of Liberal Majority
The new government, elected in November 1993, inherited a large deficit. However, the slump of the early nineties ended in 1994 setting the stage for a decade of strong growth, an essential ingredient for political strength and critical to any deficit reduction strategy.
Whether the deficit was ever the economic burden that it was made out to be is debatable. Regardless, falling interest rates, the end of a credit crunch, lower oil prices, and increasing productivity from the tech boom, helped fuel a decade of rapid growth in the U.S. economy during the decade Joseph Stiglitz called the “roaring nineties”. Growth in the U.S. fueled demand for Canadian goods and services. A bonus was that Canada gained a competitive advantage via a weak the Canadian dollar, (which did not reach bottom until January 2002 when it traded at about 62 cents U.S.) Thus the 1995 deficit fighting budget was certain to be successful despite all the gloomy editorials and op-eds in the media that suggested otherwise. Within three years the Liberal government could take credit for cleaning up what had appeared to be an intractable financial mess.
By 1998 the Chrétien government could start both spending money and cutting taxes. Indeed they could have launched Paul Martin’s child care program much sooner, making it far less vulnerable to cancellation by the Harperites. Despite the good economic news, Liberal weakness continued in Quebec. During the nineties the Liberals did regain strength in western cities such as Winnipeg and Vancouver compared to the Trudeau era, but currently the party holds just 7 of 92 seats west of the Manitoba-Ontario border.

Next... The NDP Revives

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Liberal Party in Decline/ Part One: The Early Years

The last few years have not been kind to the federal Liberal Party. It experienced its second worst electoral result in percentage of seats won in 2008 (1958 was worse). The Liberals have managed to make two poor leadership choices in a row, and have been unable to pose an effective or coherent alternative to a very conservative albeit opportunistic Harper government. Now its partisans debate the merits of coalescing with the NDP, while some even suggest a merger. 
The Liberals as recently as last autumn were all ready to bring down the government and force an election, an egregious error given that the public was at the time extremely hostile to the idea of having an election (my impression is that this remains largely true although there has been no recent polling on the issue). There has been periodic commentary by the pundit class that the Harper government is getting everything its own way without an election anyway and may be heading for a majority next time. This column from Paul Wells, which was clearly and explicitly influenced by Harper’s staff, is a typical example.
There is a tendency to assign most of the responsibility for Liberal weakness to its current leader. It is clear that Michael Ignatieff is inexperienced, has weak political skills and appears not to have good instincts. However, whatever its leadership issues, the Liberal Party’s decline is longstanding. 
A quick question: if this is a low point for the party, what was its high point? The answer: the 1949 election, when the party won 50.1% of the vote and 73% of the seats. Its leader then was Louis St. Laurent and the party was strong in every region of the country including the prairies where it won 30 of 54 seats. 
The Liberals performed almost as well in 1953, but the decline started in 1957 when John Diefenbaker expanded the Conservative universe. The new Progressive Conservative strength was on the prairies where PCs had won just 4 of 54 seats in 1949. In 1958, 1962 and 1963 the party won an average of 43 of 48 seats in the three prairie provinces. The Liberal party lost much of its base in there as a consequence of Diefenbaker, and has never figured out a way to recover the lost ground.
Out of office between 1957 and 1963 the new Liberal leader Lester Pearson made a critical strategic choice between two competing visions. His decision helped renew the Liberal party for next forty years. He rejected advice by Jack Pickersgill to position the party in the same way that had worked for St. Laurent. Let’s call it a centrist business Liberalism. Instead he took the advice of his young adviser Tom Kent (who had arrived in Canada from the U.K. in 1954), that the party should move to left by emphasizing equality and push for completion of the then partly built Canadian welfare state. Among Pearson's notable accomplishments were a comprehensive national pension plan (the CPP) and public health care. 
This coincided with a renewal effort on the left as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation gave way to the New Democratic Party. The NDP, with new ties to the labour movement, was stronger than the CCF, which had been rooted in agrarian socialism. However, the newly left-leaning Liberal Party would be largely successful in blocking its advance.
Trudeau Moves into 24 Sussex
The party made a similar choice in 1968 when it chose Pierre Trudeau over the St. Laurent era cabinet minister Robert Winters (who had returned to politics in 1965 after his 1957 defeat). After initial stumbles in his first term led to near defeat in 1972, Trudeau learned to combine governing and politics and went on overall to be a successful Liberal leader and prime minister. Unlike Ignatieff, Trudeau had been actively engaged in Quebec politics via the magazine Cité Libre and other activities, and actually entered politics with a background of political involvement. However, Trudeau’s constitutional ambitions would sow the seeds of Liberal weakness in the nineteen eighties.
The Liberals lost French Quebec in 1984. Brian Mulroney won a landslide majority that included most of French Quebec and held it through two elections before it came to be dominated by the BQ. The Liberal party did hold on to Anglo-Quebec and has maintained its strength in that community since. However, with the exception of the 2000 election when the unpopularity of the Lucien Bouchard’s PQ government in Quebec City (in particular, its program of municipal consolidation) weighed heavily on the fortunes of the BQ, the federal Liberal party has been more or less shut out of French Quebec. Like their loss on the prairies in 1957, the Liberals lost the support of one part of their coalition. This time the loss was much more important. Without French Quebec there would have been no Trudeau majorities.
Trudeau was genuinely popular in Quebec while in office. However, he excluded the Quebec government of René Levesque from the deal with the other nine provinces that resulted in the Constitution Act, 1982. He successfully defeated the PQ government of René Levesque in the negotiations. However, he laid the basis for a renewal of Quebec nationalism, which had suffered a devastating blow when the PQ lost their referendum on sovereignty-association in May 1980. Trudeau retired in 1984 without going to the electorate to defend his new constitution. In English Canada the early eighties economic downturn guaranteed Liberal defeat. It is an intriguing historical question, however, as to what might have been the outcome in Quebec where Liberal support carried over in the polls in that province into the middle of the 1984 campaign before collapsing, had Trudeau fought one more election. The Liberals recovered partial ground in French Quebec in the 2000 election but that proved to be fleeting.
It has actually been Jack Layton’s NDP that in recent years has done a much more effective job of courting support in French Quebec, and stands now to benefit the most if the BQ ever suffers a truly serious reverse. Despite the NDP’s historic weakness in that province, in the most recent Léger poll  (see table on page 8)  the party is tied with the Liberals among francophones. The Liberals failed in the eighties to recognize their profound weakness in French Quebec and its importance.  Despite the fact that the onset of this decline dates from 1984, the Liberals have done little to address it.
Liberal weakness continued in western Canada during the Trudeau era despite a few early gains. The 1980 election reinforced this aspect of Liberal weakness when the party achieved its majority east of the Manitoba border, creating the illusion that weakness in that one region did not matter.
After 1984 one region became two. The nationalism long dominant in provincial politics in Quebec demonstrated its strength on the federal scene first for the Mulroney PCs and then for the Bloc Québecois. The federal Liberal Party somehow never recognized what was happening. A key reason for that failure stems from the assumption on the part of many Liberals that the selection of Jean Chrétien as leader in 1990 would lead to a rebound for the party in Quebec.
Next: The Chretien Era & Beyond