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