Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cooked Grits

The Liberals emerged from their weekend convention in a self-satisfied frame of mind. There was a large turnout and enthusiastic participation. Many Liberals are happy with the performance of Bob Rae as leader, and think he will compare well with whatever leader is selected by the NDP on March 24, and likely he ought to become the permanent replacement for Michael Ignatieff. 

What was missing was critical self-reflection. The weekend was symbolized by the Globe and Mail op-ed page on Friday, January 13. An insightful column by Jeffrey Simpson (misleadingly headlined "Don't Write Off the Liberals Quite Yet") summed up the Liberals problem well:
Think of the chunks that have fallen away from the once-formidable Liberal coalition: francophones outside Quebec, many multicultural Canadians, blue-collar workers in the industrial cities of Ontario, federalist francophones in Quebec, Jews, Atlantic Canadians in cities such as St. John’s, Halifax, Moncton and Saint John, the “business” Liberals from Toronto. It was an impressive coalition, malleable when necessary, mobilized around the broad ideas for which Liberals stood.
When key parts of the electorate that once supported you depart is it not reasonable to stand up and ask the essential questions: "Why did those voters leave?", "How can we get them back?", and most importantly "What do we need to do to get past the NDP?". Instead there was a focus on issues of organization, reforming the leadership process and fund-raising.  Those issues matter but politics is also about the fundamentals of who should vote for you and why, and what do you need to do to do better than both your key competitors. The convention had the flavour of an event where the party had to overcome but one adversary. 

In a column placed just to the right of Simpson's in the January 13 Globe was an opinion piece from outgoing Liberal Party President Alf Apps headlined "How the Liberal Party will rise again".  He offered the following:
Canadians have sent Liberals to the political woodshed on three previous occasions – 1930, 1958 and 1984. Each time, the party was seen as arrogant, out of touch and out of date. Liberals bounced back from defeat by doing two things: reaching out to new people with new ideas, and modernizing their organization.
He seems not to have noticed that on each of those occasions the party was in second place. It is this narcissistic complacency that is at the heart of the Liberals dilemma. In fact, they did emerge from the last election not that far behind the NDP in Canada outside Quebec, just six points behind - 26.3% for the NDP to 20.5% for the Liberals. But their current circumstance is more catastrophic than in those other three years. Recovery will not come from spouting bromides such as those of Mr. Apps.

The Liberals are strong enough that they should not be written off (just yet), and the NDP has been weakened by the loss of Jack Layton, but one can't help but notice that it is not the Liberals that have eight reasonably decent leadership candidates with a significant measure of French language skill.

The Liberals need to take note of their problems: loss of francophone Quebec a quarter of a century ago, loss of their monopoly on the votes of immigrant Canadians, the losses to the NDP in Atlantic Canada, their death spiral in the west - one could go on - before they can realistically contemplate re-establishing themselves as a major party.

The only way to solve problems is to confront them head-on. The Liberal tasks extend well beyond rewriting their constitution and raising more money. But one does not detect recognition of this on the part of Canada's "natural governing party".  It may tell us much about their fate.