Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Third Way

The latest Ipsos poll paints a rather dreary picture of Liberal fortunes, with what was once the natural governing party languishing more than 15 points behind both the NDP and the Conservatives.

Of course, the NDP are in their post-leadership honeymoon, the Liberals don't have a permanent leader, and a horse race poll when politics is the farthest thing from the electorate's mind won't tell you a lot. But I think we can safely assume the Liberals are a distant third, trailing two parties who are both intent on hugging the centre of the road, making it almost impossible to pass them. So what's a centrist party to do?

I agree with Rae's message of staying to the middle of the spectrum, but the days of finding sunny compromises between the NDP and Conservative extremes on every single issue are numbered. When you're the third place party you need to give people a reason to vote for you, and a milquetoast platform topped with some language about the "extremist" positions of two very non-extremist parties isn't going to be convincing.

Faced with this new reality, the challenge is standing out and being noticed. That likely means on occasion passing the two parties ahead of you on the right, and on occasion passing them on the left. So maybe the Liberals adopt a few "right wing" economic policies even the Conservatives dare not touch, like the abolishment of supply management. Maybe it means "out-NDPing" the NDP by proposing a national pharmacare program.

Of course, the entire concept of a left-right political spectrum is somewhat arbitrary when you think about it. Is democratic reform a right wing or a left wing issue? Either way, parties talk a lot less about it the closer they get to power, so there may be an opening there for the Liberals who are decidedly nowhere near power. There's certainly an opening on the "Quebec question", given the PQ may be in power a year from now, and both the Tories and NDP have spent long nights flirting with the separatists in recent years.

The other thing to consider is the dirty little secret that most voters aren’t reading through party platforms and casting their vote based on policy. Did Jack Layton leap from third to second because voters found his policies that much more compelling than Ignatieff's? Most voters would be hard pressed to identify a single area of cleavage between the two party platforms.

Now, I’m not saying the Liberals are one leadership change away from power. As I’ve written before, there’s a lot of structural work to be done, and even if voters didn’t know the intricacies of the Liberal and NDP platforms last election, they had a clear impression of party brands, and an overall sense of party values. But a party’s leader does matter, and it’s just as important to have a leader who can differentiate himself or herself from Mulcair and Harper, as it is to have policies that can be differentiated from the NDP and CPC platforms. That doesn’t mean the Liberals should search for the anti-Mulcair or shy away from an experienced and polished politician like Harper – only that there needs to be some kind of “value add” that makes their leader stand out. The brilliance of Jack was that he always smiled and could connect with voters – that’s an ability Michael Ignatieff lacked completely, and one both Harper and Mulcair struggle with.

In the past, all the Liberals needed to do to get elected was wedge themselves squarely between the extremes. There are still many issues for which that strategy makes sense from both an ideological and political perspective. But adopting that knee-jerk approach on every issue and failing to stand out is a sure fire path to irrelevance.

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