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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30 Comments:

  • I'm with you, CG.

    The Liberals are down but they are roaring back to relevance. Canadians have seen enough of this tin-pot Dictator Harper to show him the door. This country can't afford his tyranny much longer.

    The Dippers are commies who want to North Koreanize Canada. Well, I have something to say to Tom Mulcair:

    I knew Kim Jong Il and sir, you are no Kim Jong Il.

    This isn't just about Canada. This is about all of humanity. Without the Liberals in charge, humanity can kiss its future goodbye.

    By Anonymous Bring Back Cherniak, at 9:14 AM  

  • Its over.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:14 AM  

  • Canadians don't deserve us. We are better than Canada. We gave Canada so much and they don't have the decency to kiss our feet like they should.

    Canadians are morons who like being bullied by Harper and his brown-shirt thugs.

    We Liberals should all move to Newfoundland and separate from Canada. Then, 50 years later, when Newfoundland is kicking Canada's ass - then Canada will be sorry it ever dared to turn its back on us.

    By Anonymous Liberals are Better than Canada, at 9:17 AM  

  • Sure, maybe we are better than most Canadians. Maybe we think more broadly, care more deeply and know what's best for everyone. But we shouldn't rub that in everybody's noses.

    It isn't going to sell. Our product is first rate, our selling job is lousy. We can never expect Canadians to understand the nuances and deep thinking behind our policies - Canadians are not bright enough for that. We need to do a better job of explaining the benefits of our deep thinking to them.

    Otherwise, Harper and his evil ilk will continue to rape the country.

    By Anonymous Common Sense Liberal, at 9:21 AM  

  • The Liberal Party, especially in the Cretien era was a place that appealed to soft 'c' conservatives, moderates and those who felt that being fiscially responsible did not have to come at the expense of our left leaning social policy. I think when Harper started to stake his claim on the fiscal conservatives, the Party turned to the left and attempted to forage electoral fields that had been picked clean. At some point we lost our identity and became NDP Lite.

    If you want to see what's wrong with the Liberal brand, look no further than my father. He became a citizen in the late 80's, cast his first vote ever for Brian Mulroney's PC Party and then became a dependable Liberal vote from 92 onward. In the last election he and my mother voted conservative because the Dion and Ignatieff era policies no longer appealed to a fiscally moderate socially liberal people like my parents.

    That's where the Party should plant its flag and define itself not as anti-Conservative or anti-Dipper but rather a party that can go beyond rigid ideology to make the best decisions for all of Canada.

    By Blogger Mark, at 9:49 AM  

  • One problem is the Liberals don't stand for anything that people identify with. In 2008 they ran on the green shift, less than three years later they ran on a totally different platform.

    Most people know what the Conservatives and NDP stand for because they're consistent, and because neither had the chance to implement their platforms for years they stuck with those platforms and just tweaked their ideas. Both parties still had their core ideas.

    The Liberals voted overwhelmingly for the legalization of marijuana, so it should be a mandatory policy that remains in all platforms. They should embrace supply management and stick with. They need several big ideas that will be "Liberal ideas".

    By Blogger Jordan, at 11:07 AM  

  • AS comforting as it may be to suggest that the left-right spectrum is arbitrary, it's not. It is the result of a real spectrum in personality of individuals, in things like the relationship between proximity and empathy (how much more do you care for things that are closer to you) and things like perception of the degree of order in the world, and openness to change. Our politics are different because we are different. That is not to say that the left-right spectrum is the only one, or that every issue falls on that spectrum somewhere. But it's not arbitrary.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:09 AM  

  • It's arbitrary to think that there's only really two lines of thought and that people can't realistically share values that both extremes find value in positions that both sides adhere to with limited flexibility.

    The illusion that no middle ground exists is pushed by ultra partisans on the extremes to push their own agenda. I think this is kind of a new phenomenon in Canada that is a result of the Conservatives tacking far right.

    Point being, there is a space to stake in the middle of Canadian politics where people not attached to any far left or right ideology and are not threatened by the concept of compromise or working with people on both ends of the political spectrum to build a country can find a home. That's where the Liberals should be defined and that's where our policy should come from. And we should bristle at any attempt to classify the Party as a left wing party. The Liberal Party of Chretien was Pragmatic and had appeal across a large swath of the political spectrum.

    By Blogger Mark, at 11:42 AM  

  • I believe the opportunity exists for the Liberals to take a strong position on national unity. Both the Cons and NDPs have demonstrated a willingness to pit regions against each other.

    That plus bold policies that are fiscally conservative and socially progressive, along with a strong leader to sell the party platform could really help the Libs.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:32 PM  

  • Take a strong position on national unity when you ignored one region of the country for decades is not easy.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 12:54 PM  

  • People are scared and when they're scared they scramble away from the status quo, towards socialism, libertarianism, or who-knows-what.

    Offering the strong, sensible middle ground may not be a strong short-term game but it's the right long-term one.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 1:49 PM  

  • "...Most people know what the Conservatives and NDP stand for because they're consistent, and because neither had the chance to implement their platforms for years they stuck with those platforms and just tweaked their ideas. Both parties still had their core ideas..." So Jordan, what do the Dippers or Cons stand for?

    It is becoming evident the only thing The Cons seem to stand for is pleasing their base in Alberta.
    The Dippers, well, I am still waiting for them to tell Canadians where they stand on The Clarity Act.

    By Anonymous A. Cynic, at 4:10 PM  

  • Oh, Common Sense Liberal. Surely you realize that Liberals are Better than Canada was being sarcastic, right? Right?

    Anonymous (the second Anonymous) has the right of it. National unity is a simple issue that the Liberal party could use to recover some support. And while Jordan is right to point out that the Liberals have a lot to make up for in the West - but the sooner they start, the better.

    By Blogger Vancouverois, at 5:01 PM  

  • The Liberals ignored The West, which is to say they ignored Alberta. Having grown up in a staunchly Liberal family in Ontario and now been living in Calgary for 13 years all I can ask is 'do you blame them?'

    Albertans are like the kid in the schoolyard who yells and belittles and bullies the other kids and then wonders why those other kids won't play with them.

    Respect and attention are a two way street. If you are hung up on 30 year old energy policies and prime ministers, bad mouth anything Liberal (supporters included) as if they were molestors, and blindly vote Conservative to the tune of 70% of the vote in many cases why would you expect the Liberals to even attempt to woe you?

    By Anonymous hazzard, at 6:50 PM  

  • A. Cynic,

    The Conservatives have consistently campaigned for lower taxes, less red tape, tougher crime legislation, and ending the gun registry. While the NDP have campaigned on improving healthcare and keeping it free, more social programs, and higher taxes on big corporations and the wealthy.

    You might not like either party but that doesn't mean they have not been constant with their policies.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 7:45 PM  

  • National unity is not such a simple thing as some posters here seem to think. In order to stand credibly for national unity, you have to have a national project of some sort--there has to be something the country should unite for.
    This is a particular problem in modern times, and in some ways worst for Liberals. Globalization and free trade make it harder to define a specifically national project and even in some ways national interests at all, since we're supposed to be worshiping international investors and their supposedly-magical creation of prosperity.
    Conservatives get around that by being gung ho militarists. It's crazy, but at least it's a national project of sorts.
    The NDP confront it by opposing the free-market, free-trade project. Whether you think that's reasonable or not, it opens the door for favouring national economic development, for insisting on the citizens' well-being even if it's not considered a competitive use of money by international financiers--generally, for attempts at national economic and social development.

    Liberals, however, tend to want to not be crazy militarists on one hand, but do want to accept the primacy of free markets (and any offshoring etc. that goes with them) on the other. So what national project, what national dream can the Liberals unite the country around? If you accept mainstream economics, national projects are economically unsound. So what's national unity supposed to be for, then?

    By Blogger Purple library guy, at 9:31 PM  

  • 1) As the New Yorker's Louis Menand exclaimed, Plato had it wrong. More than a half century of work on voting behavior shows that the vast majority of voters do not a have a clue. According to Philip Converse, for example, only about one in 10 voters hold any kind of coherent political world view. Humankind is the unpolitical animal.


    What matters is striking a tone that resonates with most voters. That means sounding pragmatic, conciliatory, measured, bland and above all temperamentally conservative well all the while saying next to nothing. Given the public's profound ignorance, there can not be really said to be an ideological center to appeal to.


    2) Of course, the Liberals have long been masters of sounding centrist. However, what the Liberals have failed to realize is it also matters who is saying it. The Canadian Action Party, or what have you, could echo Stephen Harper's every word and back every policy. However that would not make them any more centrist. For being centrist means more than sounding dull and promising never to rock the boat. How centrist a party is deemed depends in no small measure on the party's chances of electoral success. In other words, the center often turns out to be no more than who is at the center of Canadian politics. A sea change in the political landscape, however centrist a peripheral party's rhetoric, is not likely to be to the liking of people who do not want to rock the boat yet alone waste their vote.



    3) The Conservatives have become the first party to decouple rhetoric and policy altogether. The Conservatives talk a bland centrist game and then role out all kinds of radical policies in foot notes and back rooms. Knowing that the public knows next to nothing about parliamentary procedure and very little about policy, Conservatives feel no need to defend their actions either outside of parliament or in. With the Conservatives not willing to air their dirty laundry in public the Liberals will have a hard time portraying the Conservatives as being radical. Again the public does not have a good grasp of policy, the deem a party centrist if it sounds centrist and is at the center of Canadian politics.


    4) The only chance the Liberals have of avoiding the fate of the Progressive Conservative party is not as Andrew Coyne has said being "more Conservative than the Conservatives on some issues, more NDP than the NDP on others." No, the party most strike a revolutionary pose and not a "centrist" one. Only then will stand a chance of grabbing people's attention. Once they have grabbed the public's attention they can go after a portion of the electorate that the other parties will leave untapped. There is always going to be a portion of the electorate that is turned off by centrist language, who wants more substantive policy discussion and who has a clue. This is who the Liberals need to go after. It is pretty easy to sound smart when the other parties are doing their darnest not to say anything at all. Only then will the party stand the chance of attracting enough loyal followers to fight further elections.

    By Blogger Koby, at 9:47 PM  

  • Maybe it means "out-NDPing" the NDP by proposing a national pharmacare program.

    How do you "out-NDP" the NDP by proposing something that's been on the NDP policy books for at least a decade? Sorry, try again.

    By Blogger Jae/Jennie, at 2:20 AM  

  • I disagree with the idea that being a Centrist means not rocking the boat. What it means is being able to take information and opinions from the entire political spectrum and fashioning them into a coherant and supportable position.

    It's not about out Conning the Cons or Out Dippering the Dippers, it's about acknowledging the good from both ends of the political spectrum and hammering home that we're the only Party that is willing to explore both ideologies to come up with something that works for as many Canadians as possible.

    By Blogger Mark, at 8:39 AM  

  • @Mark

    You want politicians to behave like thoughtful adults?! Is that even possible? lol

    By Anonymous hazzard, at 8:53 AM  

  • @hazzard,

    Problem now-a-days, if a politician behalfs like a thoughtful adult, the electorate ensures they're not going to get anywhere near any political seat.

    By Blogger Mark, at 3:51 PM  

  • If I could offer one hopefully useful refinement on your commentary, CG, with the benefit of a bit of distance, I think one of the major difficulties with the attempt to "tack left" last time is that you had the wrong leader for the platform.

    One could get wrapped up in the chicken-and-egg problem of picking the platform and then finding the right leader, versus finding the right leader and then adopting a platform that person has some credibility advancing ... or ... you could figure out who your target audience is, and then the rest (both leader and platform) might well follow more obviously.

    Having Mr. Ignatieff discuss eduation was the obvious fit, as there he had a lot of creds. Some of the rest of it never really fit him personally, however, at least not to me.

    By Blogger The Pundits' Guide, at 9:39 PM  

  • I agree with the person who talked about policy coherency and portraying a party's core principles.

    That is definitely more difficult for a centrist party. But also the Liberals got lazy while they reaped the rewards of the Reform/CA vs PC dynamic in the 90s when they didn't have to stand for anything other than being not Mulroney's party, not Rae's party and anything but Reform/CA.

    During that time, the Conservatives were watching and learning from the original master of decoupling rehtoric from policy, the Chrétien/Martin themselves, and the NDP were gaining their base back as a result of that decoupling.

    The Liberals aren't down and out. The deck is stacked against them somewhat, and they stacked the deck against themselves a bit too.

    By Anonymous Marc from soccer, at 12:53 PM  

  • Good point Pundits Guide, and I agree completely.

    As I said above I think the Liberals need some core policies that are Liberal policies no matter who is leader. I do think though that leaders should have enough trust from party members to craft their own platforms.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 9:11 PM  

  • The Liberals were never a "centrist" party, at least when it comes to what Canadian politics are about (which are not ideological). Canadian politics is about who gets what, and the who in question is typically regional.

    Mulcair realizes this, which is why he is trumpeting the Dutch Disease, in an effort to galvanize eastern Canada behind him. But he's following in the footsteps of scores of Liberal leaders that did the same thing (although the precise regional configurations have changed).

    Ask yourself whether there is a region of the country where a voter could clearly say "I would be better served by the Liberals than any other parties." Maybe Anglo Montreal and parts of the Maritimes, which isn't an election-winning coalition.

    Politics are about interests, not values. So the real question should be how to unite a regionally concentrated group of Canadians amounting to a third of the country, behind the Liberals.

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 6:54 PM  

  • I guess H2H is right.

    Honestly, goodness knows I'm no fan of the LPC in recent years - what a pack, for the most part, of arrogant jerks!

    But there's no reason a party can't have broad, coast-to-coast appeal. A party doesn't have to play to regions. If you want my 2 cents (and hey, you may not!), I think the LPC is just too stuck in the past to make amends and move on.

    The LPC has sinned greatly; they openly wrote off, and mocked, the West. They cheated and stole and did nothing but make excuses (and very weak apologies), and sowed bitterness in their most fertile ground (the East, esp Quebec).

    All that is required is contriteness and renewal. That's all that is EVER required, from a spouse, a friend, a relative, a boss, an employee, a colleague, a lover. All the LPC needs to do is acknowledge sincerely the mistakes it has made, the people it has alienated, the people it has taken for granted, the lies it has told, the promises it has broken, and explain how things are going to be different from now on.

    But, that takes honesty and sincerity, and no politician out there possesses those qualities, in any party. No Liberal thinks the Liberals did anything wrong (same in every party).

    I agree with you about structural change and see how it needs to happen. But I want to ask, how is that relevant to me, or my friends, or the guy sitting across the café from me right now? It matters to YOU (plural, the Liberals), but it doesn't matter to US. It absolutely needs to happen, but I don't think it's enough in the big picture.

    The Liberals need a BOLD and NEW vision, and a salesperson (leader) with PASSION.

    No more "daycare" hogwash, which all Liberals have lied about repeatedly. No one believes you anymore (and haven't for a long time). As a quick example (NOT a suggestion), a marijuana-legalized bilingual republic with an official Aboriginal language and no more equalization payments* combined with a Leader who believes in those things and wants to make up to teh public for past trangressions can create a whole New Image, and destroy the Old Image tying you down.

    *Again, just a quick example off the top of my head. Equalization, republic, marijuana -- they may be vote-killers, but at least they're NEW.

    I hate you, LPC (not you, CG), but any serious analyst of psychology can tell you that people can only hate what they also might love. Indifference is the death-blow, not strong emotions.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:31 PM  

  • http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/21/quebec-corruption-inquiry-could-expose-links-between-mafia-politics-and-construction/

    I've got them! (bangs fist on table). Mulroney took bags of money trying to corrupt our military purchases (didn't work).
    And now TCP was very foolishly involved in mobbed up oil pipeline contracts. Surely a different company must now be selected to attempt the build out West? If there is one thing I've learned about cdn political over last 8 years, it is you can turn 2/3 of the world into a failed state legally, but tip one extra fin on the taxpayer dollar and you won't be re-elected.
    Learning about checks on power over different forms of government. It is hard. Many intangibles that aren't mentioned. Already figured out people like good looking politicans and good speech deliverers. But the media get bored too after a decade. The media has ADD. Also, Chretein went through an appendectomy he didn't need, just to try to escape boarding school. As a youth you knew he would be able to stand up to cunt Coni no matter what the Americans threatened. Just like stood up to UK bad leadership of cdn soldiers in WWI; grabbed their PM right by the shirt collar. Can't quantify it yet, but that is the quality of a great leader. Such a leader would take the prosperity of Canada and the world, personally.

    By Anonymous The Keystone Garter, at 1:34 PM  

  • The politics of the old Canada were about interests. The politics of the current incarnation of Canada are increasingly becoming about values - a shift Harper and the Conservatives sensed and have fostered, on purpose, to the benefit of their party but more importantly to the detriment of the interest-focused Liberal party. The majority of Liberals haven't figured this out yet and a focus solely on the old interest-based politics of yesteryear will continue to sideline Liberals.

    By Anonymous Marc from soccer, at 12:37 PM  

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