Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Case for Third-Party Status

There's a reality today that I think quite a few Liberals have already or are about to come to terms with: we may lose the Official Opposition status to the left-to-centre-left New Democrats, who, with a popular leader and new found strength in the province of Quebec (thanks to Jack's Mulroney-style pandering to nationalists and sovereigntists), are surpassing a Liberal campaign that, while mildly energized and well-oiled, has failed to inspire hearts and minds in an election we thought would give us the chance to do exactly that.

There's some question out there as to the inevitability of this - after all, Canada was one of the few countries in the world where the political spectrum failed to polarize between left and right, sticking with the centrist Liberals and Progressive Conservatives for most of its history, until recently anyways. Now, with a Conservative Party that, while now beholden to Eastern and therefore more centrist interests, is still fundamentally a Western conservative-backed movement, and a New Democratic Party that, while slightly closer to the centre, is still a left-wing party that will now be beholden to Quebec nationalists that will undoubtedly make up at least 45% of their caucus, the Liberals are being squeezed out with little constituency left except urban centrists in Ontario and Vancouver, base federalists in Quebec, and traditional voters in Atlantic Canada.

So, where do we go from here? If we end up as the third party, I think we'll end up as one in such a way that it'll be more similar to the three-parties situation that existed for much of the latter 20th century, simply because for the NDP to surpass us, they need to win Quebec and destroy the Bloc Quebecois. We'll also get above 20% of the vote, most likely closer to 25% than 20%. This means we'll end up in a situation similar to what the NDP were before, with the likelihood that they'll end up relying on us for support in government, so long as it's a minority situation. For Canada, this may be the best situation that can come out of it; for the Liberals, not so much. However, it is better than the alternative.

Now, I get the idea behind a merger, I really do. I think it has some merits (not a lot), but Kinsella and others must realize by now that it is very unlikely to happen, no matter what our situations are. There is simply too much animosity between our organizations, too much history, nevermind the fact that the provincial associations will never accept it, except in maybe the most extreme of cases. And if you think you can do it at just a federal level, you're wrong; the NDP are linked organizationally to all their provincial counterparts, many of them in contention with the Liberals, who will not like the idea of melding together the organizations or losing that federal support (because it'll end up being split two ways if the provinces stay the same). This is especially true in the Atlantic provinces, specifically Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but also rings true in Ontario and Manitoba, where the federal Liberals and provincial Liberals are unaffiliated but still closely linked.

So, for now, the merger idea is an absolute non-starter. I can see it down the road, maybe in the style of the Liberal/National alliance in Australia, where some of the state-level parties have mulled the idea of a merger, and one, specifically in Queensland, has gone all the way. But that took years of co-operation and organizational melding - people like Kinsella, who want it right away, simply will not get their wish.

With that out of the way, here is what I propose, if we come to the fact that the Liberals will be facing third-party status: accept it. That's right, accept third-party status, and work within the confines of what Canadian voters have given you.

The Liberals are, in fact, well-placed for this task. We will still be relatively competitive assuming all the polls are right about where we are, and we can hold the balance of power in minority parliaments. Not only this, we also have either government or Official Opposition status in most provinces, meaning that the Liberal brand itself is not likely to die off so long as we can maintain that support, which is a good likelihood considering that Ontario and the Atlantic provinces are still strong bases for us and for their respective provincial Liberals.

Given this, we would go into third-party status in a stronger position than what the New Democrats were in before. It works to our advantage, and given our ability to bounce back after some organizational rework, it could easily work in our favour.

But most of all, third-party status may be good for one major reason: we need to find our constituency. The fact is, the Liberals have been flailing since our loss of Quebec in 1984, and we were only kept aloft because of our ability to eek out wins in Ontario and, of course, the right-wing split during the 1990's. The Liberal Party has a lot to offer people, but we do try and offer all people something - we become overstretched and end up making quite a few promises that won't please everyone, and maybe not anyone.

Ask the NDP what the secret to their success as a third party has been, and you'll get a resounding answer: we appealed to our constituency and played on our regionals. The Liberals often have the issue of trying to play up areas we're not going to win in - this was the issue with Turner, Martin, and to a smaller extent Ignatieff, who have tried to court Western voters or win over Quebec's soft nationalists. It failed because what the Liberals are - a middle-and-upper-class backed elitist (not in the bad sense) federalist party - don't appeal to many of those voters. And by changing our standards to try and meet the demands of groups that aren't our natural constituencies, we lost voters on other fronts. The NDP did something similar by courting Quebec and Eastern voters over their traditional Western base, which we're still seeing the effects of today (relative weakness of the NDP in Western Canada despite their best results ever). And while now it's worked out for them, because of this change in their base support, they're likely to lose more voters in Western Canada as time goes on, because let's face it, once you start pandering to Quebec heavily (which the NDP will) you're pretty much dead in their eyes.

So as we enter a new era of Canadian politics, the Liberals need to settle down and accept that we need to find our natural constituency and play it up. We do have them, despite what some say; the Liberals do appeal to middle-class voters, to federalists, to urban residents, to Atlantic Canada, and so on. And as a third-party, we're also well-positioned to take advantage of drops in support for the Conservatives and NDP when the time comes. If the other parties lose favour in middle-class Ontario, our natural home now, then we're well positioned to reap the rewards of it by saying, hey, we're your representative party, don't vote for those losers. If you need another option, the Liberals are here.

And as a third-party, our chances do increase to expand our voting base - say, to the West. After all, if Western Canadian voters need a new home if the NDP and Conservatives ignore them enough, as will always happen, the Liberals could present themselves as a new option simply by existing. Same goes for Quebec - after all, look where it got the NDP.

Once we play up these constituencies for the Liberals, then maybe we'll have the the ability to hold them later on and vault ourselves back into government. We just need to settle down, and start appealing to this base. If we can, we may end up in a much stronger position in the future than we are now.

So, dear Liberals, it will be depressing to say that we're now number three. It's not going to be pretty on May 2nd if the trend continues. But we do have options, and we do have the ability to renew ourselves. Maybe it'll even be exactly what the doctor ordered . Just don't give up hope, and don't give up the fight. This party can get back on its feet again.


  1. Australia's 'Liberal' Party is another name for their Conservative Party

  2. I know, Eliz - but the fact is, they do have a successful partnership with ideological cousins that led to a merger in one state, and may lead to it in others, as well as nationally.

  3. Actually you are wrong about the federal/provincial issue. Go back and read the constitutions of the various organization.

  4. What, that the NDP and provincial NDP aren't centralized? They may not be constitutionally, though I'm sure they are - however, they are in practice the same organizations.

  5. Good post. I agree with most of what you're saying. As far as a merger. Not only would it be tough to achieve, but I don't agree on it being a good idea at all.

    Here are a couple of possibilities with a merger:

    1) We merge, and the Canadian political scene becomes polarized like the US - continuously swinging from left to right - and with media private ownership and influence, and corporate influence, MORE often to the right. I don't think we want that... To allow the Cons to be the "natural governing party" like the Republicans in the US. Harper would be happy though - this is exactly what he wants.

    Sure, Canada has had only a couple of options for brief periods in our history, but typically there has always been a 3rd party. Usually this party was one which represented Western protest - and typically born on the Prairies. This won't change - and indeed, we can get this scenario back.

    2) We merge, and the "left" of the NDP splits off to join the Greens, literally re-forming the "NDP" in their more true sense. While this would maintain the status quo under new names, it is probably unlikely (as favorable as it seems). Some Liberals would split away to join the Conservatives - but not nearly as many as would if the Conservatives were the "Progressive" Conservatives and not these "regressive" ones. More NDPers would split away to the Greens.

    The hassle of destroying a party and it's infrastructure (and new intelligence software that is JUST getting itself started) and loyalties, for the giant question mark of doubt, only to see things re-evolve back to the current 3-party situation just doesn't help. It would be like treading water.

    What is the best solution? Here's how I see it:
    Layton is hell-bent on being PM. Let him. We can support him case-by-case. As a Liberal I really didn't want to see our party governing over the next two years. I see a US economic "double-dip", a Canadian housing collapse, rampant inflation, $2 gas, and general economic troubles in the very near future. No party wants to wear that. Harper created it - let him wear it. Give him a few months (or less), then pull the plug, and let PM Jack deal with it. He may get it right (EU-style, Romanow/Blakeney style) and that would change Canadians' thought patterns on the efficacies of left-of-center economic solutions. He may (more likely) fail, based on current Western World economic situations.

    The key is that meanwhile Harper is done. The Conservative Party would be in a gut-wrenching leadership battle. They may even split up. If they are lucky, they will elect a Lord/McKay type and come back with a Mulroney-esque majority - in the PROGRESSIVE vein.

    That gives OUR party anywhere from 6-8 years to completely rebuild, set a solid set of platform goals, and come back at them from the left (then govern from the center). The NDP would still be stuck with a very old Jack, while we come back with a dynamic, young, populist leader. I think this would lead to moderate-centrist majorities again. The beauty is the Quebec situation. The Bloc may be dead - and we have much upside there IF (IF) we present a series of ideas that appeal to the economic and social needs of Quebecers, and we outright tell them that it is what we are concerned with.

  6. (cont'd):

    The NDP won't hold the Quebec vote forever, and our selecting a dynamic Quebec leader would build the groundwork for another "grand coalition" to govern. Don't look to Chretien as an example - he benefited from a split on the right. Rather, pursue the Trudeau or Pearson way.

    We should also create a new "urban populism" to take advantage of urban-rural splits. The Canadian population is largely urban, and WE ARE the party of urban Canada. Let's grow on that new reality. We need to talk about "urban-rural synergies" in the urban corridors around cities. We need to celebrate the farms which provide for the cities, but the conversation has to be about the cities and towns where 80% of the population lives. The future of Canada: green, technically-forward, socially correct - is all centered around urban Canada. Martin had it right when he started the "Urban agenda".

    Either way, our party is needed to prevent a USA scenario. I'm not even dreaming of giving up on a centrist alternative/big-tent party. I don't think anyone else should.

  7. Very well said, WesternGrit. I agree on most points, though I think we may have a tougher time of it than that. What is particularly concerning is the entire reliance on Quebec; if the NDP are defeated in the future, it would take a massive swing from Quebeckers to another party. If that's us, great - but there's no guarantees that Quebeckers will enjoy our presence any more than they do now. Much like the Bloc, the NDP could win by default.

    Another issue is the NDP's own leadership. If they elect Mulcair, they won't lose Quebec; if they elect Pat Martin or someone similar, it's possible. But in a Quebec-dominated NDP, I see Mulcair as the more likely choice. It'd be an interesting battle to be sure.

  8. Ha ha ha ha the red team leader and blue team leaders have all pandered to nationalists too ha ha ha HA HA HA HA

  9. Joseph Kerr,

    Yeah... what's your point? This has been a well established fact since the 1970's. Thing is since 1984, anytime the Liberals try it, it's backfired in our faces.