Lessons Of The Canadian Liberal Party
Reviewing Party And Election Strategies
It is almost a week since the Canadian election of 2011 brought the Liberal Party of Canada its most devastating defeat since the party's inception. Many of the surviving Liberals have agreed that a lengthy introspection needs to take place to put this defeat into the rear view mirror.
What exactly went wrong? The Liberals have been in a slow slide since the departure of Jean Chretien. He was the last Liberal leader who enjoyed healthy majority support from Canadians from coast to coast. The beginning of the trouble started within the party itself when Paul Martin and his supporters made efforts to depose Chretien as leader.
Chretien did leave the party in late 2003 but this did not stop the divisions within the party to deepen between Paul Martin and former Chretien supporters such as Sheila Copps and John Manley. Once leader, Mr. Martin inexplicably did not try to heal the party rifts but on the contrary attempted to purge the party of former Chretien supporters.
Ultimately, Mr. Martin only ruled as Prime Minister with a minority government after the election in 2004 which did not last very long. The government fell and another election in 2006 saw Martin's Liberal ousted from power. Added to this was the sponsorship scandal in which certain Liberals received kickback from contracts given out to ad agencies to promote federalism in Quebec.
The election of Stephane Dion as Liberal leader in 2006 was a surprise to many who thought that Michael Ignatieff would win. The conclusion of the Liberal leadership convention gave the public the perspective that the Liberal party had begun to heal itself of its rifts. However, Dion's awkward persona, Conservative attack ads and leftist ideals ultimately led him to one of the Liberals' worst defeats in the election of 2008. Dion also unsuccessfully tried to unseat the Conservative with a coalition agreement with the NDP being propped up by the Bloc Quebecois. Not long after, Michael Ignatieff was nominated by acclimation as party leader. He chose to distance himself from the coalition set up by Dion.
Lack Of Party Policy
Going into the 2011 Canadian election, the Liberals under Ignatieff continued to make the same error of not having any firm policy in place to present to the public as a ruling alternative to incumbent Conservatives. Because the party's internal divisions had not really healed, there was no coherent planned policy. Though Ignatieff did hit the road across Canada to gauge the public for election issues, he could not unite the party to prioritize the election issues. Oddly, though he had dismissed any further intentions of any coalitions with the NDP or the Bloc Quebecois, his election platform was surprisingly closer to NDP policy than it was to the Conservative one.
Disregard To The Opinion Polls
One of the puzzling things that Liberals were confronted with during the pre-election phase were the low polling numbers of both the party support and of Michael Ignatieff as a competent leader. He consistently polled well below both Conservative Stephen Harper and NDP leader Jack Layton. Also, quite clear in the polls was the fact that Canadians overwhelmingly felt that an election to be pointless and a waste of money. The decision of Ignatieff to trigger an election based on this information is indefensible as it was already a huge gamble.
Conservative Attack Ads
Ignatieff like Stephane Dion before him, was subject to a barrage of Conservative attack ads. Also, like Dion, he failed to respond to them. Unable to counter with attack ads of his own, due to insufficient party funds, Ignatieff left it up to himself to personally change people's minds about what was said about him. However, six weeks on the campaign trail could hardly compete with two years of running anti-Ignatieff ads. Mr. Ignatieff himself, warned of dire consequences should the Conservative run the attack ads against him as they did with Stephane Dion. Those were hollow words as he did not use the free time with the media and challenge these views in the court of public opinion.
The Obama Effect
Living for some time in the States, Ignatieff tried to incorporate visions from American politics and insert them into his own campaign. In one of his speeches, he spoke of the "Canadian dream" and offered "hope" to Canadians as an alternative to the Conservatives. This coupled with his mid-campaign "Rise Up" speech had Canadians cringing from coast to coast. With "Rise Up", he tried to fire up his supporters, even using the same walking stance as Obama did during his rallies. While he tried to emulate Obama's eloquence and passion, many who saw the speech referenced it to be more like Howard Dean and his fanatical scream.
The bottom line was that there were American techniques used that did not translate well when received by the Canadian public. Contrast this to Stephen Harper's low key, monotonous style and the comparison was a striking as the election's final results.
The future of the Liberal Party will be dependent on its capability to key into a vision that is unique for Canada. Part of that will come from party policy to be hashed out and partly from the charismatic leader best chosen to communicate that policy. The key factor here is to put the policy ahead of the leader. The policy should be properly and thoroughly synthesized to reflect all the diverse political leanings in the party to enable it to straddle both the left and right movements.
Such a move will win back the "blue" Liberal support that went to the Conservatives this past election and at the same time will stem the pressure on the party to merge with the popular-riding NDP.