Sunday, May 8, 2011

I've fallen and I can't get up - #elxn41 and the Liberals

Prior to May 2, 2011, the Liberals had never finished anything other than first or second on election day. Today, they are facing the prospect of at least two terms in the wilderness - and that's the good news. Their next steps are, not to put too fine a point on it, crucial.

I won't get into a "what went wrong" analysis here. An excellent article was published today in the Toronto Star which provides an overview (as do both Jane Taber's and Michael Valpy's pieces in the Globe and Mail).

Having fallen so far, the question now is whether they can get up. In this third piece on each of the three mainstream parties, I offer some (unsolicited) advice to the Liberals.

1. Start with a blank piece of paper

Before going down the road of leadership, you need to develop a stronger sense about what you want to represent as a party. Despite having over two years to prepare, the Liberal narrative and vision for Canada never really seemed to take form.

The constant Conservative attacks on Mr. Ignatieff's leadership clearly had an impact. These attacks undermined Liberal efforts to shape a narrative. However, the Liberals must also take some of the blame.

Too often their focus was on what, rightly or wrongly, the public saw as the minor foibles of the government. They rightly understood that there was a reason the Conservatives were stuck in minority territory, but failed to tackle the more important issue as to why they could not capitalize.

Over the next few years, a lot of time and energy needs to be spent determining what it means to be Liberal. It is no longer sufficient to assume that you are the default party of choice, so take a blank piece of paper, look carefully at the results of 2006, 2008 and 2011, and start thinking. Look as well at the challenges you could avoid focusing on in 1993, 1997 and 2000. You won majorities, but were heavily dependant on Ontario, vote-splitting and urban centres. Be honest about your weakness and go from there.

2. Be the middle man

Building on the point above, we know that the Liberal platform tacked left in an attempt to attract NDP supporters. It turned out that while Canadians may have liked the message, they did not like the messenger. This reasoning would suggest that the Liberals simply find a leader who can carry the same message more effectively.

That would be a mistake.

By tacking left, the Liberals left the impression that the Conservatives were the only party occupying the centre/centre-rght. This partly explains why the NDP surge sent people to the Conservatives.

Looking ahead, the Liberals need to re-establish their brand as a centrist party in Canada. This means finding the balance between compassion and discipline; between willingness and prudence.

Being in the centre means you invest, rather than spend. It means you engage before deciding. It means demonstrating that you have convictions, but that you are prepared to listen such that your convictions can be informed.

This was the space that the Liberals used to occupy and it is the space to which they need to return. For the time being, it is unoccupied. That won't last, so move in quickly.

3. Cash is King

You are about to lose the public subsidy and, unlike 1993 when the Progressive Conservatives fell to two seats, there are now strict limits as to what you can raise from corporations. You need to develop a more robust fundraising mechanism.

Following up on points one and two above will be important in this regard. People like to know what they are buying, so put something compelling in the window. Invest in the technology, leverage social media, engage youth. Every dollar counts, so go after them.

4. Choose carefully

You will be choosing a new leader. Recognize that there is no such thing as a ready-to-go Prime Minister. Whomever you choose will need time and more than one election to have a realistic chance of winning. Give them that time.

When you choose, make sure you remember that you can't build a sustainable party around a leader; the leader must represent the vision of the party. If you don't know where you want to go, how can you pick the driver?

Mr. Dion was a compromise candidate. Mr. Ignatieff was seen as someone who could play a Trudeau-esque role (forgetting that Mr. Trudeau had long-held views on a range of issues and had been politically active for some time - something Mr. Ignatieff did now have on his cv).

Today, you need a standard-bearer for the Liberalism you want for 21st century Canada. You want someone who typifies what you want your party to represent.


You have to be down before you can get up. That's where the Liberals are today. Despite showing early promise in #elxn41, they fell badly from the debates onwards such that today there are many questioning their future in Canada.

I don't think they are dead. I think the inexperience of the NDP will create opportunities for them. But they have to be ready. They have to be ready with a vision, a leader which represents that vision, and who can effectively communicate it. And they have to be patient. There is a long road ahead for the Liberal Party of Canada, and it is going to take time to re-establish themselves in Canadian politics.

1 comment:

  1. All excellent pieces breaking down #elxn41 for those of us more inclined to criticize rather than analyze. Thank you. :-)


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